Rolex vs. Timex – Why Pay More?

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Rolex vs. Timex - Timex Marlin

Rolex vs. Timex? I’m sure that seems like a loaded question. But many watch buyers don’t get it. Leaving quartz watches aside, they don’t have a clue about the key differences between a “simple” inexpensive mechanical watch and a really expensive mechanical watch. Why the latter costs 100 times the former. They both tell the time, right? In fact . . .

Most people don’t care. For the majority of watch buyers, the Rolex vs. Timex choice is a question of style. How they want to be perceived. There isn’t a watch made that tells people you’ve “made it” more than a Rolex. There isn’t a watch made that says “I’m frugal” more than a Timex. Most watch buyers check their checkbook, pick their poison and that’s the end of it.

Rolex vs. Timex - Submariner date

There is, of course, a huge difference in quality between a Rolex and a Timex. It’s about a lot of tiny things that have an enormous compound effect. For the sake of argument and education, let’s go small and check out their movements. Specifically, the engines powering the $200 Timex Marlin and the $8100 Rolex Submariner (with date).

Like all Timex before it, the Marlin reissue is powered by a simple, cheaply made movement. Timex’s product page describes it only as “automatic” (i.e., self-winding). It’s a Japanese made Miyota 8215 –  a robust macchina that lives up to Timex’s old motto “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”

That said, the Miyota 8125 on display behind the Marlin’s exhibition caseback isn’t particularly attractive; none of the parts have any sort of decoration. Nor is the movement particularly accurate; timekeeping varies between -20 and+40 seconds per day.

Thanks to the movement’s design, the second hand suffers from “Miyota stutter” – it pauses and leaps, rather than sweeps. The 8215 also lacks “hacking seconds”; when you pull out the crown to set the time, the second hand continues, making to-the-second time setting near impossible.

The 8215 movement is easy to service, but people wearing a $200 watch may balk at the cost. If all you want is three-handed mechanical watch that’s easy to read, keeps the time (more or less) and looks retro-cool, none of these “issues” are significant. If you want more  . . . anything from your movement, Rolex is ready to take your money.

Rolex vs. Timex - Rolex caliber 3235

The current Rolex Submariner (with date) is powered by the Geneva watchmaker’s new-for-2017 3235 caliber movement. Even a brief glance reveals that there’s a huge gap between the quality of the Japanese powerplant and Rolex’s engine.

All the 3235’s gears are carefully made and finished. All the plates are perfectly cast, angled. All the surfaces have different finishes, sometimes two finishes on the same piece (check the rotor).

These differences aren’t just a matter of decoration. The different parts of the movement are made in different metals to optimize performance, such as imperviousness to heat, cold, humidity and magnetism.

I could write an entire article on the engineering that makes this Rolex movement superior to Timex’s, in terms of precision (+2 to -2 seconds per day accuracy), power reserve (70 hours vs. 40), resistance to shocks and magnetic fields, longevity and more. Specially developed lubricants? Check. Hacking seconds? Check? Miyota stutter? Negatory!

When it comes to Rolex vs. Timex, the two watches’ movements do the same thing (tell the time) in roughly the same way (rotor-powered automatic movements). By the same token, a Fiat Tipo and a Mercedes S Class are both piston-powered automobiles. The devil – and the money – is in the details.

Rolex vs. Timex - on desk

If you closely examine every aspect of both watches – cases and finishings, strap/bracelet, glass, dial, hands, indices – you end up looking at two objects of very different quality . That’s true no matter which Rolex and Timex you dare to compare.

Is Rolex quality worth a $7900 premium over the Timex?

Trick question! You’re paying for a lot more than just mechanical quality. You’re paying for Rolex’s research and development, executives, brand ambassadors, sponsored horse shows and God knows what else. Oh yes. Rolex’s profit.

Ana Ivanovic Rolex ad

The end result of this “shootout” is something I keep on repeating: a watch isn’t just a timekeeping device. It’s an object that shows the kind of person you are. For some, it also shows your appreciation for craftsmanship and engineering.

Whether you pay $200 or $8100 for a watch, you get what you pay for. Look closely and you’ll see it. Or not. Truth be told, a really good watch gives you more of what you can’t see. If you see what I mean.

