Rolex: The Evolution of Luxury
Rolex: The Evolution of Luxury
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date July 25, 2018
How do you define a luxury watch? Is it Gold? Rolex would beg to differ—they didn’t start making gold watches until 1945. Is it a timepiece the rich and powerful desire? To an extent, sure, but how do you make something that the upper crust lust after for years to come? Is it precision, aesthetic, or exclusivity? That’s part of it, but there are many beautiful watches out there and your old Casio is nearly as reliable. Somehow, however, Rolex has always fit the bill. Despite the countless options, fabrications, styles, price points and ever-changing trends in the premium watch space, Rolex is still synonymous with luxury.
Rolex has weathered generations due to its ability to constantly redefine luxury, reshaping its brand and product to fit the with the evolving market. Operating under the ethos of “evolutionary not revolutionary,” Rolex evolves with the tastes of their upwardly mobile, business savvy base. To view the history of Rolex is to see that like beauty, luxury is in the eye of the beholder.
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When Hans Wilsdorf created the first Rolex in 1906, he had precision on his mind. Wilsdorf, a German orphan, started his career as a pearl distributor before becoming a timepiece exporter. He was working for La Chaux-de-Fonds, a prestigious Swiss watchmaker, at a time when an accurate wrist watch still eluded the industry. Though still just a teenager, he was obsessed with watch technology. Even in Switzerland, home of the greatest watchmakers in the world, it wasn’t yet possible to ensure that a wrist watch would stay accurate while enduring the constant movement demanded by daily life. Men of the era were partial to pocket watches as the heavier products were less prone to inaccuracy and given their often luxe materials were considered masculine and luxurious.
At the age of 24, Wilsdorf went into business with his British brother-in-law and business partner Alfred Davis. They started off by selling watches, not making them, because they didn’t want to get into sales until they had solved the precision issue The company was known as Wilsdorf and Davis, but by 1908, the company would be renamed “Rolex”, (a name Wilsdorf thought would look good on his watches), and would secure major manufacturing contracts. By the time the company moved to Geneva a decade later, Rolex was renowned for their watches.
Wilsdorf worked tirelessly on his watch movements until they withstood various positions and temperatures. By 1910 Rolex became the first wristwatch in the world to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, awarded by the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne, Switzerland. To receive this distinction, a watch had to withstand a week of rigorous testing. In 1914, the Key Observatory in Great Britain placed a class “A” distinction on Rolex watches. With the newfound rating, Rolex now had the same precision credentials as the highest caliber pocket watch, and the brand developed a reputation for accuracy it would never relinquish. In 1920, the company moved to Geneva—the watch capital of the world—to further legitimize the Rolex brand.
For Rolex, the 1920s and ‘30s revolved around exploration. As technology spread and the company’s competition could boast similar accuracy, the mark of luxury shifted to include durability–the sort of conditions a watch could endure. Rolex released the first waterproof watch in 1926, called the “Oyster,” after its hermetically sealed case. Wilsdorf was inspired to name the watch after he had a particularly difficult time getting an oyster open at a dinner party. The association with the elusive pearl fit the growing Rolex brand perfectly.
In 1927, a Rolex watch crossed the English Channel, worn around the neck of London stenographer Mercedes Gleitze, the first woman to successfully make the swim. A full-page ad from Rolex accompanied the triumph, cementing Rolex’s waterproof credentials. This challenge marked the beginning of an era for Rolex—whenever there was an adventurer braving the elements, pushing new frontiers or challenging what was previously thought possible, there would be a Rolex on their wrist. Numerous similar feats followed —all well documented by the Rolex brand. The crew flying the first expedition over Everest was equipped with Rolex Oysters. Sir Malcolm Campbell, who broke the land-speed record on several occasions, wore a Rolex as he roared across Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. Chuck Yaeger would wear one decades later when he broke the sound barrier. When he scaled Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary naturally wore a Rolex as well.
While the partnership between Rolex and these thrill-seekers continues to this day, during the ‘40s and ‘50s Rolex pivoted their branding towards the wealthy clients we now associate the brand with. First, the company set out to design a watch worthy of the boardroom. In 1945, the company started making Datejust in gold, which became iconic retirement gifts. That same year, the company added a chronometer—a precise timekeeping instrument that meets extreme precision standards—allowing for a full calendar readout. The “Datejust” was the first to feature the “Jubilee Bracelet”, Rolex’s iconic interlocking metal band that provided the structual support for a gold band. The addition of the bracelet and a fluted bezel made the Rolex instantly recognizable, and a must-have in boardrooms the world over. In 1956, the gold (or platinum), “[Oyster Perpetual Day-Date]” (http://www.vintagewatchcompany.com/the-history-of-rolex) watch would feature the date and day spelled out in full. This design would set the standard for high-end watches for years to come. Suddenly, the Rolex was the executive watch.
