By Rob Nudds
Why are some products more desirable than others? Why are some brands forced to scrabble around in the dirt, begging for your attention from their hands and knees, as they throw endless sales arguments, value justifications, and literal discounts your way, only to be met by an indifferent shrug, while others are so powerful, and so desirable, they are happy to refuse to sell you a watch you want, even if you’re banging on their door, cash in hand.
The above is an overly literal example of a weird power dynamic that exists within the watch industry. The kind of power we’re talking about in the latter example is pretty rare, and may not be possible to emulate. It’s the kind of sway that’s generated after years and years at the top. A handful of brands are able to wield it (Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and Roger W. Smith, for example), but none has the practise down a T like Rolex.
First things first, Rolex make really good watches. It’s just the truth. Their movements’ timekeeping parameters are more than sufficient for any everyday purpose, their reliability excellent, their after-sales service standards off the charts, and their exclusivity absolute. The cases are are renowned for their durability, their no-nonsense approach to function, and their timeless, genre-defining silhouettes. And on top of all this, their designs (while occasionally ostentatious to the point of brazen ridiculousness), and idiosyncratic market-leaders that are copied relentlessly, but rarely matched.
The second ‘pillar of power’ supporting the Rolex brand is their heritage. Rolex rarely waxes lyrical over its year of foundation, ownership, or continuous operation (although all are mentioned in press material when relevant), but they are more than happy to talk about their watchmaking firsts. Being a leader is powerful. In design terms, creating something that becomes a staple (like, I don’t know, the 3 o’clock date window) is normally enough to dine out on for the rest of your career. Doing it more than once is the way to establish yourself as a legend. And with their focus on high-level research and development (that brought us the first wristwatch to receive the Swiss certificate of chronometric precision, the first truly water resistant wristwatch to 100m, the first watch to feature the day and date on the dial, the first wristwatch to feature two time zones, and the first mechanical wristwatch with a multi-function command bezel) Rolex has secured that status that no amount of marketing budget, whimsy, or waffle can usurp.
Okay, so that’s what makes the watches themselves great. And from such greatness it’s easy enough to see how near-universal respect is born, but what’s the upshot of this popularity and how does a brand maintain and increase it once it’s reached such frenzied levels?
The Rolex phenomenon is relatively recent. That Rolex is in the unprecedented situation of having a surplus of potential customers is somewhat bizarre, given how dire the consumer climate has been in the watch industry for the past few years. So how did it happen? How has Rolex, in a way no other ‘affordable’ luxury brand has managed to, evade the pitfalls that have seen the gray market flooded with last season’s releases? The truth seems to be that they played the long game. And they played it perfectly.
Let’s address a couple of cold hard facts about buying a stainless steel Rolex in 2019. It’s pretty difficult to do. Gone are the days when you could walk into an authorized Rolex dealer and pick a green/green submariner off the shelf, try it on, hand over your credit card, and walk out of the shop with in on your wrist. Nowadays, if you try ordering a Submariner or a GMT Master II, you will almost certainly be told there is a waiting list. A long one. And one that you’re never likely to top given the fact it is already populated by long-standing customers, and well-thought individuals that the boutique in question wants to become long-standing customers.
You’ll get the same response almost anywhere you go. If you took each of these waiting lists and added up the numbers, and divided the total by the one or two preferential steel pieces you can expect the average AD to receive these days, you’d be waiting years and years.
One thing to remember, though, is this: Those waiting lists likely feature the same names over, and over, and over again. And so should your name feature on many a list if you’re serious about getting your hands on a desirable steel Rolex. You don’t just go in to one store, but your name at number 30 or 40 or 50 on the list and go home and wait. No, you call round every dealer within 100 miles and put your name on each and every one. It doesn’t guarantee you success, but it certainly helps.
So with that in mind we know the demand is not as high as it is perceived to be, but that doesn’t necessarily make life much easier for you, because Rolex is able to manipulate perceptions to their benefit. After all, beyond the quality of the product itself, this whole industry is based on perceptions, on story-telling, on what, if delivered to the audience correctly, ends up looking like a divine right to sell you a luxury timepiece you can barely afford and almost certainly don’t need.
Like I said, this is a game. And if you’re chasing a Rolex, you’ve gone toe-to-toe with the master.
There are lots of good reasons why Rolex limit supply of their watches to authorized dealers. The best is that it maintains the value of the product. So scarce are these latest professional models, your only chance of picking one up today is to buy one pre-loved for ten thousand over the retail price. And you know what? It’s probably worth it. If you have the cash, it seems likely that getting one of these most desirable models is always better than not.
Luxury brands are always keen to protect their name and the value of their products. Having a ‘current’ model trending at ten thousand above the retail price is a heck of a lot better for a brand’s image than having a huge overstock from the previous season running at 30% below retail from new…
Some consumers believe the idea that Rolex are deliberately not selling models there is demand for is preposterous. They believe that Rolex is simply unable to produce enough watches per year to handle demand. I do not believe that to be the case.
Rolex produces over 2,000 watches daily – close to 1,000,000 per year – and dealerships are not empty. They still stock Datejusts, Day/Dates, and Oyster Perpetuals. If Rolex were not manipulating the market deliberately why would they continue to produce a surplus of less desirable models, when they could, relatively easily, restructure their production model?
No, this is a strategy. A mature game plan that few have the confidence or position to execute. And you know what? It makes it fun to chase the brand. It generates column inches, excitement, and intrigue. It creates mystique. It gives us cause to obsess and to persist in our pursuit of these seldom-seen grails.
And if you are able to get one of these sought-after models on your wrist I urge you, from one watch lover to another, keep it there and enjoy it. Because you’ll be the envy of all those names on the list that you beat to the punch. And if that’s not a good return on your investment, I don’t know what is.