Rolex: In the Oyster
Famously tight-lipped watchmaker Rolex opens the doors to its four manufacturing facilities in Switzerland, giving Karishma Tulsidas a rare and thorough insight into its legendary cachet.
R2-D2-type robots roam the hallways, transporting trays of components from one workbench to another. A white coat-clad employee stops for a security scan at a retina biometrics system and the heavy doors to the vault swing open.
We are in Geneva, visiting Rolex’s four vertically integrated manufactures, and it feels like we’re in some sort of surreal crossover movie between Star Trek and James Bond. The architecture of all four sites is contemporary—glass-panelled buildings within which space-age machines are manned by specialist watchmakers and technicians. It’s a privilege to be at the heart of Rolex, as the luxury brand only just recently started inviting select journalists and retailers to visit its manufactures. It comes after the opening of the last piece of the puzzle, the movement factory in Bienne.
Indisputably one of the world’s most famous watch brands, Rolex is also famously reticent—about production numbers, turnover, even, surprisingly, some of its technological developments. It reminds me of an advertisement on radio a long time ago, where a host of people from the world over asks, “Can I get a Coca-Cola please?” in different languages—English, French, Hindi, Spanish, Mandarin, Afrikaans. Coca-Cola, the campaign conveyed, transcended all languages, creed and colour, and was as easily recognisable in the cosmopolitans as it was in far-out villages in the heart of the African jungle.
Rolex has the same ubiquity. In fact, the 2014 Global RepTrak 100 study by the Reputation Institute placed Rolex in the third position among 100 of the world’s most reputable companies, based on consumer perception. Given that it’s jostling with consumer brands that have tremendous mass appeal and are more affordable—the likes of Apple, Samsung and Sony—the ranking is indicative of the watchmaker’s clout.
The consensus between the hardcore watch collectors and the masses is unanimous: Rolex is synonymous with quality, accuracy, innovation and efficiency. Where most of the watch industry is in this race to design the most complicated, Rolex is in a niche of its own, continuing on the path of innovation and carrying on the legacy of its founder—simply improving accuracy in timekeeping. These are utilitarian watches that are made to survive daily rigours, as well as the toughest conditions, be it on the top of the Mount Everest or in the deepest part of the ocean in the Mariana Trench.
The hallowed halls of the watchmaker’s four sites do not answer everything—after all, the luxury brand cannot reveal all its secrets, but they provide enough reason to believe that the hype about Rolex is not marketing talk. Rolex is an ideology, a philosophy, a universe that is wholly dedicated to watchmaking and the perpetuation of this tradition while staying one step ahead in terms of innovation.
Founder Hans Wilsdorf was a rare combination of engineering smarts and marketing genius, with the added benefit of being a visionary. He foresaw the popularity of wristwatches in a time when pocket watches ruled the day; he invented and patented waterproof and automatic watches; and he emphasised on the importance of accuracy, making only COSC-certified watches.
His vision continued through the leadership of the Heiniger father and son duo, who would both, in their lifetimes, drive the company forward. One of the most important decisions, however, was the late Patrick Heiniger’s mission to vertically integrate the Rolex manufacturing process. From numerous, scattered sites, Rolex became a self-contained, self-reliant and independent machine spread across four manufactures.
In Bienne, parts of the movement, including the escapement, balance wheel, hairsprings and shock absorbers, are made and assembled to the highest quality. The rest of the manufactures are located in Geneva. Plan-les-Ouates is where cases and bracelets are made, and where Rolex houses its own foundry that is capable of producing 18K gold alloys. The site of Chêne-Bourg might be the smallest in size, but is no less impressive: a large variety of dials, including gold, mother-of-pearl and meteorite, as well as PVD-coated brass plates are manufactured here. In the same 160m-long building, Rolex has its gemmology department, where precious stones including diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires are meticulously machine- and hand-sorted, and gem set on the watch. Lastly, in the Acacias district stands the epicentre of the Rolex universe, its world headquarters.
Across Switzerland, we learn, there are some 10,000 Rolex employees. We joke that each of them has “green blood” pumped into their veins; everyone we meet throughout our two-day visit is so passionate about the brand.
Man Vs Machine
The one thing that surprised us is the amount of human-based processes and quality checks. There is a common misconception that the processes are automated from start to finish, with a lone man pressing a button to begin a conveyor belt operation that’s analogous to a Japanese automotive factory.
There’s no denying that the technologies, techniques and methods we saw were some of the most advanced in the industry, many developed by the talented research and development Rolex team. It should be noted, however, that each and every step in the creation of a Rolex timepiece is either diligently administered, supervised or quality checked by human hands and eyes. For instance, the application of hands (one of the only components not made in-house) is executed by a trained specialist using a purpose-built Rolex vacuum pump.
The reason for the fastidious quality checks stem from the fact that each Rolex timepiece is COSC-certified to a variation of -4 to +6 seconds per day by the rigorous Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute. Assembled movements undergo gruelling tests set by the watchdog, assuring that its meets all the exacting criteria of accuracy and precision. But if by now we’ve learnt anything about Rolex, it is that it is the ultimate perfectionist. The watchmaker performs its own series of tests that assess each assembled watch on not just accuracy, but also water resistance, power reserve and the strength and durability of the case and bracelet.
We witness the testing processes for the movement at the Acacias headquarters, through a glass-panelled workshop. The only point of entry to the room is a conveyor belt, on which watches in batches of 10 are examined for their power reserve and precision. To check the former, the movement is first sapped of all energy. An automatic robotic arm emulates human action for 27min, which should ideally provide the watch with six hours of power reserve, indicating that the perpetual rotor is functional. The watch then moves to the other half of the workshop, where a photograph of the fully wound timepiece is taken to note the time. The units are placed in four wheels in perpetual motion to simulate wrist action. The time at the end of 24 hours is then recorded to check that it is exactly the same as when the process started.
