By Matthew Baxter-Priest
What does it take to wear the crown? CEO Middle East was given rare access to the inner workings of horology goliaths Rolex, to find out
No brand is as synonymous with the world of watchmaking as Rolex. It is one of the few watches manufacturers that has two completely separate strengths – an incredible history of innovation, and peerless manufacturing capabilities. Today, they go hand in hand, which is why Rolex produces and sells approximately one million timepieces a year.
For many business-minded people, the idea of spending AED30,000 on a watch is an extravagance – granted, it is an extravagance that sees approximately 2,000 Rolex sold globally every day.
Such is the prowess of the brand that not only does it reign supreme as the clear market leader in Swiss watchmaking, but last month it cut the ribbon on its brand new flagship boutique at the new Fashion Avenue extension at The Dubai Mall. Thanks to its long standing, 60-year partnership with Dubai-based distributors Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons, the enormous three-storey boutique is the brand’s largest in the world.
So what is it that makes those pieces with the little gold crown so much more desirable than other watch brands? To truly appreciate the value of Rolex, you must first understand the scale and the almost fanatical devotion to quality that goes on behind the closed doors of its factories in Geneva.
Unlike most Swiss watch manufacturers, Rolex is a fully vertically-integrated manufacturer – meaning that every part of its product is made in-house (except for a few micro screws). From the ceramic bezels and each individual part of its bracelets, to the hairspring and even the grease used to lubricate the movement. It even makes its own gold.
Yes, Rolex makes its own gold. While they have a small handful of suppliers that send them steel (Rolex still works the steel in-house to make all the parts), all the gold and platinum is made in-house. The 24-karat gold comes into Rolex and it is turned into 18-karat yellow, white, or Rolex’s Everose gold (its non-fading version of 18-karat rose gold) before being used specifically for its pieces.
Large kilns under hot flames are used to melt and mix the metals which are then turned into cases and bracelets. Because Rolex controls the production and machining of its gold, it is able to strictly ensure not only quality, but the best looking parts. Rolex is the only watch manufacture that makes its own gold or even has a real foundry in-house.
This gigantic watchmaking operation takes place across four separate sites. The beating heart of the watch (the movement) is created in the northern Swiss town of Bienne; the dials, cases and bracelets at factories in Geneva suburbs of Chêne-Bourg and Plan-les-Ouates, before the final assembly is done at the global headquarters in Acacias, central Geneva.
The scale that Rolex operates on is incomparable in the watch industry. Due to a seismic decision made by then-CEO Patrick Heiniger, in the 1990s the company radically changed its structure, making the strategic choice bring all the elements of watchmaking under its roof. The bold vertical integration plan saw it purchase its principle suppliers that would equip it with unrivalled industrial facilities in which watchmakers, engineers, designers and other specialists could work in close collaboration in the design and manufacture of the watches.
This step was accompanied by a decision to group all of its activities in Geneva and Bienne on four industrial sites specifically built or remodelled for the purpose. Impressive in size, these sites are technological watchmaking gems. Rolex thus ensured control over the production of all the main components of its watches – movement, case, bracelet and dials – while at the same times giving itself the means to take its quality even further, thanks to exclusive equipment.
Each site combines flawless operations involving quality human craftsmanship as well as continuously cutting-edge technology – hallmarks of the brand since its inception.
As synonymous as Rolex is with Swiss watches today, its founder Hans Wilsdorf was actually born in Bavaria, Germany, before he began his career in watchmaking in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in the early 1900s. In an era when pocket watches were the order of the day, he was quick to see the potential of the wristwatch for the 20th century, despite their not yet being very precise and being generally considered to be items of jewellery of particular appeal to women.
Evidence of Wilsdorf’s calculated, entrepreneurial mindset is evident in two key decisions he made early on: foreseeing that the wristwatch was destined to become an everyday necessity provided that it was precise, waterproof, robust and reliable; and in 1920 calling his company Montres Rolex SA. With global aspirations, the name Rolex was chosen because it was short, easy to pronounce in any language, memorable and able to be inscribed elegantly on a watch dial.
