Name the first watch brand that comes into your mind. Is it Rolex? Unpicking the influence behind the world-renowned brand, Rolex continues to gain popularity with the next generation. But what is it about these internationally acclaimed wristwatches that are making them stand the test of time and meet the needs of young people?
Earlier this month, I took a train journey accompanied a group of friends to a dinner party in Nottingham, England. Given the relaxed COVID restrictions, and the absence of glamor in our lives over the past year, the occasion called for black tie and the steepest possible pair of heels that were to be worn all night. Naturally, we congregated in the kitchen – a custom agreeable by Jonah Lewie – and as we admired one another’s outfits, relieved to see ourselves out of our usual working from home regalia, I found myself involved in a conversation between two friends about how they had decided to dress their wrists that evening. One in a Cartier Ballon Bleu and the other in a Rolex Daytona, the discussion began as one of comparison and appreciation. But what later struck me about this interaction, was the earnest approach of my friend, who wearing a Cartier, seemed eager to try on the Rolex, and by result, questioned his own purchase. He owned a Cartier, but there was something about the Rolex that made him want it more.
This exchange stayed with more for quite some time, confused by the superlative quality of the Rolex amongst my generation. So much so that a week later, I decided to take to my own Instagram channel and air out some thoughts by surveying a host of millennial followers to ask the question: if you could buy any watch right now, what would you choose? Aside from a small portion of users that specified the Apple Watch, much to a traditional horologist’s disgust, the general consensus crowned Rolex as the winner. Or rather, “rollie,” was the common answer given.
The indomitable appearance of Rolex in society
“Rollie.” It’s not difficult to think of a song today that makes a reference to a Rolex watch, proving the cultural conditioning of the brand. “New watch alert, Hublots, or the big face rollie, I got two of those,” sings Jay-Z alongside his Watch the Throne partner, Kanye West back in 2011. “This a Rollie, not a stopwatch, shit don’t ever stop,” shared Champagne Papi, referencing what I later learned to be the main spring technique that provides the power to keep parts moving. In the same way we call the hoover by its trademark name and we google as a verb for going online, the synonymous relationship between Rolex and wristwatches seemed so inextricably linked.
Why? Because it’s everywhere you go. And thanks to the law of attraction, it soon seemed to be everywhere. From a stranger in the street holding the door and revealing a quick glimpse of their wrist; the pages of a newspaper; on athletes at the Olympics (despite Omega’s official partnership); to a late night trip down the rabbit hole on YouTube with an unexpected Rolex advertisement. I even happened to get myself into a conversation discovering the story of a date where a Rolex was purchased, but for which party was never confirmed. No stranger to the unwanted influx of cookies and sponsored ads that clutter our screens, the more I googled these coveted creations, the more they appeared. But outside of the watchful eyes of the internet, the prevalence of Rolex certainly felt discernible in everyday life and not only online.
Buying into the institution, rather than individuality
I returned to my poll again that evening, looked once more over the list of watches specified by online users, and a secondary inspection brought my attention to something else: hardly any Rolex advocates expressed the desire to own a specific model. Instead, it was kudos enough to own one, than to be picky about it. Struck by the feeling of respect behind the brand, I reached out to Alexandre Bigler, the Head of Watches for Asia Pacific for Christie’s to uncover the prowess behind Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis’ internationally acclaimed prodigy.
“Rolex, everybody knows the story, right?” began Bigler. “They want the deepest point on Earth, they want the highest point on the mountain. And that’s why they’re so successful because they managed to create two watches that were not only so great to wear, but kept improving the quality over the years, and now they’re just the best at it.” Joining the helm of Christie’s back in 2005, and with over fifteen years experience in auction, Bigler implied the philanthropic role of Rolex as one primarily interchangeable with social status. This was something I confirmed through my own research, calling on the Rolex votaries to share their favor, more often than not serving the purpose to mark major milestones in life. “I think Rolex has been smart enough to integrate every level of the each generation,” agrees Bigler. “That Rolex is a watch that you should have at some stage in your life, whether it’s your first communion and your parents want to offer you a watch; a taxi driver for his big pay at the end of the year or waiters in a restaurant.” It’s an indication of ubiquity, understood by the world because time is understood by everyone.
The rising current of Vintage models
And it’s not just about new models either. In Indonesia a couple of years ago, Bigler informed me of a get together between one hundred watch collectors in Bali who turned up to showcase their collections. Despite not knowing one another personally, exchanging information from across the globe via social media, they decided to all group together and share their mutual interest. A moment of admiration, deal-making, and exchanging, this large-scale cult of collectors proved advantageous for the market of vintage watches, a landscape traditionally more discreet. “A lot of people are starting to display what they have now. In Europe and in the US, we’ve seen that people have always been a lot more secret. They don’t want to show that they have but all of this is changing from social media.”
The paradox of social media increases accessibility, but promotes exclusivity as we become virtually invited into the lives of others, but we constantly remain at a distance. Rolex has tapped into this duality, recognizing the demand from an emerging generation who crave exclusivity, sharing vintage Rolex models that are no longer in production anymore. “If you want to take other blue chip brands, they’re cool,” notes Bigler, however, “they’re just not as cool because the Rolex vintage world brings a certain patina – a certain flavor to the watches.”
