I’ve been buying, selling, owning and valuing Rolex watches for over twenty years. In that time, I’ve worked for no less than four authorised distributors, as well as several second-hand specialists. I used to be a Rolex fan; I loved the history of the brand, the industry-leading developments, and the exciting watches used by explorers, specialists and professionals. As the years have passed, my love for the brand has slowly waned . . .
When I came into the UK trade in the late 1990s, Rolex was the signature aspirational watch brand. Their watch collection was relatively modest in terms of size, and their price point wasn’t anywhere near as ridiculous as it is today. They were expensive, but obtainable.
You could walk into any authorised Rolex distributor anywhere in the world and take your pick of models. It didn’t matter if you wanted a classic or a professional model; availability wasn’t an issue and everything was in the window. The only watch that was a little tricky to obtain: the ‘Zenith’ Daytona ref 16520. Rolex used a third party movement, so it wasn’t necessarily their fault.
So what has exactly gone wrong with Rolex? From where I sit, the main issue is that they’ve become complacent. Their brand is so well established and successful they no longer have to work for the business. Specifically . . .
Rolex used to make watches for specific purposes
Whether it was a Milgauss, GMT, Submariner or Explorer, every Rolex had a purpose, often purchased by someone in that respective field. I use to sell GMT’s to pilots and Submariners to divers. Because of the excessive price points and so-called limited availability, you’re more likely to find these watches on the wrist of a footballer or TV chef. Rarely will a Rolex encounter anything close to its predecessors’ purpose.
There is no such thing as a waiting list
There’s no waiting list, or ‘list of interest,’ or whatever they’ve decided to call it this week, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! Rolex could flood the market tomorrow if they wanted to. The simple fact is they choose not to, so they can maintain a patina of ‘exclusivity.’
Availability simply comes down to who spends the most money. Rolex gives AD’s (Authorised Distributors) an allocation list every month. The watches on this list depends upon how much money they spend with Rolex annually. If they don’t spend a lot, the list will be full of nondescript watches with the odd professional piece to keep them sweet. If the AD spends a lot of money the variety increases, as does the number of professional watches.
Many if not most AD’s have adopted this ‘he who spends the most gets the best’ approach. In-demand watches go to the highest spending clients. I’ve worked in AD’s where the safe was full of so-called ‘hard to get’ watches. GMT-II? I had five of them. Daytona;? I had eight of them. Steel Submariner? I had nine.
It didn’t matter if you were the first or last person to put your name on the ‘list.’ The deciding factor always came down to how much the client had spent and how much the decision-maker liked them.
Rolex makes too many watches – they are neither exclusive nor rare
There are only so many people and, therefore, wrists in the world. And yet Rolex keeps churning out unit after unit, year after year. The myth that Rolex’s are exclusive, with specific models being hard to obtain, never goes away.
Professional models- your GMT’s, Subs, Daytonas, etc. – aren’t even remotely rare or exclusive. Take a look at any number of non-Rolex online platforms; they’re available in abundance! At the time of writing, one popular website offers a choice of one hundred and two steel GMT-II’s, registered in 2020. We’re only ten weeks into the year.
To put that into perspective, ignoring the premiums that these watches attract, there are only nine Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711, registered in the same period on the same site.
Rolex doesn’t do refurbishment; they replace
A lot of brands will sympathetically restore a customer’s watch. Rolex prefers to rip out anything that is not up to its standard and replace it with a ‘service’ replacement part.I’ve lost count of how many matt dials or naturally aged bezels amongst other components that I’ve seen replaced by sparkly new service replacements, detracting from the watches value. Why can’t they just leave it as it is?
Rolex giveth, Rolex taketh away
I swear Rolex canvas for opinions on what watches they should update or bring back and then do the complete opposite. I imagine that a meeting with one of their focus groups goes something like this.
Rolex: We’d like to know what you think of the GMT-II on the Oyster bracelet.
Focus group: We’d love to see is a Jubilee bracelet version.
Rolex: Excellent! We’ll launch a Jubilee version next year.
Focus Group: Wow, that’s brilliant!
Rolex: Wait, it gets better! At the same time as launching the Jubilee version, we’re going to discontinue the Oyster version.
Focus Group: Wait. What?
Rolex: It’s a fantastic plan.
Focus Group: You’re going to lose some buyers to the secondary market for no reason, and you’ll push the secondary values up, which won’t benefit you at all.
Rolex: Nobody will expect it, and that’s why it’s such a genius idea!
