I may be preaching to the choir here but there is a simple explanation as to why Rolex watches retail for several thousands of dollars today. I thought it would be interesting—if not necessary—to take a broad stroke look at this question. I have to admit, though, that for a long time I thought Rolex watches should cost half of what they retail for—especially the sports models. I just came up with this opinion on my own a couple of years back, without really thinking of the “why” of this reasoning. After doing a lot of research, I came up with two main reasons: innovation and materials.
This is not going to be a technical article nor a precise recollection of the brand’s history. You may all know it quite well already anyway. What has been fascinating to me ever since I got into watches is how many innovations Rolex came up with and how much people hate the brand for it. Not that they hate that it has been innovating, but I believe it comes from a certain envy. Rolex has done a wonderful job marketing its accomplishments for the past five decades and it did so for a good reason: they’ve been innovating non-stop. I think that humans typically don’t like to be reminded of other accomplishments.
I spent several weeks reading through a bunch of articles about the history of the brand, from the release of the Submariner to the GMT Master to the Milgauss, and what has made each one of these models unique and relevant within the overall history of horology. To put it simply: Rolex has been making watches for professionals for a very, very long time. The Submariner for underwater explorers, the GMT Master for inter-continental pilots, and the Milgauss for engineers. They designed each watch for a particular purpose, and spec'd out the watches accordingly.
It goes without saying that the Explorer 1 and 2 are equally outstanding watches. The Explorer 1 was made for land explorers while the Explorer 2 for speleologists. And each model, again, was designed and engineered for these very specific purposes. Whichever of these sports models you look at, they have been over-engineered for their intended purpose. I do have a bias towards the Explorer line which has been built to be water-resistant, resistant to magnetism and to shock while looking smart and versatile.
Besides making robust and elegant sports watches available commercially, Rolex has also been developing specific watches to push the boundaries of horological engineering. For example, the Deep Sea Special which can withstand depths of 1,220 meters, which was unheard of at the time. Regardless of who these watches are made for, they are proper tool watches. The fact that Rolex developed the first GMT movement to help pilots track multiple time zones is genius and certainly more useful than a perpetual calendar, however mesmerizing the latter can be.
The other area in which Rolex has been innovating is its use of new materials. And I’m not saying that there is no other brand that has used, for example, gold before. It’s just that Rolex puts gold and numerous versions of it in its sport collections. Using white golds for the marker surrounds and the hands, not only looks stunning but also makes sense from a durability standpoint: gold won’t tarnish unlike stainless steel. And precious metals in general are more resistant to corrosion than steel. So it may sound fancy to put white or rose gold on a Submariner, but from the engineer’s perspective, it makes a lot of sense.
Furthermore, the more Rolex innovates and develops its calibers, the better they become. Rolex has been using composite materials like silicon for their hairsprings for a while to make the movement more resistant to magnetism. The brand also developed its own compound of luminescent paint which, by many accounts, is the best on the market alongside Seiko’s Lumibrite. And you must all know that Rolex melts its own metals, which is equally impressive as Seiko growing its own quartz crystals.
Innovation goes hand-in-hand with the use of better materials, which goes hand-in-hand with price increase. While the first Rolex Submariner released in 1953 retailed for approximately $1,200 in today’s money, it was far from being as water resistant, shock resistant, and long-lasting as a Submariner made in 2022. Many people look at Rolex as a sure value and a surer investment. They do so because Rolex watches do their value because they are robust and will truly last a lifetime. All of this, therefore, comes with a price: just like we cannot expect a Ferrari to cost $30,000, you shouldn’t be surprised that a watch with so much innovations and craftsmanship as a Rolex should cost $1,000.
As I warned you in the introduction, this article was not going to be a technical one. It’s more of a general thought about Rolex watches and why they cost what they cost today. The continuous price increase of Rolex watches can be compared to the fact that higher end independent brands cost way more than $500, the latter being the average price for a watch coming from a reputable independent brand. If we look at the question of Rolex objectively, there is no doubt the brand has been a pioneer in horological innovations since the 1950s if not earlier. In order to remain competitive and to keep innovating, things got to cost more.