Franz Rivoira’s comprehensive book The Watch Manual is available for sale You can find more of his horological writing at Quora.com

21 COMMENTS

  1. Timex does not have it’s own movement manufacturing capabilities so it is not able to provide particularly strong value.

    Compare a Tissot Seastar 1000 Silicium (ref T120.407.11.041.01, $850 on a bracelet and less grey) against a Rolex Submariner and the value discussion gets a lot more interesting.

    The Tissot has the same 300m depth rating, both are Swiss Made, both have sapphire crystals and ceramic bezels, both hack, the Tissot has a 10 hour longer power reserve, and the Tissot arguably has a better balance spring material, with the Tissot balance spring material also being used by Patek. The Tissot even corrects for some Rolex misses, like providing lume next to the date marker so there is lume at every hour (an ISO requirement).

    I say all the above as someone that does own a modern Rolex and does not own a Seastar.

    • I wonder, that if you actually tried to price out a chronometer certified automatic movement without the brand, what it would cost. I’ve only dealt in the luxury sphere (more jewelry than watches), but I bet to actually make a Rolex is probably around $500. Some Materials do come from China….

          • Hi Will.
            I can tell you that on the average, the price multiplier for a watch sold through a traditional retail channel goes from 3.5X to 5X. That is, your $1,000 watch would cost to the company from $300 (worst case) to $200 (best case).
            Rolex is – as you might suspect – an exception to the rule. The average steel Submariner IMHO fares around the $1,000 mark, making it a 7.5X multiplier.

        • Uh oh. Does this mean G-Shock will experience a massive value climb when my son is an adult? And my small collection of G-Shocks will pay for his graduate school?! Please please please.

          • That might be contingent on Casio clamping down on output while minimizing visible product innovation, for which I would not hold my breath.

      • Rolex is private and basically makes everything in-house, in Switzerland, so it is difficult to benchmark its costs. With the size, scale, and resources that Rolex has it does not need to use China. Instead it leverages very advanced automation in Switzerland. There are definitely “Swiss Made” brands that do leverage China.

        With regard to the cost of a good movement, you can look at the Sellita SW300-1, based on the iconic ETA 2892, and used by brands like IWC and TAG Heuer.

        This company was pretty easy to find selling them:

        https://www.startimesupply.com/merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Product_code=SW300-1

        The buyer is still going to have to get this COSC certified. A large watch company working directly with Sellita is likely paying a lower price.

        • No watch manufacturer makes everything in house, this I know from experience. All use Chinese parts, even Chopard and Patek which have serious technical jeweler chops.

          • Rolex and Patek don’t need China. They have the resources to do everything in house, down to the balance spring (a particularly tough part). Patek does use silicon for balance springs, same as the Tissot I referenced, which shows how even highly advanced watch technology is being commoditized. And Rolex does automate. With its resources Swiss and German robots make way more sense than dealing with China.

            Chopard is not remotely in the same ballpark as those companies, and may have to leverage China because of its lack of scale and its price points.

          • You might be underestimating the ability of Chopard to make watches and high jewelry that in many ways are superior to Rolex and Patek. While they can use German robots, they still use Chinese parts and for some reason people refuse to believe that this is the case. While the parts are not as large a percentage as cheaper watches, they still are part of luxury watches. Not one watch is 100% “in house”. Tiffany doesn’t make it’s own high jewelry, Van Cleef, Cartier and other houses outsource a lot of production of their jewelry, their watches, doubly so.

          • There are three mechanical watch companies that stand apart from everyone else globally. They are not “houses”, they are manufacturers. Those companies are Rolex, Swatch Group, and Seiko. Rolex is not just the most vertically integrated watch company, but it is one of the most vertically integrated manufacturers in the world. The $150 Swatch Sistem51 I am wearing right now is effectively 100% in house, the $80 Seiko 5 I got for one of my kids is, and so is my Rolex. Rolex does not need to do anything in China given its resources, and would be foolish to do anything in China given the IP issues there.

