THE EVOLUTION & REVOLUTION OF ROLEX

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JOHN STOTHOFF

01.08.21

At face value, Rolex represents considerable luxury and achievement, timeless in and of itself. However, when diving deeper, a much more dynamic narrative reveals itself, one which cements a Rolex as indisputably timeless and helps to explain its climatic 2020. When considering other heritage brands and their pieces- Levi’s 501 or Burberrys trench coat- they do not live in the rarified air that a Rolex watch does. It’s timelessness lies in its layered histories, displaying so much in a piece that can be, and often is, worn every single day.

Rolex was born in 1905 London by Hans Wilsdorf, with the goal of making the burgeoning wristwatch more reliable by improving movements and design. In 1910 Rolex became the first wristwatch to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision. The company moved to Geneva, Switzerland, the watchmaking capital of the world, in 1919 and released the improved Oyster Perpetual in 1931. Releases ceased during WWII, but then Rolex, designing for a wealthier, modern-seeking post-war consumer, released the Datejust in 1945 and pioneered the Cyclops (the magnifying glass over the date). The 50s saw the releases of the majority of the rest of Rolex’s livery, most notably the Day-Date, the GMT Master, and the Submariner. In 1963, Rolex released the Cosmograph Daytona – arguably Rolex’s magnum opus given its mechanical ability and popularity. 

With a base of superior engineering and movement, Rolex’s early marketing efforts and achievements propelled the brand and built the momentum sustained for the following 60 years. Hans Wildorf saw the potential in a Rolex withstanding the adventure and achievement that marked the 20th century, greatly expanding on Cartier’s creation of their “Santos” watch with famed early aeronaut and inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont. Early promotion of the waterproof Oyster included a swim across the English Channel and submersion of the watches in display aquariums in London’s Harrods. Edmund Hillary wore one during the first ascent of Mt. Everest; release of the Cosmograph Daytona led Rolex to become the preeminent sponsor of the growing F1, American GT and, with the release of the Yacht-Master, sport-yacht racing in the 90s. This momentum has carried Rolex into relevance in the 21st century through major sponsorships in golf and tennis, from tournaments to Swiss champion Roger Federer.

 

The foundation of Rolex’s capability, established both in its design and feats, caused it to gain traction in the upper echelon of athletes and other famed timeless figures. For example, LBJ wore a Day-Date while in office and Marilyn Monroe gifted JFK an inscribed 18k Gold version after her infamous performance of “Happy Birthday” at MSG in 1962. Sean Connery wore a Big Crown Submariner in the early James Bond movies and Jack Nicklaus wore his “Golden Bear” for each of his 6 Masters and 5 PGA championships. These countless moments finalized the timelessness of a Rolex watch, as it was not only a luxury watch, but unique in the trust the icons of the time put in them. 

 

It was the story created by these moments and figures, that allowed for Rolex’s commercial success through the 70s, and its explosion in the overindulgent 80s; The economic boom of the 80s led to a boom in sales, as customers wanted a way to display not only monetary success, but also class and culture. The 80s put the Rolex niche, a niche of simultaneously representing luxury and sophistication while tastefully half-hidden under a sleeve, on full display. Those purchased in the second half of the 20th century serve to extend this narrative: the family heirloom Rolex, the gold retirement Rolex, the aspirational or first promotion Rolex. The brand and their watches came out of the era in rarefied air, representing so much in only a watch: graduations, bonuses, parts of wills, conclusions of youthful pinings, and retirements – memorable, timeless moments. With this established, we have begun to pull back the curtain on why a Rolex withstands time and trends; why Rihanna wears a version of LBJ’s Day-Date on stage and the red carpet or why Post Malone wears a 54 sapphire Daytona, a watch created to record racing lap times in the 60s. However, it is Rolex’s marketing in the 21st century, and especially 2020, that has allowed it to thrive in current culture. 

Rolex has always shorted their production of watches below market demand, and in doing so curated their clientele for the rarer, more desirable, models and variations- dealers often employ a strategy similar to Hermés with their exclusive Birkin Bags. This strategy has had the most effect in the past 5 years, and 2020 especially. 2020 has seen an explosion in Rolex sales, as the waiting list for high-end Daytonas and GMT Masters has grown to be several years long, with preowned variations selling for over retail due to demand. In The Real Real’s 2020 Resale Report, Rolex sales grew 32% in comparison to 2019, an astounding 9x more than other watch brands.  So, why the sudden boom for a company that is already established?

