Ask a random person what they think the best watch is, they are most likely to mention a Rolex watch. These watches are really beautiful, and to most regular folk, cost an arm and a leg. So, why is Rolex so expensive? Is there really a justification for Rolex’s high prices or is it simply branding and storytelling?
Rolex has come a long way in the watch industry being the watch of choice for many actors and even one-time president, John F. Kennedy. Rolex wristwatches have also made prominent appearances in movies such as James Bond (1962 — Rolex Submariner) and License to Kill (1989 — Rolex Submariner Date).
Rolex has wielded unbelievable power over the market, and this is only matched by a handful of other brands in the market. Roger W. Smith, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet come to mind. Still, even of these brands, Rolex still stands out from the pack.
The brand is practically in a world of its own, and despite the fact that this is a brand known by everyone, only precious few are privy to the real Rolex. Only privileged few are allowed to enter into its facilities to see how it makes watches first hand. This only adds to the mysteriousness of the brand. Perhaps that’s another reason why Rolex is so expensive? Who knows? Well, we are about to find out.
Table of Contents
Reasons Why Rolex Is So Expensive
1. Rolex Uses 904L Stainless Steel
Before, Rolex used the common steel to make its watches, which is the 316L steel. However, with time, Rolex moved away from 316L to 904L steel. It appears that right now, Rolex is the only brand using 904L steel. However, it looks like Ball is gearing up to take away that bragging right from Rolex, though.
Rolex released its first 904L steel wristwatch (the Sea-Dweller) in 1988. This steel is better because it has a higher resistance to corrosion and rust. It is also a little harder than other metals.
However, these aren’t the biggest reasons Rolex uses 904L steel. 904L steel handles polishing much better than 316L steel if you handle it properly. This is the reason Rolex watches always end up looking different than other kinds of watches.
So, why doesn’t everybody use the 904L seeing that it is so great and marvelous? Well, in the first place, 904L steel is more expensive than 316L. It’s a more complicated kind of steel to machine than other kinds of steel.
In fact, when Rolex made the switch to 904L steel, it had to change most of its machinery to meet the demands of the 904L steel processing.
This made sense for Rolex seeing that they produced a large number of watches, plus, all parts are made in-house anyway whereas most other brands get their parts from external suppliers.
Hence, for these reasons, most other brands are not able to take advantage of the 904L steel, leaving Rolex alone in that class for now. The difference becomes obvious the moment you handle a Rolex watch and compare it to watches from other brands.
2. Rolex Has Multiple Research Facilities With Its Own Professional Science Lab In Each
That Rolex has an internal Research and Development Lab is not surprising. Rolex has come a long way in the industry already to not have that. However, what really blows our minds is that Rolex has its own high-tech science lab wherever its facilities are located.
These labs don’t just research into new watches and new designs, they also make research into ways to make manufacturing processes more efficient and effective. In short, Rolex is an extremely competent company with a knack for organization.
These labs are simply amazing and working in them are some of the most brilliant minds in the world of science.
Labs at Rolex facilities are quite diverse. There’s the chemistry lab where Rolex says they research and develop oils and lubricants used for the machines during manufacturing.
Rolex also has a room for its multiple electron microscopes as well as some gas spectrometers.
With these, they are able to take extremely close up looks at different metals as well as other materials to check out the effects of certain manufacturing techniques as well as machining on them. At Rolex, such checks are routine to prevent or remedy any possible issue.
Besides parts and machines, these labs are also used to check out the watches themselves. In the stress test room, the watch movements, cases, and bracelets undergo wear and abuse (both simulated) on robots and custom-made machines. After such tests, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that a Rolex is a partner for life once you get it.
3. All Rolex Movements Are Assembled By Hand And Tested
Many people believe that Rolex watches are built by machines, however, there’s nothing further from the truth. Plus, Rolex does not say much to either confirm or debunk the rumors. Well, it turns out that Rolex watches are all hand-made like any classic Swiss-made watch should be.
Of course, at some point, machines are involved, and the machinery at Rolex is about the most sophisticated you’d come across worldwide. However, at Rolex, the motto is pretty simple. If a human can do it better, let a human do it. If a machine can do it better, then let the machine do it.
