Ask anyone on the street what he or she thinks the world’s most luxurious watch brand is, and they will probably say Rolex. They’d be wrong. But perception is everything, and the timepiece that is regarded as the sign that you have made it — a person to be reckoned with, a person imbued with a hint of rugged glamour — is indeed a Rolex. There are more accurate watches, more expensive brands and more prestigious brands, but Rolex has captured our imagination like no other.
Don’t get me wrong. There is no sleight of hand here. They are not, in luxury watch terms at least, overpriced (unlike some brands I could name). They are supremely well made and they will last forever. I should know; I have a steel Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust made in 1963. It still keeps immaculate time and has been serviced a maximum of four times in its life. It also looks almost identical to the current model — the only difference is an extra 2mm in the diameter, a sapphire glass and a quick date changer. So in a global luxury watch market that has gone bonkers in the last 20 years, Rolex has both pedigree and consistency.
The company was founded in London in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis and moved to Switzerland in 1919 after the First World War. By 2003, Rolex was earning revenues of $3 billion annually, according to Stern Business, with BusinessWeek ranking it the 71st most valuable brand in the world in 2007. Like Patek Philippe, arguably the most prestigious watch brand in the world — and unlike other luxury brands such as Vacheron Constantine and Jaeger Le Coultre, both of whom are owned by the Richemont Group — Rolex is still a private company, a factor that arguably adds to its aura of distinction.
So what is it about Rolex’s enduring appeal? Luxury aside (Rolex caters to all tastes, even producing some eccentric designs for those who like a bit of diamond-encrusted bling), I would wager it is the fact that no other watch has as much history, glamour, sex appeal and adventure, allied to reliability and looks, wrapped up in one brand.
Take the Rolex Submariner, the iconic diving watch that was worn by Sean Connery’s Bond on a fabric NATO strap — to lady-killing effect — or the Explorer, the equally famous black-faced chronometer. You aren’t just buying a watch, you are buying into the very fabric of 20th century achievement. Omega is the only watch brand that comes close to matching this heritage (its Speedmaster was famously worn on the moon) but Rolex, with its functional designs and almost onomatopoeic name, has captured more of the public’s imagination, allying itself with sports stars, musicians and scientific pioneers the world over. Not surprisingly, Rolexes are among the few brands with a strong resale value, especially for the iconic Daytona Cosmograph with its famous Zenith “El Primero” movement, and the other professional models.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about owning the item that you love. And as my wife found out, Rolex watches are very desirable. She does not share my obsession with watches, but over the years has faithfully tramped round showrooms or stood patiently as I peered in shop windows like an excited schoolboy. For her a watch is a watch. It tells the time. Who cares if it’s manual, automatic or quartz, or if it’s a 36mm or a 45mm? But on New Year’s Eve, while I tried on a new Explorer II (now 42mm and with an orange 24 hour hand, if you must know) in the Rolex showroom in Beirut, she pointed to an Air King in brushed steel with subtle blue numeral batons on an off-white face. “I like that a LOT,” she said. It was the first time she had ever really expressed a genuine interest in a watch. What could I do?