Behind green tinted glass walls at the Rolex headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland time slows down. Polished wood, brushed steel, and soft carpeting reminiscent of the atmosphere of a bank bring to mind reassuring notions of safety and reliability. It is a fitting environment for Rolex, which, despite being the largest luxury watchmaker in the world, shirks the glare of the spotlight.
Modest reputation aside, the technological power of Rolex makes it the silent giant of the watch industry. The brand’s famously restrained and conservative collections don’t speak to any lack of imagination or ingenuity on the part of Rolex’s designers and engineers. Rather, their pared-down aesthetic reveals the brand’s fundamental approach to watchmaking.
Rolex never produces innovations just for the sake of it, or for press it would generate. New materials and technologies must withstand long-term tests to prove their compatibility with the basic principles upheld by Rolex: reliability, accuracy, and comfort—which explains why Rolex hasn’t rushed out with a minute repeater or a tourbillon. Unless its engineers can guarantee a complication’s efficiency in real daily use, Rolex won’t risk its reputation as one of the most reliable watchmakers in the world. Furthermore, innovation doesn’t trump the legendary aesthetic the brand has cultivated over the decades; we hardly ever see, for example, Breguet-style hands on a Rolex watch.
Another pillar of the Rolex brand is its independence from suppliers. For more than a decade, all the movements in the brand’s wristwatches have been made at Rolex’s own manufactures. The same goes for the essential components that make up these movements, including the hairspring. In contrast to the majority of brands, including some famous ones, Rolex uses only in-house, non-magnetic Parachrom hairsprings, made of a niobium-zirconium oxygen alloy. The company doesn’t buy movements, dials, cases, or bracelets; instead, all of these components are produced at the company’s four manufacturing sites throughout Switzerland.
Of course, talking about the absolute and total autonomy of Rolex’s production system would be almost pointless. If that were the case, Rolex would have to make even screws and nuts. The brand also purchases the hands for its timepieces from a specialized producer.
This doesn’t make the brand’s capabilities any less formidable, as evidenced by a visit to Rolex’s facility in Plan-les-Ouates. The huge complex consists of six buildings, all connected by a central passage. The center specializes in manufacturing the cases and bracelets for Rolex watches. According to unofficial reports, Rolex is the largest consumer of gold in Switzerland (a replete with haute horlogerie and jewelry brands), so one almost expects to encounter mountains of gold upon a visit to the facility. But the reality is even more unexpected: the location boasts a full-fledged foundry, where Rolex produces Everose, an exclusive 18K rose gold alloy for which the brand holds the patent. Heated to a temperature of 1064°C, liquid gold pours from the ladle into the kiln to create bars of its proprietary alloy. This allows the brand to avoid having to buy bars from metal producers, or worse, purchasing ready-made cases and later passing them through finishing and assembling.
The Plan-les-Ouates complex boasts floors of computer numerical control (CNC) milling machines, which transform the bars into the final element. A waterproof Oyster case requires up to 150 operations, and the bracelet up to 900.
Rolex’s vertical integration of materials also applies in the ceramic department. The company independently creates its own scratchproof ceramic Cerachrom bezels by mixing zirconium oxide powders. Then bezel numerals and graduations are engraved deep into the ceramic and filled with gold or platinum PVD-coating.
A few miles away from the Plan-les-Ouates facility is Rolex’s manufacture in Chêne-Bourg. Built in 2000, this facility specializes in the production of dials and inlaying with precious stones. A variety of techniques are used to finish Rolex’s dials: lacquer, galvanic coating, PVD coating, and calque stamp. For the base of each dial, the brand uses brass, gold, platinum, pearl and even meteoritic materials. This facility also houses a gemological laboratory, providing 100% quality control over all incoming precious stones (diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds) and a shop, where stones are mounted on dials, bezels, cases and bracelets.
While there aren’t mountains of gold hiding in any of Rolex’s four sites, the brand’s 92,000 square meter production facility in Bienne does boast a veritable treasure trove. The Bienne facility, which houses all activities related to the manufacture and assembly of Rolex’s movements, has more than 46,000 compartments for safe storage of components and finished products. The components are transported from storage to the workshops via an automated stocking system, which runs on nearly one mile of rails across the site.
The final assembly of each Rolex watch is carried out at the brand’s Geneva headquarters. There, in a carefully controlled microclimate, the process known in the auto industry as “marriage” takes place, with the installation of a movement, dial, and hands into a case. These operations are done exclusively by hand. In general, despite the high level of automation, there is a lot of work still done by hand at Rolex, contrary to the popular opinion that all the work at Rolex is done by robots.
Before the installation of a strap or a bracelet (which is the final stage, followed only by packaging), each watch goes through a series of tests for water resistance, automatic winding efficiency, and precision. In total, the tests take a day and a half. Models like the Oyster Perpetual Deepsea also go through additional testing; its water resistance is guaranteed by the manufacturer to the extreme depth of 3,900 meters, a claim that is tested in a special hyperbaric tank developed by the French company COMEX. (This company’s name will ring a bell with collectors, as a limited edition Rolex Submariner issued in the 70s featured the COMEX logo on the dial.) This hyperbaric tank, which features 45mm steel sides, simulates the pressure experienced at 4,875 meters below sea level, a further 25% more than the depth even advertised on the dial. Every Deepsea timepiece is put through this test. In addition, all the movements for the Oyster collection are independently tested by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) over a period of 14 days, in different positions and at varying temperatures, and earn a chronometer certificate only if the daily rate deviation varies within -4 /6 seconds.
Earlier this year, Rolex did make the news, with the announcement that Jean-Frédéric Dufour had been appointed to the post of CEO. Will the company’s strategy change? The whole watch world is waiting to see. Rolex as we know it, and as we experienced it, was built up during the 50-year reign of the father and the son Heiniger. Rolex has enormous power and enormous inertia, so we probably shouldn’t expect any radical changes from the new CEO. This year the manufacture unveiled the Cellini collection, which, according to retailers, has already generated a lot of interest among buyers. And in the years to come we will probably see a new generation of the brand’s bestseller, the Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona, the steel version of which has remained unchanged for 14 years.
Undoubtedly Rolex has a lot of new interesting products at its disposal, but more important is whether the brand decides it is ready to launch their mass production. After all, the basic principles – reliability and accuracy – have never been strayed from.
Company: Rolex SA
Number of employees: 6,000
Yearly production volume: 819,000*
Manufactures: Geneva – headquarters and final assembly Bienne – movements Plan-les-Ouates – cases and bracelets Chêne-Bourg – dials and bezels
*Based on the number of Rolex movements certified by the COSC in 2013.