More than once over the past year, I wrote about the first versions of iconic Swiss tool watches such as the Rolex Explorer 1 and Explorer 2. When they first came out, these two models were rugged tool watches designed for explorers, speleologists, and curious mountaineers. However, over a period of a few decades, they have become luxurious pieces of horology. Stainless steel made way for dual tone cases with gold, the surrounds of the applied markers opted for precious metals, and the dials switched from matte to glossy lacquer. All of these changes, regardless of inflation, means that these watches have become more expensive to buy. The same can be said, as we will see below, of Omega, Blancpain, and other big brand houses. How come? What can we do?
When Rolex Used to Make Watches for Real People
I may have mentioned this before, but did you know that the first Rolex Submariner, released in 1953, retailed for roughly $1,250 in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation? Now a Submariner retails for $10,000. Yes, everything costs more today than it did in 1953, including materials, salaries, and property taxes. However, perhaps we can agree that there is a massive price jump to make in order to acquire the quintessential Swiss diver in 2023. The higher asking price is not just because things cost more today, but it's mainly due to how luxurious the Submariner has become. But back in 1953, Rolex made the Submariner for professional divers just like they made the Explorer 1 for mountaineers, and the Explorer 2 for speleologists.
If you look at the first Explorer 1 ref. 6350, released in 1953 (the 6350 is the first model bearing the name “Explorer” on the dial, not the first Explorer 1 as accepted by a large swatch of the watch community,), it was a tool watch through and through. A matte black dial, painted hour markers with the legendary 3-6-9 dial configuration, fencepost hour and minute hands; in other words, a very legible dial. The case was made of stainless steel, so was the bracelet, and the movement inside was a robust caliber which didn’t come, however, with today’s fancy technologies. This shouldn’t mean brands cannot improve the reliability of their movements, but adding certain features does tend to increase the retail price of a watch.
Rolex Tool Watches Today: Solid but Expensive
For a meager $10,000 (yes, I’m being sarcastic here) you can get a Rolex Submariner with applied markers complete with white gold surrounds, a lacquered dial that shines so much that you can see your reflection in it, a ceramic bezel produced in-house by Rolex with proprietary materials, a case and bracelet made of stainless steel that Rolex melts in-house, and calibers which come with no less than 10 patents for accuracy, shock resistance, and protection against magnetism, in addition to meeting Rolex’s internal strict requirements to be Superlative Chronometer certified. Yes, all of this is amazing if you have $10,000 lying around and the patience of a Buddhist Monk to get your name on the waitlist for a Submariner or say, a two tone Explorer 1.
With that said, where can we now get solid tool watches? We need to turn to the micro and independent watch market.
Quality Modern Tool Watches with Reasonable Price Tags
If you and I can’t buy a Rolex Submariner or Explorer 1 because we can’t afford them, we should still be able to buy quality tool watches at comparatively reasonable prices. This is when the micro and independent watch market comes into play. There we can find well-made tool watches at various prices, however if you want something that would compete with a 1990s Rolex or Omega in terms of quality and price ratio, then you must look at a brand like MONTA. The latter offers the possibility to wear a quality Swiss made tool watch that looks like no other, is equipped with a solid movement, and is endowed with superior quality and finish for under $2,000. Yes, spending this much can be difficult for some, however I feel MONTA offers the perfect offering for quality tool watches.
If you have a smaller budget, do not worry: there are many other options out there. Because at the end of the day, quality doesn’t have to rhyme with luxury, and if you are like me and prefer well-made tool watches that look the part, then you probably will turn towards the independent watch market. A 1953 Submariner retailed for the equivalent of $1,250 because it was a high-end product, however it was a purpose-driven tool watch made for actual adventures, not for those who perhaps prefer the idea of owning a Rolex or of adventure which, in reality, wouldn’t wear a $10,000 Submariner to go dive next summer.
I wanted to write this article to share my disbelief as to how expensive Swiss made tool watches have become. Although a lot goes into making a Submariner or Explorer 1, a small part of me feels they don’t have to be that expensive. And perhaps I’m totally wrong about this, and to bring a different perspective, I would refer you to Skyler’s article discussing why Rolex watches are so expensive. In a nutshell, I wish we could still acquire a brand new Submariner for less money, a version that would be made with more humble materials and technology, and although Tudor makes more affordable tool watches, they still remain out of reach for many watch enthusiasts. This is why, once again, we need to turn to the micro and independent watch market for better options.Featured image: www.watchesofwales.co.uk