Esquire goes inside Rolex HQ
In Roald Dahl’s classic 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the world is whipped up into a reckless spending frenzy as people of all creeds search for a golden ticket hidden inside chocolate bars. The golden ticket would guarantee them a genuine money-can’t-buy experience: access to Willy Wonka’s factory.
In Dahl’s universe, Wonka produces the finest chocolates. They are the industry leader, bearing a name that stands as a hallmark of quality – desired by every sweet-toothed man, woman and child around the world.
Despite the company’s success, the factory is shrouded in mystery with access forbidden to outsiders. What goes on behind the grand iron gates is best described by Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka in the 1971 film adaptation as “the making of music, and the dreaming of dreams.”
While we are always partial to a quality chocolate or two, at Esquire our tastes tend to be less about confectioneries and more about accessories, and in the luxury accessory industry, Rolex stands alone.
Rather than rifling through mountains of wrappers, thankfully for our waistline, our golden ticket arrives in a different fashion: via a personalised invitation from Switzerland to visit the Rolex factories.
To stress the uniqueness of this opportunity it’s worth noting that the independent Geneva-based watchmaker has a rather stringent closed-door policy. In fact, it is so discreet that even family members of employees are not permitted to visit its offices.
Our invitation – as one of the first visitors from the MENA region – to visit all of Rolex’s facilities comes on behalf of Ahmed Seddiqi and Sons, the Dubai-based retailer whose near 60-year relationship with Rolex dates back to the 1950s, when the late Ahmed Qasim Seddiqi was awarded the Rolex franchise license for Dubai and Northern Emirates. A successful partnership that continues today.
For many people, the idea of spending AED30,000 on a watch is mindlessly extravagant. Although, it is an extravagance that sees approximately 2,000 Rolex sold globally every day.
Such is the prowess of the brand that not only has it become the clear market leader in Swiss watchmaking, but its individual models such as the Rolex Oyster Perpetual, Submariner, GMT-Master and Daytona have all developed genuine iconic status, defining the aesthetic blueprint of every category of sports watch.
So what is it that makes those pieces with the little gold crown so much more desirable than other Swiss watch brands? To truly appreciate the value of brand, you must first understanding the scale and the almost fanatical devotion to quality that goes on behind the closed doors of Rolex.
Unlike most Swiss watch manufacturers, Rolex is a fully vertically-integrated manufacturer – which is a fancy way of saying that every part of its product is made in-house (except for a few micro screws). From the ceramic bezels and each individual part of bracelets to the hairspring and even the grease used to lubricate the movement. It even makes its own gold.
Yes, you read that correctly. Rolex makes its own gold. While they have a small handful of suppliers that send them steel (Rolex still works the steel in-house to make all the parts), all the gold and platinum is made in-house. The 24-karat gold comes into Rolex and it is turned into 18-karat yellow, white, or Rolex’s Everose gold (its non-fading version of 18-karat rose gold).
Large kilns under hot flames are used to melt and mix the metals which are then turned into cases and bracelets. Because Rolex controls the production and machining of its gold, it is able to strictly ensure not only quality, but the best looking parts. Rolex is the only watch manufacture that makes its own gold or even has a real foundry in-house.
This gigantic watchmaking operation takes place across four separate sites. The beating heart of the watch (the movement) is created in the northern Swiss town of Bienne; the dials, cases and bracelets at factories in Geneva suburbs of Chêne-Bourg and Plan-les-Ouates, before the final assembly is done at the global headquarters in Acacias, central Geneva.
The scale is incomparable in the watch industry, and each site combines flawless operations involving quality human craftsmanship as well as continuously cutting-edge technology – hallmarks of the brand since its inception.
Rolex easily has the most sophisticated watch making machinery in the world. The robots and other automated tasks are really used for tasks that humans aren’t as good at. These include sorting, filing, cataloguing, and very delicate procedures that involve the type of care you want a machine to handle.
Most of these machines are still human-operated though. And everything from Rolex movements to bracelets are assembled by hand. A machine however helps with doing things such as applying the right pressure when attaching pins, aligning parts, and pressing down hands. Having said that, all Rolex watch hands are still set by hand via a trained technician.