We move on to two steel tanks of water that have been built to ensure that Rolex lives up to its Oyster moniker. Artificial pressure is pumped in—10 per cent extra for watches that are resistant to 300m, and 25 per cent more for the professional divers’ ranges, including the Submariner and the Sea-Dweller—while a drastic change in temperature, from hot to cold, creates a momentary shock to the timepiece. A
camera checks for condensation on the sapphire crystal, and can distinguish between drops of water and the mother-of-pearl effect.
This tank, however, is not used on the 2008 Rolex Deepsea, intelligently manufactured to withstand the pressures of 3,900m underwater (of course, Rolex being Rolex, the testing has an additional margin of 25 per cent). French company Comex (Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises) that specialises in underwater engineering and hyperbaric technology and with whom Rolex shares a long history, custom-built the Rolex Deepsea Test Tank to appraise the professional timepiece that would go on to explore the Mariana Trench, attached to the arm of a submersible manned by filmmaker and explorer James Cameron.
Over at Plan-les-Ouates, we visit the “torture chamber”, as the brand puts it, and stand mesmerised (and slightly appalled) as a robotic arm aggressively mimics 10 years of wearing a watch in three to four weeks, putting the meticulously linked bracelets to test.
Same, Same but Different
The evolution of Rolex watches is sometimes not apparent to the plebeian eye, as aesthetically, it retains the same fluted or two-toned bezels on a rounded Oyster case with Jubilee or President bracelets. But beneath the seemingly still waters, the company is perpetually in motion, and contrary to its conservative designs, it has continuously worked on breaking new ground on technologies, materials and methods to fulfil its core missions of accuracy, precision and long-lasting quality.
During the Baselworld watch fair last year, Rolex launched its Syloxi hairspring. The innovation was downplayed by the fact that it came cloaked in a drizzle of diamonds, within the 34mm ladies’ DateJust Pearlmaster.
It’s been common knowledge that Rolex has been experimenting with silicium for the past 10 years, but why would the watchmaker launch another hairspring 10 years after it patented a proprietary, blue-hued Parachrom hairspring? The brand explains that both hairsprings have been manufactured to coexist, with the Syloxi’s flatter shape allowing the brand to create slimmer watch profiles for women.
This was the result of the research and development lab, located on a pristine, quiet top floor of the Plan-les-Ouates site. Here, scientists and engineers specialised in chemistry, tribology (the science of friction, lubrication and wear), material development and metallurgy strive to conceive new and updated machinery and components. It is truly the heart of Rolex’s endeavours, the driving force that allows the brand to remain on top of its game.
For now, the Syloxi hairspring will be reserved for the ladies’ timepieces, while Parachrom is used in the Milgauss, Cosmograph Daytona, Submariner, Sea-Dweller, Day-Date and Sky-Dweller.
To give us an example of Rolex’s punctilious nature, an engineer magnifies a gold dial to 100,000 times using an electromicroscope. He indicates a miniature disturbance that cannot even be seen when zoomed in at 10,000 times. He explains that the cause of this inclusion is tantalum, an element added to the alloying process to keep out oxygen. The element was duly removed, replaced by a fire torch to serve the purpose.
As a result of its unrelenting quest to be the ultimate purveyor of durable, long-lasting timepieces, Rolex set up in 2005 its own foundry at Plan-les-Ouates, where it generates its own 18K gold alloys from bars of 24K pure yellow gold. The problem with generic rose gold is that it loses its lustre over the years, as the copper within is affected by external elements. Rolex’s solution was Everose Gold, a unique formula that retains a permanent shine.
Apart from the external case, bezel and bracelets, the gold alloys are also used to create links, pins, clasps and stamps. The alloys are analysed and tested in-house, with an external check by the Swiss metal control boards.
Within the same manufacture, Rolex has a dedicated workshop that manufactures its Cerachrom bezel inserts, making it one of the few manufactures with the expertise and equipment to produce durable, scratchproof and hardy high-tech ceramics.
A couple of years ago, Rolex caused a stir when it successfully produced a dual-toned, blue and black Cerachrom bezel for the GMT-Master II. Coloured ceramics are notoriously difficult to produce, as pigments tend to fade during the sintering process.
A bigger surprise came last year as Rolex not only came up with red ceramic, it also combined it with blue ceramic to emulate its cult favourite Pepsi bezels. It is one single piece of Cerachrom that is first made entirely in red. The blue pigment is subsequently added to one half, resulting in a sort of battle between the two colours. But thanks to ceramic’s porous properties, the blue hue wins. The colours are perfectly distributed, so luminous that light bounces off the reflection. Like all Rolex’s endeavours, it’s beautiful, looks deceptively simple, but is complicated to produce.
At the end of our visit, we are invited on the top floor of the Bienne manufacture, a beautifully landscaped roof garden that overlooks the Jura Mountains. It’s peaceful and serene, offering a beautiful panorama of the surrounds, but all we can think of (apart from the cold) is how Rolex is a holistic amalgamation of beauty and substance. Even if it can’t be seen by everyone, much like how the watch’s movement remains hidden behind a metallic caseback, one can be assured that the watchmaker is too proud and pedantic to allow anything subpar enter or leave its premises.
Images: Christophe Lauffenburger, Jean-daniel Meyer, Thierry Parel and CÉdric Widmer/Rolex
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