Timeless Timepiece: The Enduring Appeal Of The Rolex

Words by Chris Anderson

7 min read

Watch expert Osvaldo Patrizzi explains the ongoing appeal of Rolex, and talks us through the brand’s most collectable and valuable models

In the world of watches, is there any company more iconic than Rolex? Highly desirable, a market leader for decades, and according to Forbes magazine last year one of the top 100 most recognised and powerful brands in the world. Founded in 1905, Rolex is never far from the public eye. Once the favoured watch brand of James Bond, in the books and early movies, it has remained prominent in popular culture, and enjoys a long association with the late actor Paul Newman – the style of Cosmograph Daytona favoured by him has become one of the most sought after by collectors, while the model he owned personally achieved US$17.8 million (Dhs65.37 million) at auction in 2017, making it the third most expensive watch in history.

Paul Newman poses with his prized Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. Photography by Douglas Kirkland

So popular is the brand that those wanting a new Rolex will currently find themselves on a lengthy waiting list due to ongoing shortages, while prices soar in the pre-owned market. Last month, the Geneva-based brand actually released a statement addressing the issue, revealing that, “The scarcity of our products is not a strategy on our part. Our current production cannot meet the existing demand in an exhausting way, at least not without reducing the quality of our watches – something we refuse to do, as the quality of our products must never be compromised. All Rolex watches are developed and produced in-house at our four sites in Switzerland. They are assembled by hand, with extreme care, to meet the brand’s unique and high standards of quality, performance and aesthetics.” So the message is, Rolex will not be rushed, as making its watches takes, well, time. But this ongoing level of demand and interest is not a bad position for a company to be in, particularly in light of the recent pandemic. Rolex was among the watch brands forced to close its factories for three months – which would arguably impact availability – and saw many of its authorised dealers close their doors, but still managed to make a profit. The UK distributor for the brand, for example, reported a sales increase of 13 per cent in 2020, rising to £468 million (Dhs2.3 billion) from £415 million (Dhs2 billion) in 2019. Rolex sales had been increasing through the years anyway, but it is interesting to see that even a pandemic and factory shutdowns are unable to stop its trajectory.

The reports of rising sales match observations made by Mohammed Abdulmagied Seddiqi, chief commercial officer of the family-owned Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons, the distributor for Rolex in the UAE – and the company behind the world’s biggest Rolex boutique at Dubai Mall. Speaking with MOJEH Men magazine recently, he described the effect of the pandemic on sales. “We witnessed a rise in interest for watches in the region,” he said. “People were taking the time to research and increase their knowledge, and approached us to purchase timepieces. It was challenging when the malls and our boutiques were closed, so we established the luxury home service to maintain the relationships with our clients, which was very well received.”

With its ongoing popularity, the strength to overcome pandemics and waiting lists, and a burgeoning pre-owned market, now seems like the perfect time to release a book about Rolex. Step forward watch expert Osvaldo Patrizzi and journalist Mara Cappelletti, who have teamed up for a new hardback, Investing in Wristwatches: Rolex, which delves into the popularity of the brand, as well as its value to collectors. As a partnership with Sotheby’s, the book uses much of the auction house’s data. Patrizzi, who worked for a watch and clock restorer in Milan from the age of 13, and in 1974 established Antiquorum, a world-leading auctioneer of modern and vintage timepieces, says: “It’s correct to say that the book shows how much each watch has achieved at auctions, but it also shows a few watches that have not been sold, thus giving information on the market trends and how they change over time. By collaborating with Sotheby’s, we can show the prices for a timepiece of the same reference from the 1980s through to the most-recently-held auctions, prior to the printing of the book. We hope that this can be an in-depth guide for collectors and investors.”

