Through times of War and Peace, Rolex Has Kept Time With Style and Precision
Suzanne Rowan Kelleher
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98
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Just as video killed the radio star, the quartz boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s nearly snuffed out the mechanical timepiece faster than you can say "Seiko." By substituting low-cost, digital technology for labor-intensive artisanship, the Japanese sent the Swiss horology industry into crisis mode. Yet while most of Geneva's watch houses feverishly hitched their star to the digital bandwagon, Rolex stuck resolutely to its mechanical guns. By the time the dust had settled, more than half of Geneva's watch manufacturers had gone under. Fully a third of the survivors, including such prestigious names as Omega, Longines, Blancpain, Tissot, Rado, and Hamilton, were subsumed into a publicly owned consortium to avoid bankruptcy. This fate won't befall Rolex. Wilsdorf, an heirless widower at his death, created a private trust run by a board of directors to insure the company would never be sold.
What made Rolex so resilient? "The single most important thing that saved Rolex," says Dowling, "is that up until then the company had only been run by two managing directors: Hans Wilsdorf and André Heiniger. They really never had to worry about this quarter's results. They could think long-term appeal: 'Where will we be in five or ten years' time?' That's a completely different philosophy than at another watch house. Even in times of uncertainty, Rolex's greatest policy was never to adopt change for change's sake." Revealingly, the single quartz model developed by Rolex in the 1970s never exceeded 7 percent of the company's total production. (Today, that figure is 2 percent).
"If Rolex had gone to quartz," says Girdvainis, "there's no way it would have the image and prestige it has now." And being a private company without external shareholders, Rolex can better afford to remain aloof to fads than many of its counterparts. That means no chunky cases, no madcap numerals, no avant-garde shapes--nothing that's going to look dated in a decade's time.
In 1992, Patrick Heiniger replaced his father as Rolex's managing director. Both Heinigers share the twin virtues of undying optimism and ironclad discretion, according to colleagues. It's a combination that generates intrigue among rivals and industry observers. "Actually, I'd call it angst," Girdvainis says, laughing, "because they've always been very secretive at Rolex about what they do and how they do it."
"Oh, hugely secretive," echoes Dowling. "I'm only being partly facetious when I say the only organization that might be comparable is the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints. They were always an outsider company in Switzerland. Their top executives almost never do interviews. Essentially, their philosophy has always been to let the product speak for itself. At Rolex, the product is an obsession."
Consider the care taken to decorate the inside of a Rolex--the parts the wearer never even sees. At the company's Geneva headquarters, Rolex's craftsmen, dressed in white laboratory smocks, pull up to ergonomically designed workstations, then execute minute operations in near silence. Each component of every tiny movement is sculpted with swirls, lines or loops. Every angle is rounded and polished to a brilliant shine. This provides absolutely no value to the consumer, except as a gesture of the brand's refinement.
That Rolex has always produced its own movements separates it from other well-known mechanical brands. More than 200 craftsmen and technicians will work on a watch before it acquires Rolex certification. "There's so much more to a Rolex than the average person will ever need," says Dowling. "And in that sense it's the Mercedes-Benz of wristwatches. It's overengineered. Not because Rolex wants to squander money but because that's just the way they do things."
Before leaving Geneva, every Rolex watch must travel through a high-tech obstacle course of quality-control checks. Every dial, bezel and winder will be checked and double-checked for scratches, dust and aesthetic imperfection. The microscopic distance between its hour and minute hands will be painstakingly calibrated to ascertain that they are lying perfectly parallel. An ominous-looking air-pressure chamber will verify that each watch is waterproof to a depth of 330 feet. (The Submariner and Sea-Dweller divers' models are guaranteed to 1,000 and 4,000 feet, respectively.) And every watch will engage in a precision face-off against an atomic-generated "überclock" that loses but two seconds every 100 years. Only after successfully passing dozens of checkpoints does a watch receive the Rolex seal.
Such attention to detail limits Rolex's production to about 650,000 watches a year, based on industry estimates. "That might sound like a lot," insists Lister of Christie's, "but it's very far below market demand." But, as André Heiniger once said, "We've never wanted to be the biggest, but certainly one of the finest in the field."
Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is a Paris-based freelance writer.
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Paul Altieri — March 12, 2013 9:16pm ET
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