So, you find that processes such as filing, sorting, cataloging, and other delicate procedures are typically left to the machines to handle. But then again, many of these machines are still handled by people anyway.
However, when it comes to making the bracelets and movements, these ones are assembled by hand. Where a machine would come in is in the application of the right pressure for aligning parts, attaching pins, and pressing down hands. In the end, though, a trained technician finishes up the job by setting the hands of the watch.
Altogether, Rolex is borderline obsessed with quality control, or maybe not even borderline. It’s regular practice to have watches rechecked many times and then one more time for good measure. Before and after chronometer certification at the COSC, Rolex will have large teams of watchmakers and assembly personnel work extensively on each watch.
Finally, Rolex re-tests the watches again for movement accuracy after they’ve been cased for a number of days before they are finally sent out to retailers.
Watch this mesmerizing video where the Rolex Submariner is taken apart and reassembled. Of course, it goes without saying. Do not try this at home.
4. Rolex Produces Its Own Gold
Unlike other watchmakers, Rolex is the only brand in the industry to produce the gold it uses for its wristwatches. It does have a few suppliers that supply steel, however, the gold and platinum are all in-house.
In Rolex’s facilities, you find large kilns under hot flames which melt and mix the metals and then turn them into the bracelets and cases we find on Rolex watches.
Since Rolex controls the production and machining of its gold, not only is quality assured, but beauty is also assured.
Rolex is the only company with a real in-house foundry.
5. Rolex Invests Heavily In Technology
Not many companies are able to invest so much in machines because they are super expensive and having people do the job is much cheaper. And then again, their demands are not sky-high like that of Rolex which further reduces their need for machinery.
For Rolex, not only are there machines, there are also robots that help with the work as well, making most processes fully automated.
So, say a watchmaker needs some parts from the master supply room, they simply need to place an order and a robot (there are robots for each vast column of parts in the master supply room) would make it available in about 6 to 8 minutes.
For repetitive tasks that require a high level of consistency, robots also come in to help with the watch, and most parts have their first machine polish by a robot. The final polishing and finishing are done by hand, though.
6. Rolex Tests Its Dive Watches Individually In Pressurized Tanks With Water
Yes, Rolex passes all its Oyster case watches as well as Oyster dive watches, Submariner, and Deep Sea watches through such extreme testing. The watches are tested twice, before and after the dial and movement and put in.
After this air pressure testing, Rolex then tests the water-resistance of each one of its dive watches in real water.
So, the watches are put into large tanks of water, filled to the brim, to ensure that they are actually water-resistant at 300 meters.
Now, this test is not as simple as it looks, it is actually quite complex as the method Rolex uses to confirm whether or not water has entered the case is, in itself, complex.
After the submerging of the watches, the watches are then heated up after which the person carrying out the test would place a drop of cold water on the crystal to check for condensation. Then an optical sensor would check the crystal to see if it retains trace amounts of water.
It’s impressive to say that only less than one watch in a thousand fails this test. And that’s only for the Submariner. For the Deep Sea watches, testing is even more intense.
Rolex uses specialized high-pressure water tanks to test the Deep Sea watches. These watches are measured at pressures equivalent to pressure at 12,000 meters deep. The machine takes well over an hour just to complete this test.
Check out how the Rolex Submariner fares in a real-life underwater situation in the video below:
7. Rolex Works With An Army Of Gemologists
Call them absurd, but Rolex has real standards when it comes to the materials it uses in the manufacturing of its watches. From diamonds to emeralds to rubies, Rolex is super strict with its standards.
Its team of gemologists buy, test and arrange these precious stones for the Rolex models. For each incoming stone, they must confirm that it is real. For instance, for diamonds, they conduct x-rays to make sure they are not fake.
From the report at Rolex, in all its years of testing diamonds, only 2 diamonds in 20 million have been found to be fake. Seems most negligible right? Maybe even too negligible for Rolex to be “wasting” so much time and money on testing. However, Rolex does not skimp.
When it comes to precious stones, however big or however small, Rolex always ensures that they are selected and set by hand.
There are also traditional jewelers on Rolex’s payroll which create the custom settings for precious stones in its most exclusive watches. These jewelers follow the same process for making the finest jewelry you find in the world.
