Spotted on yacht master Ben Ainslie’s wrist: a Titanium Yacht-Master. Over at rolexmagazine.com (from whence cometh these pictures), Captain Danny Crivello begins his analysis of the one-off watch by reminding readers of the legendary anecdote surrounding former Rolex CEO André Heiniger . . . .
“He was once asked how things were faring in the watch business. ‘I have no idea,’ Heiniger replied. ‘Rolex is not in the watch business. We are a luxury business.”
As Captain Dan rightly points out, Heiniger wasn’t just whistling Dixie (can I say that?). In the 116 years since its incorporation, Rolex has never strayed from the path set out by founder Hans Wilsdorf: upmarket Über alles. Not that he ever sold watches to Nazis . . .
In fact, the brand’s moved further and further away from the tool watch rep that made it famous – Waterproof Watch Swims the English Channel! – towards a pure status play.
Hence the use of silky smooth 904L steel and gold. Jewels? Them too! (Yours for $700k.) But no titanium, not since the material first reared its horological head.
That would be 1970, when Citizen introduced the X8 Titanium Chronometer. The world’s first titanium watch – and the world’s first electronic watch – was a flop. Titanium was a bitch to manufacture and mold; the X8 was WAY too expensive for an otherwise boring Japanese timepiece.
Ten years later, Porsche struck gold – I mean Deutschemarks, with the IWC Porsche Design Titanium Chronograph (reviewed here). Flash forward to today, and titanium is the material for a lightweight, nearly indestructible watch case. Especially since Citizen (and others) solved the production/price problem. You can now buy a [not terribly exciting] Citizen Super-Titanium Paradigm watch for $380.
At the top of the market, OMEGA currently sells 45 titanium-cased watches, from the $5900 ani-digi Speedmaster X-33 Chronograph to the $48,600 Seamaster Aqua Terra Ultra Light. OMEGA says the latter was “built for sporting comfort” – not bragging rights per se.
True story! Typically bead-blasted or matte finished, the man-made material has none of the instantly recognizable luxury of polished steel or glowing gold. Or polished steel with glowing gold. Oh, I forgot to mention, the Titanium Yacht-Master is old news . . .
The Titanium Rolex surfaced last year. This “story” became “news” when rolexmagazine.com’s feature ran on the 23rd of September. The usual suspects suddenly woke up to the watch’s existence, to the point where monochrome-watches.com felt obliged to apologize.
If Rolex was serious about making a Titanium Yacht-Master they would’ve either hidden it entirely or made sure the mainstream horological ass kissers went into full pimp mode. Trial balloon-wise, if nothing else.
You may notice that Captain Ainslie’s Titanium Yacht-Master doesn’t have a date wart (a.k.a. “cyclops” date magnifier). The over-complicated, aesthetically-challenged, 44mm Yacht-Master II (above) is the only version equally bereft.
If Rolex was going to put the TR into production, they would have started with a cyclops-equipped version and then introduced a flat crystal version, as they have for every other watch they’ve made. Taken as whole, the non-date Titanium Yacht-Master looks less like a Rolex Yacht-Master and more like . . .
The 41mm Tudor Black Bay Ceramic. Unacceptable brand overlap? The new, fluted bezel Tudor Royal is a poor man’s Rolex Day-Date. But I can’t think of a “trickle up” Rolex. Nor is there any pressing need for one. Rolex can’t make enough of what it already makes, the way they always make ’em (with just enough minor, evolutionary variations to keep enthusiasts from falling into a coma).
Speaking of exotic materials, the Titanium Yacht-Master isn’t Rolex’s first titanium watch. Little brother Tudor’s Pelagos dive watch sports a titanium and steel case, attached to a titanium bracelet. While that’s where the Rollie’s titanium manufacturing expertise came from, again, the metal simply isn’t luxe enough for the super-mega-ultra-deluxe Rolex brand.
I reckon there are two plausible explanations for the Titanium Yacht-Master existence.
First, Rolex loves Captain Ainslie. The sailor – a British Sir no less – asked for a one-off Rollie. Rolex obliged. While the brand turns up its nose at the Only Watch charity gig, the Foundation is nothing if not snobby. For all we know, making a bespoke Yacht-Master for the yacht master may have originated in a personal favor, dare or card game.
Alternatively, Rolex was bored. The brand’s got their watch business worked out, down to the last detail. Sure, there’s a shortage. And? And it’s steady as she goes, with no plans to increase production in any meaningful way. Hey Hans, got a minute? How about we make a Titanium Yacht-Master, just for shits and giggles? I mean we’ll tell management it’s a prototype.
If you don’t think that could happen, you’ve never worked in a really large organization.
In short, I think we can log the Titanium Yacht-Master under #itaintgonnahappen. I could be wrong, of course. But if I am, it marks a radical departure – from Rolex as a luxury business to Rolex as a tool watch maker.
With the ultimate tool watch – the smart watch – devouring market share, the last thing Rolex needs is to change focus. Something they know better than you and me.