Few outsiders are ever giving access into the secretive world of Rolex. Revolution Middle East is one of the few. Matthew Priest takes a rare look behind the crown.
There is a crown on the Rolex logo. It is a fitting emblem for a company that rightfully sits atop the throne, ruling over the watch world.
Based in the heart of Geneva, Rolex is recognised all over the world. Close your eyes and picture the image of a diving watch, a GMT and a chronograph, and in all likelihood you’ll see a Rolex Submariner, a Rolex GMT-Master and a Rolex Daytona. These watches are genuinely iconic.
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 Rolex, you must first understanding the scale and the almost fanatical devotion to quality that goes on behind the closed doors of its four Swiss-based factories.
In 18-ct Everose gold, this 2018 Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona bezel is set with a gradation of sapphires in rainbow hues. Image: Rolex.
Our invitation behind those doors – 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. That partnership continues to this day.
Every Rolex is created as a combination of the competences situated within its manufacturing sites. The movements are created in Bienne, the dials at Chêne-Bourg — where gem-setting is also carried out —the cases and bracelets at Plan-les-Ouates and all final assembly at Acacias. At each of these sites you will find an extraordinary merging of human craftsmanship and wildly futuristic technology.
Watchmakers at their benches. Image courtesy of Rolex.
Were he still alive today, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf might well raise an eyebrow at some of the things going on at the company he founded more than a century ago, not least the network of flying robots that whizz around the facilities delivering components at a breath-taking rate.
In Plan-les-Ouates alone, two central vaults comprising 24,000sqm and a 1.5km network of track allow an automated delivery system to pick up components from anywhere in the facility. The robots travel at 10kph and the maximum time between a component being ordered and arriving is just eight minutes.
Rolex’s facility in Bienne is where the engine of the watch comes to life. It’s where sheets and bars of brass are transformed into 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.
18-ct yellow gold and 904L steel, raw materials made to Rolex’s specifications. Image: Rolex.
Perhaps the most dizzying array of technology is in the Ébauche Sector, where Rolex creates its bridges, main plates and calendar plates. Blanks are machined using incredibly advanced CNC machines (‘modules’, in Rolex-speak) that use up to 50 tools and are capable of machining 16 pieces simultaneously. These machines are able to make a watch part every 45 seconds. A Daytona, having one of Rolex’s more complex mainplates, needs three connected modules; one plate is completed every minute. Mainplates are then decorated and jewelled within these CNC pods.
Rolex gold beads, slabs and stamped middle case. Image: Rolex
Rolex makes its own free-sprung balance wheels, a system that Rolex patented in 1957 and which is, today, considered the most accurate and stable way to adjust a balance wheel. The machine used for this was made by an external manufacturer but the entire tooling system within it was created in-house. 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 in-house Parachrom hairspring — a material that is smelted from niobium, zirconium and oxygen, fused together at 2,500°C. Unaffected by magnetic fields, these springs are up to ten times more resistant to shock than a normal hairspring.
All Rolex dials are crafted in-house at its Chêne-Bourg facility, the majority beginning as brass plates. Chêne-Bourg boasts a dizzying array of techniques able to create myriad dial finishes. Image: Rolex.
Chêne-Bourg is also where diamond and gem-setting takes place. Rolex uses only flawless stones coloured from D to G. All coloured gems have a master stone that is used for colour reference and each stone is set by hand.
Gem-setting is done by hand. Image: Rolex.
Rolex’s case and bracelet-making facility is situated in Geneva’s industrial suburb of Plan-les-Ouates — affectionately known as ‘Plan-les-Watch’ for the concentration of horological firms clustered there.
Rolex starts by alloying its own gold. The ingot is then rolled stamped and machined to yield cases and bracelets. The facility again brings together robot technology and human craftsmanship, particularly for case polishing, where a surprisingly humanoid robot undertakes the initial polish. Ceramic is given its colour by mixing powdered zirconium oxide with pigment.
Bezels are sent for machining with diamond tools to create sharper profiles and to engrave the indices into the bezels. The bezels are then given a PVD coating in precious metal, which is polished off, leaving the precious material filling the engraved indices.
How did Rolex create bicoloured ceramic bezels for its GMT watches — something deemed impossible by the watch industry? After the de-binding stage, when the ceramic bezel is porous, half of the initially all-blue ceramic form is impregnated with either black or red pigment before sintering.
The Rolex GMT-Master II with two-tone ceramic bezels clearly demonstrates its industry-leading competence in the field of ceramics.
According to Virginie Chevailler, Rolex’s head of international press and PR: “People sometimes get the impression that our manufactures are totally automated and they are surprised to realise how many people and how much human work goes into creating every one of our watches.”
Rolex buildings in Geneva, Acacias.
In keeping with Rolex’s reputation for reliability, there is a 100-percent final check on all watches. During testing of the power reserve, a robot takes batches of ten watches and slowly turns them for 27 minutes, which charges them with six hours of power reserve. This demonstrates that when fully charged, they will have a reserve of 48 hours.
Next, a computer takes a picture of the hand position on every watch. Then they are placed in a machine that simulates wrist-wear for 24 hours before a second picture is taken for comparison. In a correctly performing watch, the hands should be in the same position.
Well into the 21st century, Rolex continues to be a staggeringly well-drilled operation that keeps it at the cutting edge of the watchmaking industry. What Hans Wilsdorf might have made of the flying robots we will never know, but with an unwavering commitment to quality running through the heart, mind, brain and soul of the company, Rolex will continue to wear the crown for a long time to come.
This is an abridged version of an article by Matthew Priest that appears in the Autumn 2018 edition of Revolution Magazine. Reserve your copy by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org