As synonymous as Rolex is with Swiss watches today, its founder Hans Wilsdorf was actually born in Bavaria, Germany, before he began his career in watchmaking in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in the early 1900s.
In an era when pocket watches were the order of the day, he was quick to see the potential of the wristwatch for the 20th century, despite their not yet being very precise and being generally considered to be items of jewellery of particular appeal to women.
Evidence of Wilsdorf’s calculated, entrepreneurial mindset is best shown in two key decisions he made early on: foreseeing that due to the wristwatch’s nature it was destined to become an everyday necessity provided that it could be a precise, waterproof, robust and reliable instrument; and in 1920 calling his company Montres Rolex SA.
With global aspirations, the name Rolex was chosen because it was short, easy to pronounce in any language, memorable and able to be inscribed elegantly on a watch dial.
That mindset still runs through the veins of Rolex today. Alongside the development of the world’s first waterproof wristwatch – the Rolex Oyster – in 1926; and creating the Perpetual rotor in 1931 allowing the first wristwatch to have a self-winding mechanism; the company would not only continuously revolutionise watch technology, but also push for near peerless levels of quality.
In the mid-1990s, under the stewardship of Patrick Heiniger, the company radically changed its structure, making the strategic choice bring all the elements of watchmaking under its roof. The bold vertical integration plan saw it purchase its principle suppliers that would equip it with unrivalled industrial facilities in which watchmakers, engineers, designers and other specialists could work in close collaboration in the design and manufacture of the watches.
This step was accompanied by a decision to group all of its activities in Geneva and Bienne on four industrial sites specifically built or remodelled for the purpose. Impressive in size, these sites are technological watchmaking gems. Rolex thus ensured control over the production of all the main components of its watches – movement, case, bracelet and dials – while at the same times giving itself the means to take its quality even further, thanks to exclusive equipment.
Regardless of Hans Wilsdorf’s future-thinking mindset, even he might be in awe of the way the company he founded more than a century ago now operates – not at least the network of flying robots that whizz around the vast facilities delivering components at a breathtaking rate.
In Plan-les-Ouates alone, there are two central vaults comprising 24,000sqm and a 1.5km network of rails travelling throughout the building, allowing an automated delivery system to pick up components from anywhere in the facility and deliver them to the worker.
The robots travel at 10kmh and the maximum time between a component being ordered and arriving is eight minutes.
The system performs 2,800 transportations per hour and was a key element in Heiniger’s vertical integration vision and efficiency of work flow. It is difficult to determine Heiniger’s greatest contribution to Rolex: the mind-blowing integration that allows the in-house creation of every single component, or his focus on the advancement of core watchmaking technology.
Rolex’s Bienne facility is where the engine of the watch comes to life, as sheets and bars of brass are transformed into tiny, intricate components. Alloys specially prepared for Rolex arrive in coil, bar or sheet form. There can be more than 20 operations for a single part, where metal is cut and then moulded through various steps. All of the tools used to create these parts are made in-house.
Every day, thousands of parts are manufactured and fall into baskets before being automatically washed. They are then heated to 200°C for four hours to de-stress the metal and remove any trauma incurred from the cutting and moulding. Parts are then entered into Rolex’s automated stock-keeping system.
The other secret of Rolex’s phenomenal timekeeping is the hairspring. Thinner than a human hair, this spring is attached to the balance wheel, allowing the wheel to oscillate back and forth. Today, 90 percent of Rolex watches feature the company’s patented, in-house blue Parachrom hairspring.
In a dumbfounding process, the company smelts together niobium, zirconium and oxygen in-house and fused them together at 2,500°C. Then using one foot-long bar of newly made Parachrom, the metal is stretched until it becomes a hair-thin piece of metal 3km long, unaffected by magnetic fields, and ten times more resistant to shock than a normal hairspring.
When Rolex launched a new Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona in 2000, it was loaded with a new chronograph movement entirely developed and produced in-house, and with the Parachrom hairspring. Since then, the Parachrom hairspring has been progressively introduced on all men’s watches in the Oyster collection.
When it was released in 1926, the Rolex Oyster was the world’s first waterproof wristwatch.
