Rolex. A watch company with a short name, known to all. Big and small. Rolex is never far from the top of the world’s strongest brands. Aside from selling high-end watches, Rolex also supports sports, culture, education and architecture.
But that is about as much as we know of Rolex: it was founded in 1905, and is owned by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, named for the founder of the famous watch brand. And because Rolex is owned by a foundation they do not have to reveal any commercial details, such as annual production, turn-over, or profits, so while Rolex enjoys the status of the best known watch brand in the world, they are also famous for their tight lips.
We know the watches from Rolex are popular. Ask anybody if they would like to own a DateJust, Submariner or Daytona and their pupils will widen. But we do not know precisely how these watches are made behind the green facades of the four production premises owned by Rolex as only very, very few people are allowed inside.
An unexpected invitation
This is why I was absolutely thrilled and delighted to receive a personal invitation from Rolex, of course delivered by courier, to get a rare look inside the otherwise impenetrable fortress that I have only passed but never entered during my 14 years of writing about the horological industry.
I must confess my first thought was whether times were turning for Rolex. Were sales down? Had Roger Federer decided they could no longer sponsor Wimbledon? Were the otherwise so dominant brand loosing market share somewhere in the world and in so dire straits they needed help from, well, from me? Lots of conspiracy theories came to mind and I decided to ask Stig Andersen, MD of Klarlund, one of the largest Scandinavian Rolex retailers, if he could sense any bad vibes.
The retailer’s view
– We could easily be selling only Rolex from our two outlets, Stig Andersen immediately reassured me when I asked how Rolex is doing.
– Rolex is the only brand you can actually grow with. Many other watch brands go through the roof at some point, almost suffocating in their own success. Rolex is not like that. Since 2008 our Rolex sales have tripled and represent 50 per cent of our annual turn-over. This is unique and we have not seen a trajectory like this with any of our other brands, Andersen says.
Andersen’s delight with Rolex is obvious but even he must be wondering why Rolex recently employed their third new CEO in only six years, former Zenith CEO, Jean-Frédéric Dufour, considering Rolex has had only two CEO´s after the death of the founder in 1960, Andre Heiniger and his son Patrick Heiniger.
– I welcome Dufour. It may seem like something is not right in the Rolex management, but you must remember that Rolex is made on innovation and perfection in production as well as marketing and it can be hard to maintain this if no new blood is added. Also it is the Rolex board of directors that decides what is done but the markets that decide in the end, Andersen claims.
Thus reassured, and still abuzz with excitement, I packed my gear and went to Geneva, sans camera as photography sadly is prohibited inside the Rolex facilities.
Sitting on the bus from my hotel in Geneva en route to the Rolex head quarters in Acacias, I asked the press officer why we – a small group of only five International journalists from the UK, Switzerland and Benelux – all of sudden were invited to get a look behind the green facades in Geneva and Bienne the answer was as surprising as it was flattering:
– You are carefully chosen. We have been following your work for many years and you represent important markets for Rolex. And times are changing. So we change a bit too.
I asked who had visited before us and the answer was:
– Nobody. You are the first. And only a small group from Singapore will visit later this year.
Everybody should experience what I felt then. Special. Chosen even. And in many ways ready for a milestone in my life, ready to go behind the curtain and see first hand the mysteries and romance that had buzzed in my head since I saw the first Rolex advert in National Geographic in 1976 and from that moment on became a passionate lover of everything horology, Rolex especially. Indiana Jones visiting Pankot Palace had nothing on me that day.
No need to communicate
But doesn’t it seems odd to only invite a tiny handful of journalists to see how a Rolex is made if you have a story to tell. Why not share the background of your success more widely? Chairman of Rolex Bertrand Gros did hint at the traditional thought process a little bit when the influential Swiss newspaper Le Temps interviewed him in June 2014:
“2013 was another record financial year for Rolex. Such a performance has never been recorded by our brand before. It is historic. Our Chief Executive will also be pleased to be able to speak about the outlook for 2014, which is extremely encouraging. Mainly because our new products were very favourably received at the last Baselworld fair. But there is no reason to go into such information in detail; that is reserved exclusively for our shareholder. And in any case, at Rolex we are not in the habit of shouting our triumphs from the rooftops.”
