What is Rolex?

May 13, 2013,07:39 AM

Rolex doesn’t grab the headlines for its innovations. Houses like Patek Philippe and Jaeger LeCoultre have their histories replete with examples of ingenious horological breakthroughs and clever, highly complicated innovations. Rolex seemingly sails under the radar in this area. However, having given this some thought, it occurs to me that understanding the true nature of Rolex is at the heart of its innovation persona. Rolex is not about complications. It is not about novelties and quirky functions. Rolex is about fairly ruthless reliability. If one owns a Rolex, one expects it to be totally dependable and for it to fulfill its functionality in the toughest of environments. Reliability. Integrity. Robustness. These are all words that spring to mind when I think Rolex. What jumps to my mind when I think of Rattrapante Perpetual Calendar? Certainly not Rolex. However, what springs to my mind when I think of exploring, diving, travelling……. Uhm….Explorer 1, Submariner, GMT. Rolex is the watch that Indiana Jones would have not just worn, but would have needed. OK, maybe I am a touch biased, but to my mind, Rolex invented the Adventurer’s Watch.

Proof? Well, I think it is worth touching on some of the historical roots. I don’t think it is necessary to trawl through each and every part of history to garner a flavour, but some historical context provides the aperitif for the more recent innovations.

With Rolex, knowing what was “the beginning” is harder than it seems. I am going to start at 1910, five years after the company Wilsdorf & Davis Ltd was born. In 1910, Rolex sent their movement to the School of Horology in Switzerland where their watch was awarded the world’s first chronometer rating. This was followed in 1914 by a Class “A” Certificate of Precision from the British Kew Observatory. Again, this was a first. These tests of accuracy were performed under varying conditions of stress. Wilsdorf decided that this Certificate of Accuracy was going to be something that every single Rolex would have. Sometimes a watch manufacturer loses its way. One can think of many examples where this has happened. But, I would argue that the success that Rolex has today stems from never truly having departed from the key principles laid down by Hans Wilsdorf back in 1910. The word Rolex was to be synonymous with reliability. In terms of innovations, I would argue that these accuracy tests laid the foundation for pretty much everything that Rolex was to become.

Building on this success, Rolex went on to introduce a number of crucial horological innovations. The first self-winding watch was offered to the public by Rolex in 1931. Some say it was never released until 1933, but if we say between 1931-33 we can be safe. The Bubbleback. What was this innovation really about? Well, not needing to wind the watch manually removed the risk of forgetting to wind it. For an explorer, or diver, one can see how such a complication will have been so useful. Of many complications that a modern watch has today, I find the automatic function one of my favourites. I have heard many people argue than the action of manually winding their watch provides great pleasure. Of course, I can see that, but equally the marvel of translating potential energy of body movement into powering a watch is similarly a wonder. This innovation also allowed the power to the mainspring to be kept more consistent, thereby allowing more reliable time-keeping. Reliability. Accuracy. Pragmatism.

Actually, I have slightly jumped the gun. Before the self-winding innovation was introduced, Rolex had also introduced the world’s first waterproof watch. The original idea was born in 1908, by Hans Wilsdorf himself. But it took a lot of testing before it became reality. The development of the screw crown and the Oyster case was pivotal to this innovation. Around 1926 the watch was available to the public. On October 1927, Mercedes Gleitze swam the English Channel wearing the first waterproof wristwatch. It proved reliable, tough and accurate through the process. Rolex went on to augment its technical innovation, becoming the first manufacturer to waterproof a watch to a depth of 100m (1953). Innovation followed innovation.

Courtey of Rolex

Courtey of Rolex

It is, perhaps, the arena of diving where Rolex is most well-known. As mentioned, Rolex pioneered the waterproof watch, and then went on to make it more and more waterproof. In an effort to demonstrate how Rolex wanted to be seen as pushing the envelope on reliability under stress, Wilsdorf had a Rolex specially manufactured and subsequently attached to the side of the Trieste Bathyscape, the vessel that went to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Jacques Piccard telegram-ed Wilsdorf following the successful dive;

"Am happy to confirm that even at 11,000 meters your watch is as precise as on the surface. Best regards, Jacques Piccard".

Again, Rolex continued to build upon such technical innovation. The Oyster Perpetual Sea Dweller 2000 was released in 1971. This watch featured a helium release valve to release helium gas build-up during decompression. Although it does not perhaps get enormous attention, the helium valve innovation was a major breakthrough for commercial divers. 