Osvaldo Patrizzi. Photography by Sergio Petrelli

The book is certainly a treat for fans of the Rolex brand, detailing many of its most famous models and ranges through the ages, such as the Sports and Oyster timepieces. There are Submariner models dating back to 1955; single-button chronographs from the late-1930s; and the exceptionally-rare Centegraph from 1935, each accompanied by full details of their materials and mechanisms, and the eye-watering sums they fetched under the hammer. The Chronograph Gabus from 1945 gets a mention, and as we move into the 1950s and 1960s we see the arrival of the first Cosmograph Daytonas, and the versions dubbed ‘the Paul Newman’, noted for their black subdials on a white face (the ‘panda’ effect) and Art Deco font. Indeed, it is Patrizzi who is said to have first come up with the Paul Newman tag, after spotting a photo of the actor wearing that particular model in 1990, and it has since been adopted by the entire watch industry. Other Rolexes covered include the Day-Date models, and obscurities such as the Beta 21 from the 1970s and the rectangular Prince of the 1930s. There are even special Middle East editions, with the numerals, or day and date, in Arabic – such is the popularity of Rolex in the region, its watches were often given as gifts to ministers and royalty. And Rolex will continue to be featured in auctions. Antiquorum is hosting an event in Geneva in November that includes a Rolex Ref 1665 Seadweller with a double red tropical dial, sold in Lisbon in 1975, with a rare Portuguese hallmark on the lug, expected to fetch CHF100,000-200,000 (Dhs99,000-798,000). And Christie’s Dubai hosted its Watches Online: The Dubai Edit autumn edition in October, featuring a Rolex Daytona Ref 6240 ‘Solo’ from 1966 – which has only the Rolex name on the dial, and not ‘Oyster Chronograph’, as is tradition; a Rolex Ref 4062 from the early 1940s in yellow gold; and a rare Rolex Chronograph Ref 6232 in rose gold from 1958, believed to be one of 12.

Rolex Sky-Dweller 42mm at Farfetch

Of course, there are easier ways to find a vintage Rolex, with Farfetch the latest online retailer to stock pre-owned fine watches, including various Submariner and Daytona models. Yesterday, today and tomorrow, there seems to be no stopping Rolex’s enduring popularity, as Patrizzi describes. “Rolex watches represent the highest expression of design and technical skills,” he says. “For me, I appreciate the stylish, sports-inspired design, the high quality of the products and their reliability, and it keeps the interest rising within the collector community. They certainly didn’t lose value during the pandemic.” So if you were planning to invest, what might be a good entry-point? “For a moderate budget, the starting point could be a Day-Date or Datejust, or even one of the Sports models, like the Submariner or the Explorer,” continues Patrizzi. “For blowing the budget, Daytonas and Paul Newman Daytonas are a good choice. And if you look to the newer models, the Sports editions are always a solid investment. But always buy certified watches, and from a reputable dealer.” What is it that tends to make these Rolexes so valuable? “Condition and rarity are particularly important,” Patrizzi explains. “Prototypes, for instance, are highly valued, because they’re a one-off. Provenience is also a factor. And generally, the restoration of mechanical parts is acceptable, while anything exterior ought to be preserved in its original form, or restored very skilfully to preserve the aesthetics, otherwise it can impact the value. And the box, accessories and certificates are also extremely important.”

The Rolex boutique in Dubai Mall is a one-of-a kind structure and a first for the brand

For those currently on the waiting list, perhaps there is some relief in knowing that their purchase might have the potential to be very valuable in the future. The 2021 line-up includes the Explorer II, with a redesigned 42mm case and ‘Chromalight’ luminescent material, exclusive to Rolex; the 36mm two-tone Oyster Perpetual Explorer in silver and gold, with a striking lacquered black dial; four Oyster Perpetual Datejust 36 models, with striking dial motifs; and the new 40mm Cosmograph Daytonas with meteorite dials and black chronograph counters, available in different case materials. They seem to meet some of Patrizzi’s criteria in terms of what tends to retain or increase value. And generally, it seems, watch collecting is here to stay, with Rolex remaining one of the most sought after brands. “Since the 1980s, the investment market for watches has hugely grown,” Patrizzi concludes. “Watches have increased their value on average five times, 20 times, and even more throughout the years. If you consider that design is the main art form of the 20th century, a watch is a wonderful example of this. And watches are universal products, with their value well recognised all over the world.” The way forward is clear: buy yourself a Rolex and never look back. Of course, others have the same idea at the moment, so you might have a bit of a wait. Investing in Wristwatches: Rolex by Osvaldo Patrizzi and Mara Cappelletti is published by ACC Art Books, Dhs327. Buy Now

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