Rolex is the best known watch brand in the world. Recognition of some of their most famous models such as the Submariner, the Day-Date and the Daytona are global. But what of Montres Rolex SA the company? Of that much less is known. Its founder German born Hans Wilsdorf left Rolex in the care of a trust when he died in 1960. It’s divided into two family trusts, there are no stockholders, profits are divided between the founding families, the firm and the rest goes to charitable causes focusing on high school education and the training of watchmakers. There is a CEO, but it is not owned by any one individual. Except for key executive insiders, little is known on how management reports to the Trust.
Rolex’s secretive, quietly confidential nature is actively encouraged by those who run the famous watch brand. Understandably no photography is allowed in any Rolex building, and all employees carry ID cards that are rigorously and regularly checked. Shipments of Rolex watches are conducted with military levels of security, because a Rolex really is as good as gold around the world.
Rolex take the words ‘private company’ very seriously, and, unlike most watch brands who like to bolster the support of watch journalists and bloggers to garner publicity for their new models, Rolex seeks the help of only a small coterie of hand- picked journalists to spread the word – the controlled word – about new models and events. Should you apply to Rolex to get on their mailing list, in some cases even for basic press releases, the chances are you will be politely refused.
In an age where social media has opened up a direct dialogue between companies and customers, Rolex has been slow and reluctant to jump on the band wagon. And while there is a Facebook page for Rolex, do not expect to be able to join in a two way dialogue with the company. They just want to tell their story their way, and not allow Facebook to become a comment fest free for all. They want you to lust after their watches, but it seems they don’t want to talk to you.
While it wasn’t always the case, in the modern era Rolex doesn’t need anyone’s help to promote itself. It’s the only watch company to figure in Business Week’s 100 most successful global brands. The cult of secrecy and the dark cloak of confidentiality do not shed any light on how much money the company or the Trust makes, but it is rumored that even if they did not sell another watch for years to come, they could continue to operate with a full retinue of staff, exactly as they do today.
In their own words, Rolex enjoys an unrivalled reputation throughout the world for quality and precision in luxury watchmaking. That in itself is an extremely precise sentence. It wasn’t simply written on the back of an envelope. It probably took weeks of rewrites and board approvals to arrive at this statement.
When pressed, the company will repeatedly point to the high quality and the technical superiority of its products as the reason for its global fame, but it does not come any closer to understanding Rolex the company.
If you go searching for Rolex History (DreamChrono: Rolex Brand History Infographic), you will find only what the company wants to tell you, there are few archives, and there is no Rolex museum. It’s as if the company has taken its cue from Swiss banks, who will never comment on who may or may not be a client.
But is quality and excellence the reason for Rolex’s undoubted pre-eminence? There is no doubt that the company has spent a vast fortune in ensuring their products are of the highest possible quality. Their research labs rival the world’s largest pharmaceutical or automotive companies, and just about everything, from the super strength 904L steel for their watch cases, to the special Everose gold which doesn’t scratch or lose its sheen, is made 100% in house. No other watchmaker has the capability to make this industrial strength steel in such large quantities.
An advertisement which ran many years ago claimed that it takes a year to make one Rolex watch. This in itself was a little secret that Rolex decided to let slip for its own publicity purposes. 800,000 to a million Rolex watches are being made in any one year, but apparently it is true that due to the incredibly stringent tests and the high level of handmade content that goes into the making of each individual watch, it takes around one year for a Rolex to finally roll off the production line fully signed, sealed tested and approved.
For large state of the art facilities, for manpower, R&D resources and overall in-house capabilities, no other watchmaking brand comes close. In fact Rolex’s obsession for improving quality, refining techniques, and developing better materials so as to increase quality and productivity is second only to its passion for watches.
It’s impressive, but it’s only part of the Rolex success story. Sometimes a little luck and marketing know-how can help to elevate a brand beyond its rivals. In terms of luck, Rolex just happened to be in the right place in the right era when the biggest consumer boom in a century occurred following World War II. As the American economy improved, middle class consumers wanted what Rolex was pitching – accessible luxury. Their strategy was exactly right; Rolex stuck to making the best quality watches they knew how and did not diversify. It’s still the same stance they adopt to this day. Ford make Fords, Coke makes Coke, Rolex makes Rolex.
Rolex was one of the first to create ambitious advertising campaigns that did not so much focus on the watch but on the individual who wore the watch. This created a powerful association with the brand as being for rugged, adventurous individuals, and even if you are in reality stuck behind a desk all day, or a commuter whose day is ruled by the train timetable, the Rolex on your wrist somehow lends an aura of borrowed success.
Throughout the early decades following WWII, Rolex ensured that a string of American presidents, including Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon, and a string of other world leaders such as German chancellors Adenauer and Kiesinger, British prime ministers, Churchill, Eden and Heath, and French president, Charles de Gaulle, all wore Rolex. Even the Japanese Emperor wore a Rolex.
While many watch companies went out of business during the quartz crisis of the late 70s to mid-80s, Rolex remained unaffected. As a matter of fact the number of COSC certified chronometers awarded to the company continued to climb to the extent that by 1990 over 90% of them were being awarded to Rolex.
Today Rolex is still a monolithic organisation. But it is by no means the only player in the accessible luxury market, in fact it’s a crowded and highly competitive piece of turf.
Rolex is surrounded by large and powerful players such as the Swatch Group and the Richemont Group, who between them own just about every watch brand you have heard of, and a few you probably haven’t. They too have adopted Rolex’s philosophy of bringing everything in-house. And then there’s Hublot. Hublot has just joined another giant distribution group, LVMH, the name behind Louis Vuitton, Moet Hennessy and more luxury brands than you could squeeze into Harrods. Hublot is rapidly becoming the new generation Rolex, reflecting modern individuality in the form of football, motor racing and rock celebrity.
Unlike Rolex, Hublot has an open dialogue with just about anyone fan who wants to get in touch. The brand’s two Twitter accounts say a lot about how the two watch companies promote themselves. Rolex’s tweets are only for approved and invited followers. Hublot, is a 24/7 open forum. Is it time Rolex became a little less reclusive and more inclusive?
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