It is not only the results that are not communicated from Rolex. During our visit at the HQ in Acacais that also houses the workshop that undertakes the very last controls, before the watches leave the company, we saw how the fully assembled watches are tested for precision better than the COSC-specifications of -4/+6 seconds daily.
Rolex will not disclose precisely what goes on in their final precision testing except that they test for higher level precision than what is expected by Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres.
– We don’t really feel the need to communicate this, is the answer to my question on why they do not share this rather important information.
– We don’t feel the pressure to communicate everything we do, we are told.
– Other watch brands are very affected by the competition and are very interested in what other companies do. We are not like that.
In other words Rolex enjoys an aura of secrecy and even though we are invited inside the mystic palace of watch making, we often are met with “this is the Rolex way” as the answer to our many questions.
More hands than machines
The two-day press trip that took us to all four of the Rolex production premises made me completely re-evaluate my perception of Rolex. I had always had the impression that Rolex was all about endless rows of robots and machines, floors as big a football fields of CNC machines working 24 hours, seven days a week. I imagined a conveyor belt from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times spitting out fully assembled watches while a single person kept an eye on this endless stream of super industrialized watch production.
I did see a lot of machines, not least the specially made Rolex machines that tests the DeepSea water resistance to 12 000 meters. I also saw a robot working in a disturbingly human way. I saw chemical workshops where new materials are tested, underground Matrix-like storage lines that offers a ground breaking logistics, the foundry where precious metals are melted and the specially made machine which fusion the materials used in the Parachrom balance wheel.
But instead of only seeing machines, we saw workshops with endless rows of (mostly female) staffers applying watch hands and hour markers to the dial, assembling and finishing cases as well as bracelets.
Movements were of course assembled by hand and a crowded workshop made sure that Daytonas, Submariners, Sky-Dwellers, DateJusts etc. will tick in decades to come due to the highly experienced craftsmanship and know-how.
We visited a gemmologist workshop where x-rays of precious stones were taken to validate their authenticity. Sapphires, rubies and diamonds are the preferred precious stones used by Rolex and carefully set on dials, bezels and bracelets by skilled hands.
When assembling such details to a watch, the human hand is valued more than any machine. As our attentive guide often explained, machines do not understand the aesthetics that can be applied only by a person.
The Rolex Way
Rolex recently launched a new advertising campaign promoting “The Rolex Way”. A campaign conveying a message of challenging conformity as well as recent faddishness of watch making, emphasizing the more traditional Rolex way.
And that message certainly cannot be denied. Rolex is not like “the others”. They do everything their own way, at their own speed and without looking over their shoulder. But it is a pity that only very few journalists are able to experience this themselves and get that unique insight of the greatest watch brand of the world.
When I asked what the weakest part of the Rolex Way might be, the answer was:
– It must be the way we prepare our tomatoes. This, mind you, after a very nice lunch where the tomatoes were perfectly prepared. The Rolex team is obviously neither shy nor unsure about their superiority.
The Swiss monarchy
The visit to Rolex gave me a unique look behind the production facilities I have dreamed about on so many occasions wondering what really went on behind the green windows. But many of my questions never got a straight answer. Often they were answered with a smile and the “We do it the Rolex way”. And then it occurred to me that Rolex really gets it. That their secret is their secrecy.
As Howard Schultz said, “Starbucks doesn’t sell coffee. Starbucks sells romance and theatre”. Rolex offers a large dollop of both. But when all is said and done it can’t all be showmanship; you must deliver attractive designs and exceptional precision. And this is why Rolex is King of Watchmaking. They even have a crown to prove it
Av: Kristian Haagen