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Feature: 3 More Things You’ve Got To Know About Rolex

It’s been an eventful six weeks learning more about your favourite brands in our In Focus series, and we’re ending with a bang with three more things you didn’t know about Rolex. Plus, you can catch even more stories right here on our blog too. So, to wrap—three things you didn’t know about your favourite brand: Rolex.

Rolex Can’t Make A True Ceramic Pepsi Bezel

As a business, Rolex has that rare ability not just to be an icon in and of itself, but also be an icon made of icons. Where else in the watch industry will details as small and seemingly insignificant as a date magnifying window, three-piece bracelet design or hour hand be so immediately recognisable? Given other manufacturer’s frequent attempts to recreate these totems, it demonstrates just how much visual ownership Rolex commands.

And that even boils down to colour. Think red and blue and you think Rolex GMT-Master. From the word go in 1954, the GMT-Master has championed the unexpected but now equally iconic Pepsi colour scheme to differentiate night and day. That seminal reference 6542 could just have easily been blue and black or red and black—as we’ve come to see on later GMT-Masters—and any other combination therein, but it wasn’t. It could have been split higher or lower on the bezel—like Grand Seiko’s SBGJ239—but it wasn’t. These seemingly arbitrary colours and placements, designed in collaboration with Pan Am pilots for contrast and readability, set the benchmark upon which all other GMT watches would be based.

So, when the GMT-Master carried the responsibility for introducing the ceramic bezel to Rolex’s line-up in 2005—Cerachrom, as the brand called it—the big question on everyone’s lips was: when will the ceramic Pepsi be here? There was no question of if; the fans demanded it. For a long while, there wasn’t even a two-tone ceramic GMT-Master. We had to wait until 2013, eight years later, to get the now-famous—but not as famous—blue and black.

What gives? Well, for all its benefits in scratch resistance and fade protection, the Silicon-based ceramic used by Rolex does have some compromises. With the previous GMT-Master bezel, the raw aluminium could simply be anodised one colour on one half and the other on the other—more easily done with the split right down the middle—but ceramic is different.

The pigmentation of the basic ceramic material is both limited in range and uniform in hue, and benefits from a chemical treatment to realise the final colour. Fine for a solid shade like black, but for two-tone it presents a problem. Rolex backed itself into a corner by insisting it wouldn’t glue two pieces together, and so came a problem that took a decade to solve. Except, it didn’t ever get solved, not really.

For 2013’s blue and black bezel, the solution was fairly simple: make a blue bezel, and chemically treat one half to be black. That’s fine because the black is dark enough to hide the base blue pigment underneath. But for red and blue, two colours much more similar in brightness and saturation, the trick didn’t work quite so well. I expect Rolex hoped the black and blue option would appease customers, but it didn’t. It had taken eight years to come up with a solution that didn’t have the intended effect of neutering interest in a ceramic Pepsi, and so the next year was spent trying to find a solution.

Except, when the curtains were pulled back on the new BLRO GMT-Master for the first time, it was quickly apparent that Rolex had made a massive compromise. A brand notorious for its stubbornness and perfection had given in and made public a sub-standard solution. That is to say, a bodge. Instead of being rich blue next to rich red, we had red-ish blue topping blue-ish red. Rolex had resorted to using the same process as it had its black and blue bezel, applying a chemical treatment of slightly darker blue over a base red, but where black could completely obscure the blue, the blue could not entirely mask the red. So, to stop the blue looking purple, the base red needed to be slightly blue, and what results is the muddy colour combination you see today. I mean, it’s hardly a big deal, but for Rolex, it was a very rare, very public defeat.

Rolex Has An Army Of Robots

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Terminator, a story that warns against the power of machines as they become sentient and turn on their human overlords. With technology—and in particular, artificial intelligence—looming closer than ever before, it’s certainly a topic of conversation that his evolved from the false hope of James Cameron’s future career to a genuine concern. What you might not have expected, however, is that the robot uprising might emanate from Switzerland, deep in the heart of Rolex HQ.

