Once in a while on the collector forums, a question is posed: is there anyone in the collector community who has never, ever, owned a Rolex? As a general rule, respondents to these queries tend to express disbelief that such a creature could possibly exist given the quality and ubiquity of the brand’s watches.
Well, folks, I’m here to tell you that such people do exist, and that I’m one of them. And to be honest, when I suggested this article topic to Elizabeth, one reason that I did so was that I was pretty mystified about it myself: how could it be?
How it (didn’t) happen
In the beginning: The simplest explanations for why I didn’t start early with Rolex are simple: money and time. The first time I encountered the brand was during the Lucerne stop of a hard-earned student trip (more on this in an upcoming article).
I had $45 in spending money. One of my roommates had several hundred bucks that he promptly spent on what he described as, “The watch my Dad says is the best in the world.”
For me, it was too soon and too much. And even then, my spidey-sense suggested to me that my friend’s Dad’s absolute certainty and his son’s resulting zeal might possibly be misplaced.
Other gateway drugs: Fast forward about six years of schooling, 15 years of 80-hour workweeks, and an increasing fascination with timekeeping. When I did turn to watches in a serious way, my attention was drawn to other brands.
Omega played a role (and to some extent filled the collection “spots” that might otherwise have been filled with Rolexes), but the big hitter for me was Jaeger-LeCoultre, starting with a steel Reverso Duoface and going from there.
It might actually be interesting to poll collectors and see whether there are two basic types: those who started with, and stayed with, Jaeger-LeCoultre and those who followed the Rolex trail.
Now that I consider it, perhaps there are (now) Panerai and Omega Speedmaster branches to the tree as well; but that’s also a topic for another day!
Reverse snobbery: For a while, I had a pretty active disdain for Rolex, for what I now realize were three main reasons.
First, whether it’s watches, cars, or consumer electronics, I have a low tolerance for fan boys, those uncritical sorts who believe that every single feature of their favored brand is the best and also feel that is critical that you believe it, too.
For instance, at this point I’ve read way too many online threads in which Rolex’ use of 904L stainless steel is put forward as proof of the pitiful weakness of all other brands. What I came to believe was that any brand that needed such unthinking support might not be worthy of mine.
The second reason was that I thought I had found “better” solutions than Rolex for my needs; for example, my Vacheron Constantin Overseas in the sports watch category.
Whether it was the Overseas or other watches like the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms with its wonderful and robust X-71 bracelet, I really didn’t see Rolex watches as world-beaters in their categories.
Finally, there’s the position of Rolex as one of the world’s leading, if not the leading, mass luxury brand. If you know me, you know that I’m not innately drawn to “mass” anything, even in luxury categories; part of the appeal for me is being a bit off the beaten path.
That whole vintage thing: For the record, I loved Paul Newman. Great actor, great race driver, great (it is reported) husband, great actor. Man’s man, philanthropist.
And, of course, wearer of Rolex, including what is popularly called the “Paul Newman” Daytona.
Back to that “too soon, too much” thing: when I first became aware of the “Paul Newman” watches, the prices seemed way too dear for my wallet; now that the prices have gone through the roof, it’s now “too late, too much” for me.
In addition, the whole world of vintage Rolex seems to me fraught with peril. When a company makes many hundreds of thousands of watches per year (which, as far as I can tell from available serial number tables, was true for Rolex even in the 1960s) and has rabid fans, it stands to reason that some of those fans will attempt to find “unique” watches among the multitudes and bid up their market values.
The inevitable result: frankenwatches and outright fakes as well as astronomical values attached to minute distinctions (Double Red Sea Dweller, anyone?).
Don’t even get me started on the watches with so-called “tropical” dials that started their lives as black but now exhibit brown patina (or in plain English, corrosion).
With the expert counsel of someone like my friend and Rolex maven Eric Ku, I could knock out the concerns about provenance and authenticity for any given watch; but I’m still not confident that the white-hot market for these desirable vintage pieces won’t crater sometime soon.
And, Rolex isn’t exactly helping with its reluctance (and in some cases reported refusal) to service watches more than 25 to 30 years of age.
I’m a dress watch guy: If I went to the bank, took all of my watches out of the safe and snapped a group photo, what you would see is an array of dress watches with a few sports/utility pieces mixed in. I’ve been in business a long time, and my daily wear reflects that.
And while a “nice” bracelet watch can be perfectly acceptable for business wear, I suppose I’ve always favored a dressier look.
Why it might yet happen
At this point I’ve pretty much convinced myself that my Rolex aversion has explainable roots. But all the same, I continue to have the nagging sense that if at some point I don’t own one, I’ll be missing something.
So, why might I finally pull the trigger?
Changing lifestyle: Finances permitting, I’ll be slowing down from my fanatical work pace a few years hence. And, as I’ve lived in California for 18 years now, I’m finally starting to discover the joys of casual dress. It seems only natural that adding high-quality sports watches to the mix will be a natural consequence.
Solid product: Say what you like about Rolex, but at the end of the day its products speak for themselves in terms of robustness and excellent timekeeping, both attributes that are important to me.
Better bracelets: If you’d like an entertaining few minutes, do an online search for “flimsy Rolex bracelet” and read some of the comments from Rolex owners and non-owners alike.
From personal experience, I can say that the Jubilee and Oyster bracelets on my wife’s Rolexes are nothing to write home about. In recent years, Rolex seems to have stepped up its game.
Tired of being a hater: I must be mellowing in my old age! I may have reached a tipping point at which I’m willing to judge these watches on their merits rather than judge their owners as braggarts or wannabes.
Low-risk experiment: At least for the more popular models, pre-owned Rolex values are well established and fairly stable. So, there seems to be every opportunity for me to see what all of the fuss is about without too much risk of “getting hurt,” as my collector friends and I refer to the possibility of substantial economic loss on a particular piece.
So, which one?
After all of that, the happy news is that for me the choices narrow down quite quickly to three watches.
- Rolex GMT Master II BLNR: The “Batman” or “Bruiser” version of the second-generation GMT Master has a clean look and to my eye the combination blue/black bezel is just killer.
- Rolex Cosmograph Daytona: For me it would be the stainless steel version with white dial. At 40 mm in diameter it’s big enough but not too big, I have a fondness for sports chronographs, and for me the Daytona is one of the landmark Rolex models.
- Daytona “Paul Newman”: Yeah, I know I said all of that stuff above about vintage Rolex. But if and when the price bubble on these watches bursts and they are back in the $25,000 range, count me in.
Update May 19, 2016: I did take the plunge and you can read all about that at Great Rolex Experiment With The GMT Master II Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Crown.
Update August 2, 2017: Why I’ve Never Owned A Rolex – And Why I Might Yet (Update: I Do Now!). You may find the comments under that post interesting as well.