Rolex watches – unjustifiable price points
In any industry, there will always be a certain amount of parts and model interchangeability. It helps to keep production costs down. It’s why you find the same caliber movement in various watches in a manufacturer’s catalogue. For the most part, I’m OK with that. What I abhor: virtually identical models where the smallest difference raises the price.
The Rolex Air-King ref 116900 has a 40mm Oystersteel case with twin lock crown. It’s water-resistant to 100m, attached via an Oyster bracelet with an Oyster clasp, and powered by the 3131 calibre movement. The Air King retails for £5,150 ($6,695).
Compare it to the Milgauss ref: 116400GV. It also has a 40mm Oystersteel case with a twin lock crown (water-resistant to 100m). It comes with an Oyster bracelet with an Oyster clasp, powered by the same Rolex 3131 calibre movement. The Milgauss retails for £6,650 ($8,642). A clear £1,500 ($1949) more.
All you get for the extra money is a slightly green-tinged glass and a somewhat different dial with a ‘lightning’ second hand.
Rolex has the world’s laziest design team
Don’t get me wrong: I like the fact you can see the evolution in Rolex design over a few decades. But the changes are glacial. Rolex hasn’t come out with anything inspiring for years. The most you get: the same watch in a marginally different diameter case or dial option. Or, if you’re fortunate, the same watch but in a steel and gold combination.
If you want a stainless steel Datejust on an Oyster bracelet with a silver dial and a fluted bezel, you can choose between a 28, 31, 36, and 41mm case size. Or the same style (albeit in a ‘Date’ version) in a 34mm case with a different movement. So Rolex makes the same watch in five sizes spanning a diameter of 13mm. As opposed to something genuinely new.
The stainless steel Rolex Datejust is overpriced
Launched in 1945, the steel Datejust was a groundbreaking timepiece. Now it’s nothing more than an automatic watch with a date function and water resistance to 100m. Everyone is making these kinds of watches now, and the majority of the buying public doesn’t give a hoot about Parachrom, or whether the watch is +2/-2 seconds per day.
A 36mm steel Datejust ref 126200 retails at £5,650 ($7,344). That’s an obscene amount of money for what it is. An Oris Divers Sixty-Five – a fantastic modern watch full of vintage style – offers the same size case. The Swiss water-resistant (to 100mm) automatic, complete with a date function, will set you back £1,550 ($2,015).
The DJ’s power reserve is longer (70 hours vs. 38). But is the extra 32 hours side table time worth an extra £4,100 ($5,329)? An additional £128 ($166) per hour? If you took ‘Rolex’ off of the dial, nobody would pay that kind of money for a mass-produced watch.
You can’t customize your Rolex
When I was working at an AD, you’d have 20 odd watches in stock. If a customer wanted something different, you traded from the master catalog. We could also modify our ‘stock’ watches: change the dial or bracelet. Clients would look in the window and say “I like that watch with the fluted bezel, but I like it with that dial, and I’d like it on the Oyster bracelet.” And off the watch would go to the workshop.
We also offered a free dial exchange within six months of purchase. A client could come back a say, I don’t like the plain dial now. I want the diamond set one instead. All the client would have to do is pay for the new dial and service if it was over six months old. The key was to sell the product and to keep your client happy.
Rolex no longer allows modification. If a watch comes with a black dial, you’re married to that dial for life. Modify your watch and Rolex won’t even service it – unless they can change everything back to the way it was the day it left the factory, at your expense.
On our end, if we didn’t have a watch in stock, we’d pick up the phone to Rolex’s sales department and bang, they were on it. If they had the watch, they’d get it to us ASAP. If they didn’t, they’d find an AD who did and see if they could redirect it to us. Rolex would go to extraordinary lengths to help us sell a watch.
Not anymore, I know of AD’s who wanted to order a watch for a direct sale. Rolex wouldn’t allow it until the AD had sent something back in exchange. That kind of mentality blows my mind.
Rolex watches are soulless
Rolex sells vanilla watches – they’re about as exciting as magnolia paint. Everything in their factory is hands-off. The majority of production automated, with a bit of hand assembly at the end. The watches lack individuality and passion; they’re clones. Compare Rolex’s old advertising to their current campaigns. There’s absolutely nothing exciting or interesting about them now – all that died years ago.
Rolex used to be bold, daring, and adventurous. Now they’re plain-old automatic watches with a date. There will always be people who aspire to own a Rolex. With ever-increasing competition, along with the growing demand for pre-owned watches, unless Rolex takes a long hard look at themselves, they’re in for a tough time.