Courtesy of me!

Courtesy of me!

But expertise in water was not the core of Rolex. It is the issue of reliability under varying stresses that is the DNA, in my view.

Whizzing back somewhat in time, the 1950s was a period of intense innovation for Rolex. The GMT Master 6542 was the first watch to show two time zones at once (1954). This, of course, was made famous by the use of the watch by Pan-Am pilots who needed to be able to view two time zones simultaneously. It is certainly true on this forum that the GMTs are probably the most loved reference of both modern and vintage collectors. Who can resist the GMT? It still has the same DNA as it did in the 1950s. It is also true that other manufacturers have developed more sophisticated and complicated ways of displaying multiple time zones, but Rolex has retained its principles of performing simple tasks with straightforward simplicity and reliability. 

Courtesy of Nicolas

Courtesy of Nicolas

A common theme runs through many, if not all of these horological landmarks. Sometimes it is the simple things that make such a difference. This leads me neatly into the current era. As technology has advanced, so the potential complications in a watch have risen exponentially. Soon, there will be a watch that can wash the dishes too. I feel fairly certain that Rolex will not be a pioneer in that direction. Where Rolex will be a pioneer is in its core competences; reliability, accuracy, and performance under pressure. It is worth looking at some of the recent patents and innovations from Rolex.

A watch is only as accurate as its oscillator is regular. Conventional oscillator hairspings are typically made of ferromagnetic alloy, which leaves them exposed to magnetic fields and shocks. After 5 years of researching the phenomenon, Rolex invented the blue Parachrom hairspring. According to Rolex…”Crafted from a new paramagnetic alloy, this hairspring is unaffected by magnetic fields and remains up to 10 times more precise in the event of shocks.” The Paraflex system that is adopted in many Rolexes aims to create a form of shock absorption that limits the impact of shocks substantially.

Courtesy of Rolex

Courtesy of Rolex

Innovation, however, can take place not just inside the watch case. Take the Submariner transition from 16800 to 168000 in 1980s. To look at these two watches, they appear identical. There is only one difference really, and that is the new type of steel used in the latter model. What makes the Submariner  168000 special is the fact that it was this reference that introduced the use of steel 904L instead of steel 316L that was used before. Why the change? It is all about attention to detail.

How did Rolex notice that a new steel was needed? Rolex discovered that watches that had been taken in the sea sometimes had water trapped in some of the caseback threading. Sitting in these threads for years (presumably between services), the chemicals in the water caused a reaction with the 316L steel….causing corrosion and pitting. Rolex tested the steel and found that it was susceptible to certain types of corrosion.

With the 168000, Rolex moved to 904L, a steel with a different composition – containing more nickel and chromium. Furthermore, 904L is also more resistant to chloride. Since it would be expected that a Submariner would be used in the sea, switching to a steel that was especially resistant to the chloride in the sea seemed straightforward. But actually, it is far from straightforward.

904L stainless steel is harder and much less easy to machine than the typical steels used in most watches. As a result, Rolex needed to redesign all of the tools used in the steel as well as deploy machinery that could machine the harder steel. The 904L is more resistant to rust, corrosion and pitting. Its brush-finish (which also requires unique tools) is also very resistant to scratches. Many watch manufacturers take pride in being responsible for 100% of the manufacturing of their in-house movements. Rolex deals with its steel issues by operating its own foundry, developing its own tools, and using materials which set it apart because going the extra mile on reliability is what Rolex are aiming for.

Another very recent innovation has been the ceramic bezel. The Cerachrom bezel is made from an extremely hard ceramic material. It is essentially scratchproof and its colour is unaffected by ultraviolet rays. To inscribe the numerals and graduations in such a hard material, Rolex developed and patented a unique process. To quote Rolex…..”The numerals and graduations are engraved or moulded before the ceramic is hardened in an oven at 1500 degrees celsius. Then, the Cerachrom bezel is entirely covered with either gold or platinum, atom by atom, and polished until only the precious metal in the numerals and graduations remains, permanently. It takes 40 hours to produce a ceramic bezel."

Courtesy of Rolex

Courtesy of Rolex

The idea that Rolex is falling behind other manufacturers in terms of innovation seems to be a criticism that is commonplace. I think it is an unfair criticism. One can quite simply locate the patent application pages for Rolex applications to see just how active Rolex have been. If anyone wants that, just PM me. Over the last 12 months, I can see no less than eleven new patent applications, ranging from an optimised balance wheel assembly, an articulated bracelet design through to atomic oscillators.

