Rolex: The 800lb Wristwatch Gorilla
When the conversation turns to fine watches, Rolex is invariably the first name on everyone's lips. Founded in 1905, it is not the oldest of Swiss watchmakers, nor is it the most expensive. Nonetheless, it is the giant of the Swiss watch industry, the first high-end watch that consumers of increasing means will buy almost every time. Through upheavals in timepiece fashion and technology, Rolex has remained steadfast. Here's the story.
Not only is Rolex not the oldest of watchmakers, its origins are fairly recent. The business started as a partnership in 1905 with the unappealing name of Wilsdorf & Davis. Three years later, the name Rolex was first introduced and by 1915 the firm was known as the Rolex Watch Company.
As it turned out, the company's timing and vision were in perfect accord. During this era, pocket watches were rapidly being displaced by wristwatches, the latter being much more accessible and convenient. In particular, early pilots of WWI found that a watch strapped to the wrist kept their hands free and allowed for much more accurate estimates of bearing and distance ... to say nothing of keeping hold of the plane's yoke. Indeed, many pocket watches were converted to wristwatches during that time and you can still find such oddly configured watches from a variety of early makers.
If there was a drawback to wristwatches, it was that they were much more exposed to the elements than was a pocket watch safely tucked away in a vest pocket. To its everlasting credit, Rolex was among the first to recognize the importance of wristwatch durability and in 1922 introduced a double-cased wristwatch known as the Submarine. Designed to prevent intrusion of dust and water, it was failure but critical lessons were learned.
Four years later (1926), the first Rolex Oyster was introduced. It featured a screw-down crown and solid one-piece case, making it the first truly waterproof wristwatch. Now more than 90 years later, both of these features remain fundamental to Rolex' core lineup. The Oyster was offered in three case materials: silver, nine carat gold, and 18 carat gold at then-prices of about $25, $50, and $75, respectively.
At the time that was big money, especially considering that perfectly functional watches could be had for just a few dollars. However, two things happened that set the course for Rolex' future success. The first took place in 1927 when 26-year old Mercedes Gleitze swam the English Channel with a Rolex Oyster strapped to her wrist. After more than 10 hours in the frigid water, Mercedes and her watch emerged, both in perfect order. That event was trumpeted by Rolex in full-page ads and laid the groundwork for its enduring reputation for durability.
Furthering its renown was the brainstorm of creating retail exhibits in which Rolexes were emerged in fish bowls, sharing the space with colorful goldfish. The displays were instant hits and Rolex was on its way. Many triumphs followed and today Rolex is one of the most widely known brands on the planet.
While Rolex' premier reputation is well deserved, its marketing acumen is second to none. The firm is rigorous in choosing and monitoring its authorized retailers, providing some degree of regional exclusivity and eliminating the cutthroat discounting that has hurt so many other consumer categories. Other than sometimes accepting trade-in allowances, Rolex dealers never put their watches on sale. Rolexes also maintain their value in the secondary market with some models appreciating into the stratosphere. An original Rolex Daytona chronometer made famous by Paul Newman will sell well into the five figures, and some even more exclusive models will sell for far more. There are literally millions of used Rolexes around the world, but savvy sellers rarely give up a deal.
Finally, a word of caution that is all too familiar today. Counterfeit Rolexes are everywhere, most coming from China where ersatz Rolex stores sell all-too-authentic looking knock-offs complete with Rolex boxes and trimming. If you're looking to purchase a new Rolex, you would do well to stick with an authorized dealer. If you're looking for used, buy from a vendor you know and trust. They will never be cheap but, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for.