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17 May

How Rolex Became The King Of Watches?

Rolex is the first and often the only brand people think of when it comes to luxury watches. Over the years, the brand has firmed its roots so strongly in the global culture that now it represents much more than mere timekeeping tools; it symbolises success, wealth, taste, class, and quality. But like all great things take time, Rolex became the dominant watchmaker through a series of effective and efficient practices. 

What do you think puts Rolex on the global pedestal? Is it powerful branding or Hans Wilsdorf’s visionary strategies? The answer is a collective input of various factors that made Rolex what it is today. 

5 Brilliant Strategies That Made ‘Rolex’ The King Of Watches

1. Innovative Engineering

In 1905, Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis founded a London-based company importing Swiss movements. They fitted them into British cases and sold them to jewellers, who further customised the dials with their own names. Recognising the opportunity and demand in the growing watch market, Wilsdorf conceived and registered the name ‘Rolex’ in 1908. 

Right from the beginning, Wilsdorf sensed the appeal of accurate timekeeping. In 1910, Rolex achieved the milestone of being the first wristwatch to get the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, approved by the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne, Switzerland. This created a positive impact on the sales figures. To stretch it further, Wilsdorf secured a ‘Class A’ Precision Certificate from the Kew Observatory in 1914, typically allocated for marine chronometers. British customers, who were familiar with the specifications, immediately resonated with this certification, which meant Rolex watches now solved the long-held problem of traversing the longitude. The British Empire could now dominate the seas. Rolex has offered technological breakthroughs ever since. 

As demand for Rolex watches rose swiftly, so did the cost of production. Soon after, Wilsdorf relocated the business to Geneva in 1919. Now that the production costs have decreased, Wilsdorf focused on solving the problem of dust and moisture entering the watch case and damaging the movement. In 1926, Rolex released the fully sealed Oyster case. But the Oyster was so innovative that customers were sceptical. All Rolex needed was some marketing propaganda to earn the general population’s trust that the Oyster case was waterproof.

Fluted bezels were a part of the Oyster case structure, which still exists in many Rolex watches today. The bezel was fluted for a reason. It was an interlocking tool to screw the bezel on and off the mid-case. The case back of the Rolex watches was also fluted for similar reasons. As with many Rolex creations where the visual impact long outlived functionality, the fluted bezels soon became one of them. No matter where you find a Rolex fitted with a gleaming bezel today, it does nothing more than just add to the aesthetics. 

In 1931, Rolex gave birth to the iconic Oyster Perpetual, the first automatic winding wrist piece. The auto-winding mechanism was a technical marvel that caught the crowd’s attention as it lowered the wear on the crown threads and the manual winding mechanism. This further reduced the need for frequent servicing while offering improved water resistance. The innovation of the auto-winding movement couldn’t be overstated, and once again, Rolex was in the headlines.  

World War II was a tough time for the Swiss watch industry. Most technological advancements were aimed at war contracts that demanded rugged tool watches, and very few focused on the civilian market. Being the people’s watchmaker, Rolex supplied a handful of timepieces to the British military and shifted attention to creating watches for civilians. In 1945, the Datejust was born. It was the first watch with a smart date feature on the dial that jumped instantaneously at midnight. 

Once WWII was over, Rolex dedicatedly steered its focus towards creating cutting-edge products for the affluent civilian market. One after the other, Rolex excited its customers with exclusive introductions that made them a horological icon. Rolex introduced the Cyclops or date magnifier around 1950, making the watches instantly recognisable. The company secured the patent for the Cyclops magnifier, and in 1953, for the first time, this futuristic innovation was seen on the Datejust model. The Datejust, Day-Date and Sky-Dweller remain easily recognisable for their fluted bezel and Cyclops lens. 

The 1950s was a major turning point in Rolex’s career, as it lined up a slew of releases, putting them high up on the horological throne. The world saw the release of the Air-King, Explorer, Submariner, GMT-Master, Day-Date, Milgauss, Lady Datejust, and the first Deep Sea model. However, how Wilsdorf marketed these icons catalysed Rolex’s popularity. 