Inspired by the shellfish, the watch case was equipped with an ingenious patented system consisting of a screw-down bezel, case back and winding crown. Hermetically sealed, offering optimal protection for the movement. Today, although the Oyster’s bezel is no longer screwed down onto the case, the bezels on several models still feature the characteristic fluting echoing the original 1926 model.
The company’s desire to innovate still exists today. It even has an internal Research & Development department equipped with professional science labs at its various facilities. The purpose of these labs isn’t just to research new watches and things that may go into watches, but also to research more effective and efficient manufacturing techniques.
One way of looking at Rolex is that they are an extremely competent and almost obsessively organised manufacturing company – that just happens to make timepieces.
Rolex labs are as diverse as they are amazing. Perhaps the most visually interesting is the chemistry lab. Full of beakers and tubes that carry liquids and gases, the Rolex chemistry lab is full of highly trained scientists. What is it mostly used for? Well one thing that Rolex stated is that the lab is used for developing and researching oils and lubricants that they use in machines during the manufacturing process.
Rolex has a room with multiple electron microscopes and some gas spectrometers. They are able to take an extremely close look at metals and other materials to investigate the effects of machining and manufacturing techniques. These large areas are extremely impressive and are used seriously on a regular basis to remedy or prevent possible problems.
Of course Rolex also uses its science labs on the watches themselves. An interesting room is the stress test room. Here watch movements, bracelets, and cases undergo simulated wear and abuse on custom-made machines and robots. Let’s just say that it would not be unreasonable to assume your typical Rolex is designed to last a lifetime (or two).
While witnessing the mass scale of the manufacturing and the intricate maze of automated delivery machines really contextualises just what makes Rolex unique, realisation comes full circle at the central Geneva location of Acacias – the global headquarters.
Donning white coats and walking through dust-proof air-locks, we shuffle into a one of the Controlled Environment Zones, where the air is replaced every couple of hours. There 150 uniformly-dressed watchmakers carryout the ‘final assembly’.
This is where all the parts are delivered, (with the movements already certified as chronometers by the independent Swiss regulator COSC) and an army of watchmakers attach dials to movements, fix hands to the dials, place movements into cases, attach automatic rotors, screw on case-backs, and register case and calibre serial number before submitting the watches for testing of water-resistance, power reserve and accuracy.
Noticing that over half the workforce actually wear a Rolex on their wrist, we ask whether this is company policy. As it turns out, while employees are not given a watch, they are offered a healthy staff-discount should they want to buy one. Evidently many do, citing their loyalty to the brand and their first-hand knowledge of what goes into producing the pieces.
Despite the checks on the watches from external bodies, in 2015 (the year Jean-Frederic Dufour became the sixth CEO), Rolex introduced a new in-house certification for all its watches: the Superlative guarantee.
After casing the movement, all watches undergo a series of tests in Acacia’s state-of-the-art facilities to be certified as Superlative Chronometers. The tests check the precision, power reserve, waterproofness and self-winding to the order of -2/+2 seconds per day – more than twice that required of an official chronometer.
Never happy with settling for average, to uphold the legendary waterproof status of the Oyster case, every watch is subjected to two water-resistance tests — one to test the case; the other, the complete watch.
The testing is done in the bowels of the headquarters where huge steel tanks artificially replicate pressure at specific depths. What Rolex doesn’t tell people is that every Oyster is tested to ten percent more than its depth rating, and this increases to 25 percent for diving watches such as the Rolex Deepsea and Sea-Dweller 4000.
For many people, the idea of spending a vast chunk of their savings on a watch is a mindless extravagance. However, after crossing the hallowed floors of the four Rolex sites, it is hard not to argue a case to spend even more.
Not only do Rolex’s watches tend to hold their value, but the history, mass scale and incorruptible quality of the operation is genuinely awe-inspiring.
The landmark decision of the independent company to vertically integrate its manufacturing was a hugely expensive move, but being able to guarantee the finest quality watchmaking at scale is fitting justification to why Rolex continues to wear the crown.
The mythical world of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka might be a thing of childhood fantasy, but it does share the invaluable traits of producing a world-leading product that is uncompromising of outside interference.
Regardless of whether it is confectioneries or accessories, perhaps Gene Wilder’s wise-cracking Wonka puts it best when he explains that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”.