That mindset still runs through the veins of Rolex today. Alongside the development of the world’s first waterproof wristwatch – the Rolex Oyster – in 1926; and creating the Perpetual rotor in 1931 allowing the first wristwatch to have a self-winding mechanism; the company would not only continuously revolutionise watch technology, but also push for near peerless levels of quality.
Today, with a complex network of flying robots, Rolex has the most sophisticated watch making machinery in the world. The robots sort, file, catalogue, and perform only the most delicate procedures that involve the type of care you want a machine to handle. Most of these machines are still human-operated, however. And Rolex movements to bracelets, all are assembled by hand. The machines help with tasks such as applying the right pressure when attaching pins, aligning parts, and pressing down hands. All Rolex watch hands, though, are still set by hand via a trained technician.
In Plan-les-Ouates alone, there are two central vaults comprising 24,000sqm and a 1.5km network of rails travelling throughout the building, allowing an automated delivery system to pick up components from anywhere in the facility and deliver them to the worker within eight minutes.
It is difficult to determine Heiniger’s greatest contribution to Rolex: the mind-blowing integration that allows the in-house creation of every single component, or his focus on the advancement of core watchmaking technology.
The other secret of Rolex’s phenomenal timekeeping is the hairspring. Thinner than a human hair, this spring is attached to the balance wheel, allowing the wheel to oscillate back and forth. Today, 90 percent of Rolex watches feature the company’s patented, in-house blue Parachrom hairspring.
In a dumbfounding process, the company smelts together niobium, zirconium and oxygen in-house and fuses them together at 2,500°C. Then using one foot-long bar of newly made Parachrom, the metal is stretched until it becomes a hair-thin piece of metal 3km long, unaffected by magnetic fields, and ten times more resistant to shock than a normal hairspring.
The company’s desire to innovate still exists today. It’s internal Research & Development department, equipped with professional science labs at its various facilities, doesn’t exist just to research new watches and things that may go into watches, but also to discover more efficient manufacturing techniques. Given that perspective, Rolex is an extremely competent and almost obsessively organised manufacturing company – that happens to make timepieces.
While the mass scale of the manufacturing and the intricate maze of automated delivery machines really contextualises just what makes Rolex unique, realisation comes full circle at the central Geneva location of Acacias – the global headquarters. Donning white coats and walking through dust-proof air-locks, we shuffle into a one of the Controlled Environment Zones, where the air is replaced every couple of hours. Here, 150 uniformly-dressed watchmakers carryout the ‘final assembly’. This is where all the parts are delivered, (with the movements already certified as chronometers by the independent Swiss regulator COSC) and an army of watchmakers attach dials to movements, fix hands to the dials, place movements into cases, attach automatic rotors, screw on case-backs, and register case and calibre serial number before submitting the watches for testing of water-resistance, power reserve and accuracy.
Despite the checks on the watches from external bodies, in 2015 (the year Jean-Frederic Dufour became the sixth CEO), Rolex introduced a new in-house certification for all its watches: the Superlative guarantee. After casing the movement, all watches undergo a series of tests in Acacia’s state-of-the-art facilities to be certified as Superlative Chronometers. The tests check the precision, power reserve, waterproofness and self-winding to the order of -2/+2 seconds per day – more than twice that required of an official chronometer.
Never happy with settling for average, to uphold the legendary waterproof status of the Oyster case, every watch is subjected to two water-resistance tests — one to test the case; the other, the complete watch. The testing is done in the bowels of the headquarters where huge steel tanks artificially replicate pressure at specific depths. What Rolex doesn’t tell people is that every Oyster is tested to ten percent more than its depth rating, and this increases to 25 percent for diving watches such as the Rolex Deepsea and Sea-Dweller 4000.
For many people the idea of spending AED30,000 is maybe an extravagance. However, after crossing the hallowed floors of the four Rolex sites, it is hard not to argue a case to spend even more. Not only do Rolex’s watches tend to hold their value, but the history, mass scale and incorruptible quality of the operation is genuinely awe-inspiring. The landmark decision of the independent company to vertically integrate its manufacturing was a hugely expensive move, but being able to guarantee the finest quality watchmaking at scale is fitting justification to why Rolex continues to wear the crown.