For one, the increase is due to the boom in the second-hand Rolex market having built momentum after recording the highest price for a watch in history, the 17.9 million USD sale of Paul Newman’s Cosmograph Daytona ref.6239 “Panda”. Gifted to him by his wife for timekeeping at the beginning of his racing career, engraved with “Drive Carefully Me” on the back, spent 15 years on his wrist, worn at every race and movie premiere. With its inverted dial and Art-Deco design, coupled with low production, the sale of the Paul Newman Panda served as the jumpstart, with models going up several hundred thousand dollars in value. In the years since, sales of Jack Nicklaus’s, Marlon Brando’s, and Jack Nicholson’s Rolexes gave new publicity to the narrative and history of Rolex and exposure to a new generation of buyers. With an internet of information at their fingertips, the market swelled as it became a new avenue that combined the exclusivity of limited release streetwear and originality of buying vintage clothing. As seen in those markets, rarity and history ruled supreme- examples include the “Big Red” and Tiffany-stamped faces, the demand for the Newman-esque limited production runs of Daytona variations in the 70s, or the search for “Tropical” Rolexs- those produced in the 60s and 70s without UV protection, their faces faded and patinated by wear near the equator, accessible to only those tactful and resourceful enough. 

This vintage watch boom in itself didn’t have a significant effect on Rolex the company compared to its inherent side effect- the realization among consumers that a Rolex holds its value so well. Purchases were supported now by the justification of it being an intelligent investment, rather than self-indulgence. This new understanding snowballed into a new increase of sales across both markets, and helped the 2020 boom. 

Rolex has released few new models since the Daytona, instead opting for the release of different metal and dial combinations, and mechanical improvements. However, the original models are, well, original. 2020 saw the release of an entirely new slate of major variations. The Oyster-Perpetual was given new face colors- light and dark blue, orange, pink, light and dark green, and yellow, offered in both 36 and 41mm sizes. The Submariner was given slimmer bezels, widened to 41mm and given new combinations of navy, black, and green- the “Kermit”- essentially making the watch “less chunky”. The Day-Date is now offered with a 46 diamond bezel, and purple, mint, green, and gray faces.

The marketing question becomes “why now”? Rolex is straying from their more classical color palette, while decreasing their prices and increasing their options for “entry-level” watches. It seems as if Rolex has faith in the Millennial generation, and more so in Generation Z, both known for their embracement of technology and individuality and with it, the shirking of the social hierarchy and norms that their parents established. To offer fresh, more affordable, and more current variations of their watches is Rolex’s stab into the market of the generations that don’t want to wear the same watch as their father or grandfather, but rather something more relevant to themselves. The question becomes whether these consumers are going to opt for their own version of timelessness, or whether the real Rolex appeal lives in the timeless models it has championed. Sale reports for their new models are currently unavailable, but it will be interesting to see how this unorthodox rollout fares for a company rooted so deeply as a heritage brand. 

Finally, we must consider the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. As long established retailers like Barney’s crumble and Neiman Marcus shutters, why is Rolex selling more watches? The answer may lie in the psychology of the current consumer. As incomes shrink, the population is forced indoors, and retail purchases plummet, the logic of an improved wardrobe, accessories, or automobile wanes. Yet Rolex retailers are getting hundreds of more requests in 2020 than 2019. 

 

Within that increase lies the power of the wristwatch – one of the very few pieces of jewelry or wardrobe items that is put on every single morning. As the world around us grows more opaque, consumers revert to pieces that are steadfast and tangible. A Rolex, steeped in tradition, proven in its engineering and timelessness, with the new facet of being an attractive investment, appears to be the answer in the age of the sweatsuit. The dynamic narrative built since 1905 seems to have reached a new climax of appreciation and demand. In a year that forced more technology upon us, consumers revert to the mechanical watch their family members wear or wore. They choose the same watch that sat on the wrists of presidents, movie stars, and champions of sport. The choice of investing in a Rolex places an iconic and timeless statement on consumers’ wrist that provides comfort amid the fray of the current news cycle, always telling them what time it is.