8. Rolex Takes About A Year To Make One Watch
Rolex has said it before in an ad that it takes about a year to make a single watch. While that might sound suspicious, it is true. True, Rolex makes about a million watches per year, still, impressively, they take no shortcuts. Rolex is more focused on producing the best watches and also seeing how they can make their watches better.
From the starting to the shaping of the parts of a typical watch case to final testing, the entire process takes approximately one year. For some models, definitely, Rolex can hasten things if need be. Nonetheless, generally, each watch is composed of many parts, of which virtually all are made in-house. And then testing and quality assurance processes are even more intense.
To put things in perspective, all dials are made in-house and all hour markers are set individually by hand. For other brands, machines do the work but at Rolex, the company believes that the human eye is much better at spotting problems. So, all the markers are applied and riveted by hand.
Afterward, dials are then thrown from a distance of 20 centimeters in the air to make sure that the markers don’t fall out. It is as time-consuming as it sounds and one of the many processes in making a Rolex watch that requires a skilled human being to perform.
So, when you add up everything, including Rolex’s fanaticism for ensuring quality, you find that a Rolex watch can indeed take a year to produce.
9. Rolex Makes Virtually All Parts Of Its Watches In-House
Rolex makes literally all parts of its watches in-house. The only parts Rolex outsources are the synthetic sapphire crystals and many dial hands. Every other thing from gold to bracelets to cases to bezels to dials to movements, all are made in-house for the highest assurance of quality and efficiency.
Rolex has all the machinery needed.
Plus, the brand invests heavily in its processes, techniques, as well as its trade secrets which it holds on to tightly. This is where the real Rolex magic happens such that even if some other companies were to replicate their facilities and machinery, they still wouldn’t be able to manufacture a Rolex watch.
10. Rolex Invests Heavily In Security
Of course, with everything Rolex uses in the manufacturing of its watches, Rolex has to be keen on security. From precious stones to watches, there are many valuables in a Rolex facility at any point in time that need safekeeping. Hence, Rolex takes meticulous steps to ensure that all valuables are kept in an impregnable safe underground.
Now, watch this, guys, everything here is super high tech. So, before you can access this safe, there’s a door that looks like something guarding a bank vault. Plus, you also have to pass an iris scanner which scans your eyes to identify you before you can get to the safe.
When Rolex moves parts from one location to another, these parts travel in super discreet, unmarked, heavily-armored (most likely) trucks.
And Rolex has every reason to be serious about safety, a Rolex watch, after all, is, as they say, as good as currency.
One More Reason Why Rolex Is So Expensive
After all said and done, Rolex belongs to an industry that thrives on perception and the ability to tell a good story. How else have they been able to convince you and many others that it’s their exclusive right to sell you a watch you can’t afford and you most certainly don’t necessarily need?
Interestingly, you’d think Rolex would be about taking all the monies that can be offered it for its watches. This does not seem to be the case, however. Unlike many other watches, you can’t simply waltz into a store, bring out cash or card and pick up a Rolex. Nope. you’d have to put your name on a waiting list, and not just one but several lists. Even at that, there are no guarantees.
Rolex tries to limit the supply of its wristwatches only to authorized dealers in order to maintain the value of its watches.
The latest professional models, especially, are super scarce and unless you’re already very familiar with a dealer, chances of getting one that isn’t pre-owned are very low, and you’d probably have to spend an additional ten thousand on the actual retail price of the watch if you decide to get a pre-owned watch. Most, however, consider it a worthwhile investment.
Some people have said that it’s ridiculous for Rolex to purposely not sell models that are in high demand, claiming that Rolex is unable to keep up with the demand for its watches.
Well, as we’ve already cleared up, Rolex makes close to a million watches yearly. So, that can’t be true. Dealerships are never empty either. Plus, the less desirable models are always in excess supply. Only the most desirable ones are undersupplied. It doesn’t take an Einstein to know that this is deliberate.
Rolex has developed and perfected a mature game plan that not many brands within and outside the watchmaking space have the confidence to pursue. This is part of what makes the Rolex brand intriguing, exciting, and, of course, expensive.
By the way, if you’re thinking of selling your Rolex watch, we’ve got just the article for you. Click here to read Where Can I Sell my Rolex Watch? It tells you everything you need to know about the best way to go about selling your Rolex watch for maximum dollar.