            Chopard is a joke. The Mille Miglia GTS Azzurro Chrono that they charge $7,400 for uses an ETA 7750 made by Swatch Group that Swatch Group will sell in a Tissot T124.427.16.031.00 for $2,100. And Tissot spares people the “Mille Miglia” branding.

            If you look at Swiss watch market share (by revenue, not units) Swatch Group has 27.5% and Rolex as a group has 24.8%. That gives them scale to have better manufacturing capability, have better quality control, have a better mix of automation and labor, and provide better value than anyone else. A company like Chopard does not even register in terms of market share, so it has to rely on Swatch Group for movements, and may have to subcontract certain parts to China.

            https://journal.hautehorlogerie.org/en/mega-brands-drive-the-watchmaking-market/

  2. The answer to “Rolex vs Timex” is, of course: Rolex AND Timex.

    Or Rolex and Casio (G-SHOCK / Pro Trek / Oceanus / Classic).

    Or Rolex and Breitling and Omega and Casio and Timex and Citizen and (insert favorite brands).

    They each have their place and enjoyable aspects.

    • I agree with this sentiment, but I think the original poster was speaking to a hypothetical “entry level” watch buyer who understands that an automatic movement is a desirable quality in a watch, but not much more than that. I’ve made my share of mistakes early on buying watches in the preowned, vintage, and new categories, and reading articles like this at the time would have been helpful.

      • Hey Bode, I agree 100%. This is the reason why I answer questions on Quora and I have written my first book, The Watch Manual, which is a sort of Horology 101 course.
        I remember still the day where I could not understand the true difference between a Rolex and a Timex, and I am pretty certain that apart the power of the brand, this concept is still a bit esoteric for 80% of the average Joes and Janes.

  3. Great article. I also see you pop up in my Quora feed a lot. And if I recall you’re coming out with a book. Congrats on that.

    Question for you. Your central thesis here is “luxury watches cost more because they design and manufacture all these details into the watch.” I wonder if that thesis is actually the inverse of what’s true. My guess is most people get comfy with a price range and then find watches for their tastes in that range. That means luxury watchmakers need to instead build a watch with design, details and finishing such that they hit/justify a certain price point (rather than the other way around). This seems to be justified by your point about movements above. Why even apply finishing to a Rolex movement that has a steel case back, unless you just need to do something more to justify existence at a price point?

    • Hi Frank, and thank you for your comment.
      Actually, the first e-book (The Watch Manual) has been published, and the second one (The Watch Manual: the Brand Guide) is about to come out.
      To get back to your question, more than meeting a certain price point, the good manufacturers present models that conform to their overall plan, filling the gaps here and there. It is a sort of creating an artwork. The price point is consequential to the aim that you have. For example, Tudor has recently introduced the Prince Date, a new Datejust-like model that is aimed to fight in the low end of the price spectrum.
      While I am a watch lover, I still remember that I am a marketing man first.

  4. ^This. Great article. One reason I didn’t pull the trigger on a Marlin automatic is that it has an acrylic crystal. Timex thinks it is an authentic period detail. I think it will be easy to get scuffed and scratched, and I could get that kind of retro flavor at least $50 dollars cheaper from Vostok. I think a Rolex/Casio comparison might have been a little more interesting. One reason why I love my recent purchase, a cheap Casio MRW, is that the seconds hand always lines up perfectly with the second marks on the watch dial. I was told that they don’t always line up on other watches, even a Rolex. And that isn’t a dunk on Rolex. The level of automation at a Casio factory is going to allow it to do Rolex like feats that Timex simply couldn’t pull off.

    • Well, I can tell you a secret. This article comes from a question I received on Quora – and I found the wordplay Rolex/Timex amusing. I am a writer, I delight in this kind of simple pleasures.

    • On a Rolex or any other mechanical watch (except for the rare exception of deadbeat seconds) the seconds hand does not tick, it sweeps, so there is no stop of the seconds hand to line up with the seconds marks on the dial.

      On some cheap quartz “Swiss Made” watches the ticking of the seconds had may not line up with the seconds marks on the dial. The Swiss probably assume anyone settling for a quartz watch isn’t going to care about that. My view is that a quartz watch should have a digital readout instead of feigning analog.

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