When one mentions luxury watches, or indeed just watches by themselves, it’s hard not to think of Rolex. The brand has firmly entrenched themselves in the very lexicon of timepiece description, becoming not just a prominent player in the chronology industry but a world leader when it comes to luxury brands. What started as a small family venture has grown into, according to Forbes in 2017, the 69th most powerful brand in the world. But how did a watch company come from such humble beginnings to one of such gargantuan value? How did one timepiece rise to the top to become a status symbol of what it means to be wealthy, powerful and successful? Let’s look at some history.
Rolex was founded by Hans Wilsdorf. At the age of 24, Wilsdorf traveled from Germany to London with the goal of importing Hermann Aegler’s Swiss movements and placing them in high-quality cases to be sold to jewelers in the bustling English capital. These jewelers then added their own names to the dial and sold them to prospective clients. It wasn’t until 1908 that Wilsdorf registered the trademark “Rolex” and opened his first office in Switzerland. And only in 1915 did the company officially came into being under the name “Rolex” after being granted a Class A precision certificate normally awarded to marine chronometers.
From the beginning, it was clear that Wilsdorf was a great marketer. Even his choice of name reflected that. While some might ascribe some significance to it, Wilsdorf himself says the name was simply made up with the idea that it be short and easy to pronounce in any language, and that the letters themselves should easily and elegantly grace the dial of a watch. This level of marketing was ahead of its time – indeed, it didn’t even exist then – and in conjunction with the quality, robustness and functionality of his products, allowed Rolex to grow exponentially in popularity.
The Road to Rolex Luxury
What makes a Rolex so luxurious? When one thinks of innovation and brand loyalty, it makes sense to assume that for a company or brand to retain the attention of its customers, they should continually innovate and change their product to adapt to constantly changing consumer needs. With Rolex, nothing was different, and as a result, they are often ranked as the most popular watch to buy and sell on sites such as Chrono24. Take, for example, one of the flagship models, the Rolex Submariner. Its initial utilitarian purpose as a diving watch has never changed but the watch itself has improved, doubling its depth rating, incorporating better quality steel, improving the movement, and swapping out aluminum bezels for more resistant ceramics. The price of a Submariner has, however, skyrocketed from its inception in 1957 to present day. It also doesn’t hurt that fictional spy James Bond was associated with Rolex watches for many years, before eventually switching to Omega in 1995.
What is the cause of such a spike in costs? If the price of the watch was adjusted for inflation, its $150 price tag in 1957 would only have risen to $1,300 in the present day, yet it sells for almost $8,000. To say that the increased value of the brand alone is responsible for the price tag is a bit too simplistic. You also have to take into account how average personal income of consumers has increased over the years and how this relates to annual inflation, as well as the instability of valuable base materials such as gold, steel and aluminum that go into the production of a watch.
But price fluctuations and inflation are only part of the reason. The main factor driving up costs has to do with the mechanics and craftsmanship of the watches. Rolex develops their own in-house movements and these are very costly and time-consuming to produce. They contain tiny parts that have a high failure rate during manufacturing, and, while machines are used in the production process, many of the movements are finished by highly trained human technicians. The result of this is an extremely functional, tough watch that is the Rolex we’ve come to know and love today.
It’s About Time
While a Rolex might carry a hefty price tag along with its robust bulk, it’s for good reason. The expertise, commitment and craftsmanship that go into creating what has become the most iconic watch in the world are unrivaled. It’s a brand that has worth not only as a status symbol, but as a truly function and groundbreaking timepiece.