2. Marketing Revolution

Wilsdorf’s marketing agenda was quite different from that of other watch brands at the time. He ensured that his watches were seen on the wrists of some of the most daring people who accomplished brave feats. When the bravest people set records, they made the headlines, and getting featured in the papers was quite a 20th-century thing. In contrast to other brands, Rolex created rugged, sporty timepieces that were fit for explorers and daredevils. 

Even now, consumers are unsure of the Oyster’s ability to withstand water. Wilsdorf decided to stop the speculation once and for all by submerging the Rolex Oyster in aquariums, which he displayed on the windows of big stores in London. These ads of a submerged Rolex gained the attention of consumers. To testify further, he gave the Oyster to Mercedes Gleitze in 1927, when she swam across the English Channel wearing the Rolex on her neck and not the wrist. The watch remained sealed with no water leakage, and the feat put Rolex at the forefront of innovation. Wilsdorf publicised the achievement in the newspapers with Gleitze’s endorsement. This clever and effective marketing technique definitely scored the brand’s name across the international customer base. 

Below is a list of the accomplishments Rolex achieved in the upcoming years via testimony ads:

1933 – Rolex became a part of the Houston Expedition as it flew over Mount Everest at an altitude of over 33,000 feet. 

1935 – Dominating the land, Rolex achieved a record-breaking land speed of 276 mph with famed driver Sir Malcolm Campbell. After a few months he broke this record at Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, when he achieved a speed of 300 mph.

1953 – Rolex accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their expedition to conquer Mount Everest. Rolex released the Explorer the same year. 

1955—Rolex was present on the first intercontinental flight and later provided the GMT Master watches to the Pan American pilots. 

1956—Rolex produced the Milgauss model, which could withstand a magnetic field of 1000 gauss. Ads announcing this were marketed to scientists and engineers. 

1960—The Rolex Deep Sea dived into the bottom of the Mariana Trench with the submariner Trieste. This feat made international newspapers. 

1963—Rolex launched an automotive-specific chronograph, the Cosmograph Daytona, forever associating itself with the world’s most famous motorway. 

The last quarter of the 20th century saw a decline in the world’s fascination towards the record-setters and explorers. So, at this point, Rolex steered the gear towards the star athletes and sporting event sponsorships like golf, tennis, yachting and motorsports. Some of the crucial accomplishments Rolex had after that includes:

 1976 – Rolex celebrated the Oyster’s 50th anniversary by launching the Rolex Awards for Enterprise program. It was for individuals who contributed significantly to improving the world by focusing on conserving health. 

1992—Rolex launched the Yacht-Master for those fascinated by yacht races. It also started sponsoring the yacht races, drawing the attention of a worldwide audience. 

2002—Rolex launched the Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in 2002 to ensure the world’s artistic heritage is passed down through the generations in a way that transcends the boundaries of cultures, nations, generations, and disciplines. This initiative was more about Rolex becoming a true corporate patron. 

3. Financial Independence

It’s often said that a truly unconventional leader is bound to clash with boardroom concerns, and Hans Wilsdorf was no exception. Being the visionary founder of Rolex, he put forward some of the most exceptional ideas and strategies at a time when playing by the norms seemed most appealing. However, Wilsdorf preferred working independently and leaned into creating some of the brand’s most extreme watches, such as the Deep Sea and even the Daytona, which became the most successful later on, even though they had commercial failures for decades. 

This was just the tip of the iceberg. What truly sets Rolex apart from other corporations is that upon Wilsdorf’s death in 1960, the ownership of Rolex S.A. was passed on to the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation which Wilsdorf established in 1945, simply with the mission to maintain Rolex S.A forever. Only a founder like Wilsdorf could think of such a giant strategy. 

According to Swiss law, Rolex is exempt from paying taxes on its annual revenue. As a private business, the corporate entity is not even obligated to disclose its financial records. This arrangement keeps Rolex’s business practices completely discreet, but it showcases Rolex’s contributions to various charitable outlets (Awards for Enterprise and Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative mentioned above). Both charities are run by the Rolex Institute, which is some kind of parent charity, assuming some part of their annual revenue must go there. Not to forget that a significant portion of the annual revenue must also be allotted for the company’s operational and development expenses. 