What Rolex do is very much under the hood. Ok, I admit that I would love Rolex to bring out a new watch that was paying tribute to its history. A PN Daytona. A Red Sub. Hey, maybe even a tribute to its very early Subs. Yes, that would be fun and would surely be a great hit commercially. However, what I really love about Rolex is simple. It is that every time I put on a Rolex, whether it is my 60 year old 6610 Explorer 1 or my essentially new Milgauss GV, I know I am putting on a watch that has been over-engineered for reliability and durability. Accuracy. Ability to withstand all sorts of environments. It is no wonder the watch was used by the British SAS. It is the SAS of the watch world. 

Of course, I am going to be biased. I moderate the Rolex forum....what else am I going to be than a big fan of Rolex. I will say that there is plenty that I don't like too, and maybe that will form the basis of another article. But, right now, I think it is fair to focus on what Rolex do so well. 

This message has been edited by Baron on 2013-05-13 07:40:48 This message has been edited by Baron on 2013-05-13 08:30:35

More posts: 150016801680016800065426610DaytonaExplorerGMT MasterMilgaussOyster PerpetualOyster Perpetual DateRed SubSea DwellerSubmarinerSubmariner Date

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Comments: view entire thread


Brilliant article, Joe.

 By: amanico : May 13th, 2013-08:25
This is a good pleading for Rolex. You mentionned all what we sue to read about and against Rlex, but it was fair- and necessary- to recal all whar rolex did and still does, for watchlovers. Cirticism is good, too, and there will be also a lot to say abou... 

The car door analogy....

 By: Baron - Mr Red : May 13th, 2013-08:46
.....it is exactly spot on. Reminds me of a joke I know. A man discovers a leaking pipe in his attic. He calls a plumber. The plumber takes his hammer and taps the pipe in several places. Then, on the fourth tap he says the problem is fixed. He charges £1... 

very detailed, thanks!

 By: Mystiqz : May 13th, 2013-08:36
Thank you very much for the thoroughness. I love reading about the history of these watch companies. I learned a great deal from your article and that much more educated =D Greatly appreciate it.

Solid improvements...

 By: patrick_y : May 13th, 2013-11:24
A few low key, but solid improvements over the years equate to a solid watch. Good job Rolex, and I know that Rolex is the definitive watch for someone who needs pure reliability and dependability. Great watch! No matter what!

Good article Joe! Reliability and robustness are the two key for me....

 By: DivingT : May 13th, 2013-12:05
....my 16600 has been my chosen watch for technical diving since I got it, and has but up with a lot of abuse! Made for the job, the ultimate tool watch for me! Of course, my 2 vintage are treated with kid gloves, but I'm pretty sure the 1680 (given the a... 

Very interesting article with a lot of great information

 By: Ed. W : May 13th, 2013-12:29
The one thing I've struggled to understand is their use of a jeweled post instead of ball bearings for the majority of their simple (non-daytona/sky dweller/yatch master II) movements which is widely known to result in main plate wear from the rotor (I've... 

What can i say?

 By: gensiulia : May 13th, 2013-13:05
SAStonishing reading! i can say i love lot of maisons as some of you guys, but every time I go out without Rolex I can't wait the day after. They are not the most accurate...nor the most complicated, most likely not even the most beautiful... but when I h... 

Great essay

 By: Bill : May 13th, 2013-13:28
Rolex is really focused of delivering a carefree experience to last a life time literally. When I think back on wear just one watch for more than fifteen years in the shower, in the sea never taking it off and I expected it to work. Actually i did not rea... 

Fantastic post...

 By: Andy : May 13th, 2013-14:00
I think a lot of people don't realise how many ground breaking innovations Rolex have done over the years that we take for granted. Probably why I have 3.... if I want something stylish, bullet proof and dependable it's out with a Rolex every time. Yours,... 

What a nice instructive thread!

 By: Fricks : May 13th, 2013-14:35
did you spend your week end on it or what? Loved how you started from the vintage and got to the modern. This whole world is growing more and more on me. Reminds me of someone i know that has all kind of watches and still pride himself of his 30 year old ... 

Agreed. However, the pivots...