It was more than simply design changes that made Rolex the corporate watch par excellence. The branding was a conscious effort courtesy of PR man Rene-Paul Jeanneret/ Arguably as important as any of Rolex’s more technically minded executives, Jeanneret led the brand through the middle of the century, pioneering relationships with groups as disparate as airline pilots, executives, and yacht club presidents, making sure that the a Rolex was always on the right wrist.
Scientists and pilots received their own specially designed watches. The Migauss watches, introduced in 1956, could withstand magnetic fields of up to 1,000 gauss, and went out to scientists who needed those defenses. Pan-Am aviators were the first to enjoy the GMT-Master model–which allowed pilots to tell time in different time zones simultaneously. The watch was not only a hit in the aviation world but quickly became one of Rolex’s best-selling products. At a time when air travel was sexy, this was a big win for Rolex. The first model earned the nickname “Pussy Galore,” a refference to the charachter of the same name who wore one in 1964’s Goldfinger. An association with both pilots and James Bond carved out the GMT-Master a special place in pop-culture history.
Jeanneret’s efforts paid off. During his tenure, Rolex’s became an ubiquitous symbol of power and social class. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wore their watches, as did Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Paul Newman, Winston Churchill, and even fictional cultural icons like James Bond. In 1962, Marilyn Monroe gifted President Kennedy a Rolex with the inscription, “JACK, with love, as always, from MARILYN.” President Kennedy told aides to get rid of it. In 2005, it surfaced at auction, commanding $120,000.
During the Post-World War II era, luxury became synonymous with power—an idea that cemented the Rolex brand identity for decades. Still today the Rolex site boasts, “Rolex watches have long been associated with those who have, over time, guided the destiny of the world. No matter their vision, their domain of excellence, or their achievements, the one thing these exceptional men and women have in common is often their watch: the Day-Date.”
Rolex’s identity as an executive watch continued to build throughout the latter half of the 20th century, reaching a fever pitch during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The Rolex watch was a must during the era of power suiting, Ronald Reagan, and American Psycho. Rolex was just fine with that; in fact, the company encouraged it. In 1992, Rolex introduced the Oyster Perpetual Yacht-Master, a watch tailored to a very particular kind of client. Amidst ‘80s excess, Rolex began sponsoring traditionally upper-class activities such as equestrian events, tennis opens, and even symphony orchestras.
In the 21st century, like with so many other consumer products, Rolex focused on technological advances to avoid being deemed obsolete. Today’s Rolex is scratch proof, shock resistant, impervious to water pressure, offers a dual time zone function, and comes equipped with full annual calendar to minimize adjustments. In an era of gadgets, the watch had to become a gadget itself to remain luxurious.
Today, an essential hallmark of luxury is collaboration. Legacy brands, in order to attract the much hyped millennial consumer, feel that partnering with younger, more culturally relevant labels provides much needed press and immediate cache. Naturally, Rolex is participating. The most coveted is easily the Supreme friends and family bootleg, which was selling for $50,000 in 2015. In 2017, rumors of a Supreme X Rolex moment resurfaced, with collectors are monitoring the possibility with bated breath.
Even unofficial collaborations have been wildly successful. George Bamford’s Bamford Watch Department has been creating unlicensed Rolex mash-ups and customizing watches for high profile clients since 2004. Over the years, he has created custom pieces for some of the world’s most high profile streetwear companies. His marriage of BAPE and Rolex in 2017 yielded a $30,000 product the immediately became a highly sought rarity.
Rolex remains one of the most successful luxury brands in the world with annual revenues in the billions of dollars. This is because Rolex does not merely sell timepieces. Rolex has sold accuracy, durability, adventure, exploration, success, power, privilege, access and a sense of belonging for over a century. Rolex has sold luxury. It remains to be seen if Rolex can pivot once again and find a new way to sell luxury to a new generation. If their track record is any indication, the legend of Rolex luxury is far from over.