Rolex’s Popularity Explained

Rolex crown pendant proves Rolex's popularity (courtesy

Over at, What Makes Rolex So Special? Mr. Harrison nails the reasons behind Rolex’s popularity, accounting for the brand’s fanatical following, highlighting three major points . . .

A Rolex is a sign of success

Saleroom Rolex Daytona - Rolex's popularity remains insane

“Let’s be honest,” [Dutch Rollie fanatic Bernhard Bulang] says, “Everyone who puts on a Rolex knows it’s a sign of success. But really it should be a sense of achievement for yourself. Sure, there are people who buy Rolex to show off, but most people would not know if you were wearing a $150,000 watch. It’s not for them, it’s for you. You can wear a Newman anywhere and nobody would know what it means — except you.”

So Bulang identifies Rolex as a status signaling accoutrement, then disses and dismisses the idea. I agree wholeheartedly with his initial assessment – that a Rolex is a way to tell the world you’ve arrived. I disagree profoundly with his suggestion that a Rolex Paul Newman Daytona is the horological soul of discretion.

Rolex's popularity - Daytona

Even those who don’t know a $150k Panda-faced Rolex Daytona from a $6k Rolex Day-Date know the Daytona is a Rolex, suffused with all the “top of the world ma” baggage of any other Rolex. Sure, there are brand aficionados who compete to own the ne plus ultra of Daytonas, but the suggestion that they do so solely for a sense of personal satisfaction is ridiculous.

Rolex’s popularity is inextricably linked to its status as a status watch. You can no more wear a Rolex discreetly than you can drive a Porsche 911 as an “average Joe.” Which brings us to reason number two why a Rolex is “special.”

A Rolex is a Rolex is a Rolex

Rolex's popularity continues with the Explorer

“If Rolex is a car, it’s a Porsche,” says the maverick watch dealer Tom Bolt . . . You go back through the decades, it’s the same car. The bonnet, the tail and the lights have changed but it’s a Porsche 911. And a Rolex Oyster, from the Bubbleback in the Thirties to now, is the same watch today.” 

In our post Rolex’s Success Secret Revealed, our man Malkovich revealed the corporate governance behind Rolex’s glacial evolution. Suffice it to say, Mr. Bolt is spot on, sharing the secret sauce behind Rolex as a sign of success: gradual design change and a limited model range ensuring instant identifiability

OMEGA Semaster 1948 Limited Edition

Over the decades, cross-town rival OMEGA has messed with the basic design of their Seamaster and Constellation watches. They’ve offered and then discontinued modern versions of vintage timepieces (e.g. the Seamaster 1948 above). They’ve created hugely expensive one-offs like the De Ville Tourbillon.

Even OMEGA’s famous Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch is a bit obscure, sold in an ongoing not to say bewildering super-abundance of variations and special editions. All of which makes it hard for the gen pop to identify an OMEGA or, equally important, know what it represents.

Rolex Air King

A Rolex is a Rolex is a Rolex. Sure, the watchmaker [still] has its Cellini collection – five “classical” models that don’t conform to the basic Rolex template.

The fact that the collection is seventh (last) on their website homepage, and you have to scroll sideways to get to it, tells you that Rolex Cellini are relatively unimportant.

All other Rolex are iconic – to the point where Rolex refuses to ditch the red-headed stepchild known as the Air King (above).

Advertising sustains Rolex’s popularity

Rolex ad reinforces the reason behind Rolex's popularity

Does the fact that OMEGA offers better quality movements throw shade on the above analysis? It does not. Rolex’s popularity is not down to the quality of their movements (which are no slouch compared to OMEGA or anyone else). It’s about the watches’ perceived quality. As in perception is reality. Think of it this way . . .

All brands exist in the consumer’s mind. A company must constantly, unwaveringly and single-mindedly reinforce the brand promise. The brand perception. Rolex = success is such a ubiquitous idea that we take it for granted. Rolex has not, does not and will not.

Rolex's popularity - Eric Clapton

Since Hans Wilsdorf founded the Rolex brand, its advertising has never wavered from its laser-like focus on prestige.

The watchmaker’s ads have varied in terms of what kind of prestige they attach to their timepieces – be it auto-racing, scuba diving, exploring, sailing, tennis, showjumping, guitar playing or flying. But the message has always been the same: people of quality engaged in prestige pursuits – people who could afford to wear any watch – wear the world’s best quality watch. Rolex.

The fact that a Rolex isn’t the world’s best quality watch has nothing to do with it. A brand is a type of shorthand, in this case for people who don’t have the time, energy, interest or expertise to get into the finer points of horology. A Rolex may not be the world’s best watch, but enough people think it is that it might as well be.

Rolex's popularity on display (courtesy

The smartwatch will kill dozens of Swiss watchmakers, just as the quartz crisis did. Meanwhile, Rolex rocks a recipe for long term success. As long as they stick to the knitting – and their new products indicate that very thing – they will emerge from Coronageddon and any lingering recession stronger than they were went they went in.


  1. I read the Esquire article and the mention of that “one” Rolex quartz led to my new fascination with the Oysterquartz.
    The reasons for the Rolex allure are valid, stability and consistency once on top. The interesting thing for me is that the rapper love of them has managed to exist as a separate, non-canon, realm that hasn’t … um… alienated the traditional buyer.

  2. In terms of branding, Rolex is the “Ferrari” of the watch world. To most people, a “Ferrari is a Ferrari is a Ferrari.” Most don’t even know there are various models. And, it doesn’t matter that there are faster (and more expensive and more luxurious) cars than any given Ferrari. The name “Ferrari,” to the common non-car-guy, is synonymous with the “ultimate fast sports car.” Rolex is that in the watch world.

    1. This. Their implicit brand cachet is nearly universal with a product that has maintained a standard so far. On the iconic aspect, I always think of Jeep or Harley-Davidson ( or Zippo lighters), whose products have glacial styling changes that keep things recognizable and distinct. I forget the term for when a brand name becomes a generic term for an item, as in Kleenex, mason jars, Xerox, Chapstick, etc. but that’s almost where Rolex is, it’s shorthand for expensive prestigious watch.

      Which reminds me of the story of a bunch of sportbikers who had stopped on a group ride. Some yokel walked past all the Japanese liter(plus) superbikes to some 600 or 750 cc twin Ducati and said “that’s the fastest bike here!” The owner/rider had a hard time keeping a straight face and playing along. The Duc had the exotic storied name, so his assumption was understood.

      Rolex maintains fan enthusiasm though. Fountain pen nerds tend to deride Montblanc as the default brand for people who know nothing about pens. There’s nothing wrong with them, but the enthusiasts see the marketing success for a rather bland, stagnant, and overpriced product in the same light as hipsters knocking mainstream musicians on the pop charts. I’m waiting for that shoe to drop for Rolex.

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