The recent annual update on the Rolex line-up took the watch-related media by storm, naturally evoking one ever-lasting debate.
Well, you’ve heard the news. There’s a whole bunch of new watches from the biggest brand of them all, including a no-date Submariner, seven with-date Submariner variations, Sky Dweller on the Oysterflex and so on. With the exception of colorful dials added to the Oyster Perpetuals 36 line – there’re also now two buttons at 3,6, and 9 instead of one – all these changes are barely visible even to hardcore collectors. Come on, just show both Submariners – the new one and the pervious one – to any non-watch person, and ask them to tell the difference. Actually don’t do it, unless you’re ready to make some good fun of yourself. The words ‘1 mm growth in diameter and a bit slimmer lugs’ translates to human english as ‘pretty much the same’. Surely, the brand continues to improve its wonderful movements under the hood, but it’s Rolex, so we can’t even see them though the caseback. And hey, almost no one buys a Rolex for the sake of its movement anyway, regardless of their outstanding quality.
How come the new line-up of the market leader lands so… conservative, to say the least. And this question goes far beyond the current releases, and beyond Rolex itself. Can you name another consumer-driven industry that gets away with such safe playing? As we know, the Submariner was born in 1954 and, in terms of exterior, has evolved only subtly. That’s 66 years from now, and we’re talking the most recognizable luxury watch on the planet, not a handful of collectable rarities that vanish between nerds in-the-know. Comparing it to some consumer electronics would be ridiculous, so let’s stick up with cars of the era. Can you imagine Cadillac Eldorado Broughams or Packard Pacifics – both very beautiful vehicles indeed –selling on industrial basis, even if packed with current electronics and eco-engine stuff? The answer is likely no. So why is it OK for watchmaking to not offer anything new on a general basis?
One may argue that the Swiss are selling objects of beauty, the very idea of mechanical perfection, not some utilitarian tools. But if such things are not bound to follow any trends of the day and are meant to be timeless, how come this timelessness is stuck right in the mid XX century? The other counterpoint is even more down-to-earth: it sells – especially Submariners – so why bother? And here comes that unique watchmaking perspective. In any other consumer-driven industry the new and the proven usually go hand in hand, with companies releasing more here-and-now stuff while keeping some staple products intact and available. No one does itin watches. I mean, everyone declares that, but the said ‘new’ and ‘classical’ departments are virtually undistinguishable. In truth, there are mainly two kinds of brands here: those who never experiment preferring the nearly zero-risk tactics, and those who made constant risk their selling message. The former produce almost identical watches year after year, the latter live to surprise everyone with bold flamboyant creations, often stigmatized by the purists playing it too safe.
It’s like everyone has to pick a side and send a strong message, otherwise it won’t work. A step in some other direction is expected to harm the image and the story of the brand. As if the same watch could be a win for one and a catastrophe for the other. Remember last year we witnessed a tornado of controversial feedback for Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 launch? Regardless of your position on the subject, you’d likely agree that each year there are enough watches that some of us like and some of us don’t. The unheard of level of complains was driven among other things by the name Audemars Piguet. The brand played it more or less safe for years, having an astonishing success. And a totally new watch collection caught the clientele off-guard. Turn to history, and learn that Royal Oak – the major Audemars Piguet horological asset – got a similar welcome in its day. As counter-intuitive as may be, the success behind the big names like Rolex Submariner, Omega Speedmaster, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and other watches that change without really changing lies is this type of conservatism. Call it monkey business, but the new Sub has just grown an additional millimeter in diameter, and that’s all. Live with it. But oh boy, how cool it would be to witness the actual business meeting, where Rolex R&D stuff were pitching that idea to their superiors! Emotions rising through the roof, the brightest engineering minds of our time go for each other’s throats… Can a man dream for a while?
Sep. 07, 2020