The allure of exclusivity is lapped up by millennials, wanting to feel like they’re a part of something, and thus marketing this feeling, the act of purchasing a Rolex allows you to join a certain social status of wearing a world-renowned watch. Partisans of Audemars Piguet might tell you otherwise, given the rise of the Royal Oak cult, boasting a hefty price tag of £41,000, while a Rolex Oyster Perpetual could set you back around £6,000. In 2013, Forbes released an article, “Top Watches for Social Peacocking,” listing Rolex under the category “to show wealth, casually.” It goes to suggest that the Rolex is only afforded by the “the leisure class, and the idea that you have enough money to be regularly on vacation or taking time off, and thus not in work attire.” Perhaps that might have been the case at the start of the last decade given the influx of celebrities like Kanye West and Mark Wahlberg spotted wearing models. But arguably, the social status of the Rolex is not totally paralleled with wealth, rather the elusive nature behind it.
The mysterious manufacturer thrives on consumer fantasies
First and foremost, there’s controversy around Rolex given the rising number of counterfeits produced, and many in high quality. But the real mystery lies in the anonymity of the band. “Who is really ruling Rolex apart from the CEO Jean-Frederic Dufour and the Hans Wilsdorf foundation?,” asks Bigler. “Nobody has ever been to the factory, nobody knows how many machines they have. Everyone has fantasies about what’s going on in there and how many duplicates they have in case one machine breaks down. They say that the robots are doing the machines now, not even humans are there. They have their own gold. I mean, all this is part of what is so magical about Rolex.” The enigmatic presence of the brand is fuelled by ourselves and we continue to feed into the aura of enchantment. Perhaps that’s what makes Rolex even more coveted, for its unique contradiction being one of the most familiar watch brands in the world, but with little familiarity of its history.
For a society now motivated by transparency, Rolex fans look for clarity in the physical composition of the watch. A deviation from the days of simpler shopping, in the 1980’s, the lack of access to information meant that consumers looked at watches in very different ways to today. “People were looking at watches with naked eyes,” notes Bigler. “How it looked on the wrist. They weren’t interested in if the bracelet has changed, or the dial is a service dial or the pushers weren’t original.” Even up until the early 2000’s, the diminutive amount of information available to consumers meant that you had to visit certain collectors, auction houses, or sending a fax without even viewing a picture of a watch, trusting the person on the other side of the world.
A financial investment for the next generation
Today we need a microscope and the soundboard of at least 10 friends before purchasing. With access to an overload of information, today, Bigler suggests “we’ve become so focused on analyzing watches that were worth $500 in the shop and we’re looking at them now like watches that have come from top brands that are worth millions of dollars.” What does this mean for Rolex? “It means over time they’ve been changed, just like your car. You’re changing your tires, you’re changing, you know, all the parts that are not working well after a certain amount of time.” Rolex has always been there to change them for you and so by modifying the watch, Rolex was there to change them for you. Over the years they continue to perfect the size, the shape, the looks, the movement, the quality, everything. There’s longevity in these watches, which appeals to younger consumers parting with large sums of money for their first timepiece.
Considering the depreciating value of money across the world, particularly after the effects of the coronavirus, younger generations who face the gruelling financial impact are turning towards investment solutions. This next generation are thinking about the worth of their money and the increasing price of Rolex, and transferring the money into that.. “And it makes perfect sense, maybe anticipating that next year there will be a further deflation on money, but there will always be an inflation on watches,” notes Bigler. There’s no reason why it should depreciate. “It’s like if you ask me, is Monet’s work still going to be there in 10 years? Are we going to wake up one day and say Picasso didn’t matter in the history of art?”
As my conversation with Mr Bigler drew to a close, the conclusion of our discussion led me to consider not only the colossal impact of Rolex amongst the next generation as a watch brand that neatly reflects the values of this conscientious age group, but the shifting stigma around a watch notoriously associated with wealth ranking. Today, Rolex opens its arms to first-time buyers, collectors and millionaires alike. “I worked my ass off for years to finally purchase my first Rolex. I am over the moon for this watch. Simple, timeless, classic. Ref. No. 114060. Cheers! 🍻” posted a Reddit user this morning. Met with a thread of comments congratulating the user on their purchase, the overwhelming celebratory responses confirmed that for this budding generation, the Rolex is no longer a staid indicator of footing or prestige. It’s a feeling of community, and a brand that has revolutionized itself to listen to all of its consumers from the vintage disciples, the selective streetwear moguls and to the waiter in the restaurant.
Just before the call was finished, Bigler offered one final nugget of wisdom. “In the past, you wanted your watch to perform. Now, you still want it to perform today, but it’s not a necessity. In fact, the last thing that you want your watch to do is to tell you the time because your phone does already. Everybody can give you the time, you want your watch to have something else, you want your watch to have another flavour.” And the flavor of Rolex? A sweet flavor of hard-earned success that will stay with you forever. Or at least until you can make a profit.