Someone once said you can judge the temperature of the watch industry by the reaction to what Rolex does at Baselworld every year. Hot, or not?
Unlike other watch brands, Rolex says nothing about its new watches before the show – to anyone. So at 12pm on the Wednesday of Basel when it lifts the lid on its latest creations, watch critics and collectors go into overdrive, itching to be the first to show and comment on what the watch industry’s number one superpower is up to. Such was the immediate interest that the Rolex press site ground to halt for a few hours and even HQ couldn’t access it.
The buzz this year centred around three new models from Rolex’s ‘professional watch’ collection – the Yacht-Master 42, a new version of the Sea-Dweller, and the return of the GMT-Master II with a black and blue bezel, known as the ‘Batman’ – and on a few of the gem-set pieces. Let’s take a look at them.
A bigger, more sub-zero Yacht-Master
At the head of the pack, the Yacht-Master story was of a larger 42mm case in white gold. Those specifications are a first in the line and will go down well with consumers who’ve been frustrated by the comparatively modest proportions of previous models. Beyond that, it has a bi-directional rotating bezel with Rolex’s Cerachrom ceramic bezel insert and a 60-minute timer scale in relief (an aesthetic we’re seeing more of); and the Oysterflex rubber bracelet with an Oysterlock safety clasp and the Rolex Glidelock extension system should you need to extend the bracelet to fit over a wetsuit, or a warm-day wrist. The new model also carries Rolex’s current generation calibre 3235 time and date movement, featuring the company’s increasingly familiar anti-magnetic, anti-shock technology, accuracy to -2/+2 seconds a day and a 70-hour power reserve.
Rolesor comes to the Sea-Dweller
Rolex may not have expected it, but the new Sea-Dweller picked up more heat than the Yacht-Master. That was because for the first time it’s made it in yellow Rolesor, the term given by Rolex to pieces made from steel and gold. The Sea-Dweller has never featured yellow gold before, and many argued that it’s unnecessary and even inappropriate in a professional diver’s watch water-resistant to 4,000 feet. That may be so, but as Rolex has identified in this watch (just as with the white gold Yacht-Master), its customers buy by price and aesthetic – functionality is a bonus, or even an irrelevance. How often to people actually use a mechanical chronograph? If you want a rugged steel Sea-Dweller because you’re diving, you can have one. If you want one that makes a stronger statement, you can now have one of those, too. The attention the Sea-Dweller got was also because two-tone watches are having a moment – with Rolex’s contribution at the vanguard.
The Batman gets a Jubilee bracelet
Before the show, Rolex fan communities had wrongly surmised the GMT-Master II version known as the ‘Batman’ – owing to its black and blue bezel – was on the way out. Instead, Rolex has done what it did to the ‘Pepsi’ red-and-blue bezel version of the GMT-Master II last year and put it on a Jubilee bracelet. One of the results of this is that you can now only buy a steel GMT-Master II on a Jubilee bracelet. If you want the simpler aesthetic of the Oyster bracelet, you have to upgrade to a precious metal – which you could do by investing in the new white gold version of the Pepsi with a blue dial, a piece that’s somehow so far flown below the radar.
Diamonds and jewels
While the first thought with Rolex is of those iconic, utilitarian tool watch designs, the company is also a master gem-setter and each year produces a series of pieces decorated with precious stones. Memorable introductions this year are an 18-carat yellow gold, diamond bezel Daytona with an ‘elaborate dial’ coated in black lacquer and paved with diamonds; and a startling trio of diamond-paved Day-Date 36 pieces with 10 baguette-cut rainbow-coloured sapphire hour markers. As with two-tone, rainbows are also a big trend this year.
So how does Rolex’s new collection reflect the current industry temperature?
One thing we should say first is that this is not by Rolex’s standards a stand-out year. There was little that moved it up a gear– no new calibres, no upgrades to the ever-popular Oyster Perpetual and no new signature technologies to speak of.
That doesn’t mean Rolex is taking its foot off the gas. The upgrades it’s introduced as a new standard over the last five years have accelerated it beyond the competition, so much so it’s the only brand to offer both a five-year warranty and 10-year recommended service intervals on all its new watches.
But a quiet year for Rolex does set the scene for a quiet year for the industry, at least in product terms. What’s interesting though, is that this year may actually be an exception to the rule in that Rolex’s news had little bearing on the overall tone of Baselworld. Instead, the climate was chilled by the uncertainty surrounding the future of the watch fairs at the moment (a theme we’ll return to). Not that it’s its job to do so, but Rolex came nowhere near raising the temperature to the point where those concerns were forgotten – and nor, for that matter, did anyone else.