Rolex, as a brand, is not competing to increase profits or grow market share; it’s a company whose vision is far afield than the current financial quarter. It believes in setting up a legacy. How Hans Wilsdorf executed his business practices has helped the brand outlive his entrepreneurial spirit despite the irking of some conventional investors. 

4. Design Consistency

What’s that one thing that has been constant in Rolex since its inception? It’s the watch design. Rolex has remained relatively conservative regarding its watch aesthetics, which surprisingly has worked in its favour. All the Rolex releases during the 20th century created an aesthetic standard for the brand that Rolex simply never wanted to change. Also, because the mechanical watches from the Maison have remained consistent in terms of designs for approximately five decades, the constant look of Rolex watches played with the growing inclination towards retro-styled watches. This habit of Rolex to stick to their design legacy makes them unique amongst all other mass producers. 

For instance, in the 1970s, Audemars Piguet released the Royal Oak, setting up a trend for luxurious steel watches. Other brands that took part in this emerging trend were Patek Philippe and IWC, which released the Nautilus and Ingenieur, respectively. Rolex responded by increasing the production of the Daytona, Submariner, and GMT-Master while making a few mechanical improvements and subtle changes to the designs. 

Moving forward to dress watches, where trends started shifting rapidly in the 1990s, Rolex remained rather ignorant and kept its models as recognisable as possible. The Cellini has always been an exception in the Rolex catalogue, seeing many design changes come and go over the years. Yet, it remained the brand’s least celebrated and recognisable model. In 2023, Rolex discarded the Cellini line and replaced it with the 1908 series of classic dress watches.

If you were to see, the models became easily forgettable whenever Rolex tried following a trend. It is only when Rolex stuck to its design aesthetics that they have created some of the biggest timepieces that became highly sought-after by collectors. This is especially true for the Professional Rolex models, which are produced in relatively low quantities despite their insane popularity in the market. 

5. Planned Scarcity

As a strategic market leader, Rolex has used scarcity to build an aura of exclusivity around their watches. This started with shorting the vintage steel Rolex professional models, which further stretched to the modern versions. Today, Rolex boutiques are left without specific steel versions of the popular professional models, like the GMT-Master, Deep Sea, Submariner, Sky-Dweller and Explorer II. It’s nearly impossible to get hold of one of these pieces from a Rolex dealer without a long waiting list. Additionally, the Air-King and Explorer I, often called the entry-level Rolexes, ought to be found easily, but has become difficult to get. Rolex favours their loyal customers, and unfortunately, the newcomers will never get the call. This is a psychological trick that makes people gravitate more towards Rolex. 

Given the brand’s long-standing history of creating utility watches, the air of exclusivity and luxury surrounding the brand these days seems somewhat ironic. Rolex created tool watches that no one would wear outside the job scenario during the 1950s and 1960s. A solid gold Datejust or Day-Date made it to the parties. Today, many watch connoisseurs find boredom with the all-gold pieces and are willing to pay any price for a recent steel GMT. The other result of shorting the professional steel Rolex models from retail is escalating prices on the secondary market. 

Clearly, the method of selective scarcity has worked for Rolex, who could boost the production of these models at any time and sell them like hotcakes. But the aura surrounding the Submariner or Sky-Dweller in retail shall continue to persist in there, irrespective. If Rolex was solely concerned to meet with quarterly profits, it would have never left the marketing demand unattended. But isn’t this what makes Rolex ‘THE Rolex? Wilsdorf’s long-term vision embodies this practice. 


From curating robust and accurate timepieces to aligning with prominent historical events and maintaining a class of exclusivity, Rolex has masterfully created a brand synonymous with luxury and excellence. The brand’s meticulous blend of tradition and modernity, coupled with deliberate marketing and a keen understanding of consumer desires, has solidified Rolex’s status as the undisputed king of watches. 

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