 By: Ophiuchus : May 13th, 2013-15:14
in a Rolex are chemically hardened, instead of fully heat hardened. To me, that smacks of cheapness. Patek fully heat hardens their pivots, why not Rolex? Is there a reason for it chronometrically? I cannot find one. Agreed with the rest of your comments ... 

Thank you

 By: Le Monde Edmond : May 13th, 2013-16:18
For the informative post! Yes indeed. Reliable, accurate, tough. Rolex will stand the test of time long after we are gone if they stick to their DNA. Very generous of Nicolas to lend you his 6542 (which he loves dearly) for this post ;) Best Edmond


 By: Mally : May 13th, 2013-22:44
A very apt & well written article. Best Mally

Great article !

 By: DrStrong : May 14th, 2013-03:40
to me, it's all summarized in that old ad ...  

Interesting that nobody contests the idea that ...

 By: Baron - Mr Red : May 14th, 2013-06:05
...Rolex invented the Adventurer's Watch


 By: gensiulia : May 14th, 2013-09:14
100% agree!

The only watch

 By: beejo : May 14th, 2013-07:51
That i can wear for months if not years without getting bored of it

its like that solid clunk of quality...

 By: Baron - Mr Red : May 14th, 2013-08:17
.....hard to get bored of quality!

Lovely post :-)))

 By: Mr.Gatsby : May 14th, 2013-08:10
I just love my Rolexs more now !

That you love your Rolex more...

 By: Baron - Mr Red : May 14th, 2013-08:18
....makes the article worth writing in itself!

What a great article dear Baron! I enjoyed reading it ...

 By: Subexplorer : May 14th, 2013-08:57
... so much! You know, I have been loving these watches since I was almost a child. My late father loved them, and hearing him talking about these watches, when I was a 10 year old lad in the late 50´s convinced me I was going to own one some day. The day... 


 By: Baron - Mr Red : May 14th, 2013-09:05
.....really kind words from you and great emotion on your watches. It is so clear how much they mean to you. And so good that you share those feelings here. Regards Joe

Thank you dear Joe for your comment...

 By: Subexplorer : May 15th, 2013-07:59
... it is true, there is a lot of passion, nostalgia, and love with this brand and for many years now. I´m happy to be able to share these feelings here, with my friends. All the best, Abel.

Excellent Article, just one correction

 By: aaronm : May 14th, 2013-14:45
Rolex wasn't the first automatic wristwatch on the market, Harwood had been selling them, possibly under other brands as well, since the mid 1920s (I know the date on the patent is 1923, when the first ones hit the market I don't know) A

On your correction...

 By: Baron - Mr Red : May 15th, 2013-01:13
I agree and disagree. Harwood's self-winding patent used a winding-weight that banged hard against its buffers. This was an extremely destructive technique that inevitably led to the movement failing. A few thousand watches were made but were not really a... 


 By: aaronm : May 15th, 2013-10:33
I've not played with any of the original Harwoods to judge so I'll defer to you on that. On the other hand, though, putting that caveat (reliable, or workable) in the article would have made that clear, versus "The first self-winding watch was offered to ... 

Great watch company..

 By: fernando : May 14th, 2013-17:37
that has my respect and admiration. A must have watch in any collection. Thanks for reminding us Baron. Too bad its not a public listed company, otherwise it would definitely go into my stock portfolio as a long term "investment". :) cheers fernando

Excellent read.

 By: VMM : May 15th, 2013-01:17
Rolex = quality. Long live the King. :) Thanks for sharing. vte

Hi Baron, your report is spot on...

 By: elliot55 : May 15th, 2013-15:10
... and as a guy that has a whole boatload of watches, majors and independents alike, there's one thing I know for sure: If the defecation was hitting the oscillation, I'm grabbing for my Rolex GMT. Period. End of story. - Scott

Thanks Joe for reminding me.............

 By: Topcat30093 : May 17th, 2013-00:28
Why I own and wear a Rolex. As a child I used to dream of one day owning one and that dream was fulfilled in the mid 80's when I bought my first S/S Submariner. Now 30 years later and after many different types of Rolex watches as well as other brands, wh... 

Sometimes it is good to stand back...

 By: Baron - Mr Red : May 17th, 2013-03:22
....and remind oneself what it is that one likes. When I look at other areas of my life...from the car i drive to the job I do....i see similar traits of behaviour. What ticks my box in Rolex seems to tick my box in many areas of life. I guess that makes ...