Before we reveal exactly how Rolex is going to instigate the thousand-year war between man and machine, let’s take a look at a very real—and very unexpected—problem the brand found itself facing. Like a person who wins the lottery becoming wary of their new friends, Rolex has seen its immeasurable success not just as a blessing, but a curse. Customers wanted to buy its luxury watches in droves, demand was through the roof—and that put a new price on every single component—of which Rolex had a store of over 50,000.

Given the secrecy of its research, its design and its procedures, Rolex is already very security conscious. Every area at its HQ is accessible only by those who need to be there. Every computer is unlocked with a fingerprint. There’s a trace of everything that happens and who made it happen, right down to the last component.

So how exactly do you keep track of 50,000 components, stop staff skimming a piece here and there? Simple: make sure no human is ever allowed into the room where those components are kept. Accessible only by a select few—and requiring iris identification no less—the Rolex stock room is one of its biggest secrets. As deep as it is long, the 12,000 cubic-metre cavity is only navigable by robots. Travelling along 1.5km of track, racing back and forth and up and down to fetch over 2,800 components per hour, these robots collect and deliver exactly what’s needed exactly when it’s needed.

It’s this automation that not only keeps sticky fingers off valuable components, but also allows Rolex to hit its estimated output of some 800,000 watches per year, operating its own version of the “just in time” model popularised by Japanese car makers. Configured with the sequential watchmaking assembly process, where an individual completes one task repeatedly rather than building an entire watch, it makes Rolex an unstoppable force in production efficiency and stock allocation. That is, until the uprising …

How Rolex Got Its Name

Perhaps you’ve heard the story about how Rolex got its name, how founder Hans Wilsdorf was struck by inspiration one day on a coach ride in London when he claims a genie whispered the name “Rolex” in his ear. A few days later, he registered the name in Switzerland.

Founded three years earlier in 1905, Rolex had previously traded under the name Wilsdorf and Davis—Alfred Davis being his brother-in-law and co-founder—or most often with no name at all, the jeweller selling the piece insisting on its own name gracing the dial instead. Wilsdorf admitted sneaking in the odd branded watch in his shipments to jewellers in the hopes of growing his business.

But with big-name jewellers like Tiffany applying its mark even to watchmakers like Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, a watch with a name unrelated to either a jeweller or its founder was basically unheard of. Even Omega, then the industry leader, had been named after its own founder, Louis Brandt, right up until 1903. But Wilsdorf could see that success in the future meant building not just watches, but a brand as well—and to have a brand, he needed a name.

In a talk celebrating the 50th anniversary of Rolex, Wilsdorf commented that he had tried combining every letter of the alphabet in every possible way, yielding hundreds of unsuccessful names. He wanted something simple, universal and unforgettable. Omega was the benchmark, and a tough act to follow.

The idea, it turns out, came as a flash of inspiration. It’s very common for a solution to come in a moment of sensory distraction, when the familiarity of something allows the subconscious brain to do its magic. In the shower, on the toilet … or, in Wilsdorf’s case, on the morning commute. But very rarely is inspiration wholly original. That subconscious process that sparks it is understood to be triggered by a deep search of the brain, scouring memories forgotten by the conscious to find information that might help.

In 1946, Hans Wilsdorf signed a declaration that he personally coined the name Rolex on that coach in London in 1908. He also wrote a series of manuals to educate retailers about the Rolex brand called Rolex Jubilee Vade Mecum. Vade Mecum is Latin, meaning “go with me” and used to indicate that a manual should be kept to hand. Wilsdorf was fluent in Latin, the study of which being one of his favourite subjects.

So, examining the etymology of the word clock, in Latin we see horologium, a word still very familiar to us today. Where the etymology of that extends in either direction, however, gives us a possibility for the word that was whispered into Wilsdorf’s ear. Go back to the ancient Greek upon which horologium is based and you find “Roloi”. Extend forward into the language that, today, maintains the most of its Latin roots, Spanish, and you have “Reloj”. Somewhere in between, and you’ll come across the word, “Relox”, just one letter swap away from the brand we know and love today. Perhaps when Wilsdorf referred to the genie, he was actually referencing the Latin derivation of genius: his own genius having subconsciously delivered the word that would make him famous.

Well, that’s all from our In Focus series. I hope you enjoyed it. In the meanwhile, why not check out any articles you may have missed? You can find them here on the Watchfinder blog.

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