I struggle to provide superlatives to describe what Rolex is to the watch industry. No other brand dominates their market like Rolex does with wristwatches. Car manufacturers, fashion labels or any other commercial entity can only dream to have such provenance in their field and widespread culture. No matter where you are in the world, when the word Rolex is mentioned it is associated with a certain air of quality, status or passion. So, on one hand it makes sense that the brand has been on the tip of enthusiast tongues for some time now and will continue to be for as long as the current situation continues. Wait lists, flippers, boutique relationships, influencers, grey market premiums are only some of the buzz words that have been thrown around in the past few years to describe the landscape that is steel Rolex professional timepieces.
It’s unprecedented. Steel watches fetching sums 2 times their RRP, meeting the mark of their precious metal counterparts through excess demand and the want to appear connected or in the know. All that, multiplied by the financial incentive to flip these pieces, it’s a perfect storm. To see a Daytona to change hands at over 35K AUD, a GMT at 25k AUD, a hulk at 20k AUD, it is hard to objectively support the sums paid for a steel sports watch when they well and truly compete at the price point of haute horology watchmakers. It’s about being offered the chance to purchase something that everyone else wants. I know some readers will recoil at the phrase ‘offered the chance to purchase’ but that is the reality of the situation. Those that wear a Pepsi GMT may not be the enthusiast who once dreamt of being a PanAm pilot, the revhead that always dreamed of having a Daytona like their favourite racing driver, or a Submariner for the individual who actually goes diving. The ‘average joe’ can’t walk into a boutique after that promotion and say I love that watch, I’d like to buy one today. The watches mentioned can appear on celebrities, cashed up millenials or elite athletes. And for that, it leaves many enthusiasts with a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to Rolex because even the most devoted watch tragic can miss out on the chance to attain a piece they have lusted over for so long, especially when grey market prices make it just too far out of reach. Superficiality, lack of understanding for those with an in-demand piece on their wrist and to be met with an empty store at almost every boutique, it’s all quite sapping for us who love watches for what they are, not the bi-product they may represent. It’ easy to understand why some have done a 180 on the brand and how it can now be ‘cool’ to hate Rolex, refuse to partake in the debauchery and look to the alternatives (for which there are so many). While many point the finger at Rolex for the current state of affairs, I really don’t think you can blame them.
Rolex makes one hell of a watch. There is no denying the impressive lengths the manufacture has gone to produce the peak of quality possible on a enormous scale. 4 factories, armed with unique tooling, choice engineers plucked from various industries and the sheer consistency of excellence is mind blowing. They really are on the bleeding edge of what is capable in the manufacturing process. That’s Rolex now, but the Rolex that many enthusiasts fell in love with was conceived in the 50’s. The birth of core product lines and the longevity they have achieved is comparable by few. Design elements have remained largely the same, Rolex got it right from day 1 and have not wavered. The days where pilots wore GMT’s, the military wore submariners, explorers traversed the extremes of nature, this is the age where watches were tools and the avenue through which the romanticism of vintage pieces has bloomed. Vintage Rolex is a conversation for another day, but you cannot deny that the in-demand pieces of today have stemmed from the richest of histories supported by impeccable marketing the organisation is known for. From a product, marketing and legacy perspective, they do business in their own way and I cannot help but admire and respect it. Being indepedent, they answer to nobody, go at their own pace and choose to do things how they please, seemingly uninterested by whatever else is going on at other watch brands. Everything they do is incremental, small improvement upon small improvement. Sometimes without saying a word. Every move, every strategic decision they make is to protect the legacy of the brand and retain all the pedigree they have built over the years.
For collectors, the mystery and allure of Rolex in their production numbers or unique references, is made even more enticing because nobody knows what goes on behind those closed doors in Geneva. No limited editions, no official statements on batches, changes in bezel tones or dial configurations. Pieces that were never officially offered may not surface until decades later. Sensitive information is kept air tight. While I am not one to fawn over ‘swiss underlines’ or ‘metres first’ variations, those that do love digging deep and investigating wristwatches to the upteenth degree, Rolex is a gold mine of notable pieces and noteable wearers. The whole watch world stops when their novelties are released. Rolex is Rolex because of what they have done and what they continute to do. There aren’t many any other brands that pose comparable strength, mystery or sheer intent for integrity like Rolex. While some brands have to focus on gaining market share, Rolex need only to concern themselves with supplying the overwhelming, almost insatiable demand, with consumers waiting on boutique doorsteps on the eve of what was once Baselworld to be the first to express interest in their latest and greatest offerings.
Back to economics 101, the long and short of it all is that demand for steel pieces astronomically surpasses the number of watches the manufacture is able to deliver to boutiques. Other brands have attempted to create artificial wait lists or restrict output to replicate this phenomenon which appears to be the name of the watch game in 2020, but organic and true demand is hard to incite overnight, let alone at the scale of Rolex. For example, on the first day that Rolex re-released the Pepsi GMT in steel with a jubilee bracelet, the website received the equivalent visits if every single human in the world had clicked on the homepage twice. Yes. Everyone in the world. Twice. Boutiques have no choice but to do the best they can to supply the market and choose their most ‘deserving’ clients to enjoy access to these pieces. If a walk in customer requests a Daytona, versus a loyal client who has invested noteable sums over the years at your boutique, you can put yourself in the Authorised Dealer’s shoes and understand the tough choice that has to be made. Yet, it doesn’t make that bitter pill any easier to swallow.
While it is easy to hate Rolex right now, my opinion on the organisation hasn’t changed. They make damn good wristwatches. Their business nuance is fascinating and at their retail price point, it’s hard to argue anyone else does it better in the sport watch category. I feel for every enthusiast who has written off ever owning a Pepsi, Daytona or Hulk (I include myself in this camp) due to the overwhelming demand for these pieces, but the enjoyment I get from watches is not solely dependent on the Rolex market. There is so much out there that will bring that joy we look for in this hobby. It is without a doubt a crazy period in the industry we are witnessing, but rather than choose to bemoan the situation it presents a chance to take a moment and think about what is happening right now, bookmark it and hopefully one day look back upon being smarter, wiser and all the more passionate about watches for it.