“I’ve heard tell what you imagine sometimes comes true” – Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Of all the complicated watches I’ve owned or worn — despite the varying claims of their makers that their dual oscillators, tourbillons, double tourbillons, resonance, triple tourbillons, constant-force mechanism, chain and fusée, ultra-light honeycomb baseplates and so on, are the third millennium’s answer to elevating mechanical chronometry to heretofore-unknown heights of dizzying superhuman performance — none of them tell time better than my Rolex GMT-Master from 1961. Let me repeat that for emphasis: none of these watches that often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars is more accurate than a half-century-old Rolex, which, at the time of its introduction, cost a few hundred dollars.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that the Rolex in question has been worn while jogging and bicycling, and, from what I recall, hasn’t been serviced in over a decade. So the irrefutable fact to me is that in terms of pure, outright, unabashed reliability, there is simply no better watch on the face of the earth than a Rolex.
And if you think my 1961 pointed-crown-guard OCC (Officially Certified Chronometer) ref. 1675 is metaphysically accurate, you should look at my “M”-series GMT-Master II with Rolex caliber 3176, replete with Parachrom hairspring (this was an anomaly particular to the “M”-series as the caliber 3176 was actually intended for the later ceramic-bezel GMT-Master II) which, I’m pretty damn sure, will put the atomic clock at the United States Naval Observatory to shame.
I am not alone in this. I was recently at a watch event where a collector was explaining that since he didn’t have a vintage Rolex, a few years ago, he bought one of the much-coveted Rolex Milsubs, ref. 5517, made for the British Ministry of Defence in the ’70s. He brought the watch home and curiosity got the better of him. So, he decided to test its accuracy. Imagine his shock when he realized that this 40-year-old watch was found to have an aggregate deviation of less than a second — in a month.
Whenever I board a plane, I make sure that the watch on my wrist is a Rolex. That is because, God forbid, if my plane goes down and I’m stranded on a desert island, I know I will be able to survive if I have my Rolex. That’s because a Rolex is the only watch tough enough for you to bash open clamshells all day long and club a desert-island marsupial on the head for dinner with, and still be so incredibly accurate that I can continue to use it as a device to tell magnetic north, as well as use it as my time reference so that, along with my makeshift sextant, I can determine my exact longitude in order to radio for help.
At the same time, I’ve drawn a clear dividing line between what qualifies as a legitimate act of horology and what is a well-marketed piece of ephemera. How? It’s simple. Just ask yourself: does the watch you’ve bought look better with the passing of the years, or does it fade in beauty with the passage of time? Looking into my watch safe, the arrayed Rolex finery which, in addition to the watches mentioned earlier, includes a 18K yellow-gold ref. 6265 Daytona, a steel ref. 6241 “Paul Newman” Daytona, a “R”-series Daytona (circa 1988; this is the very first Daytona that uses a Zenith movement), a Mark II thin-case “Double Red” Sea-Dweller, and just for fun, a Mark II “tropical-dial”, pointed-crown-guard Argentine Military Tudor Submariner ref. 7928. Each of these watches — the youngest of which is 34 years old — looks even more beautiful today than the year it was created. I should add that I had a Daytona that uses an in-house Rolex movement as well, but my wife stole it.
So, if you combine my overwhelming admiration for Rolex’s design genius with the enormous respect I have for the brand’s engineering acumen, then the arrival of an invitation to its new super-factory in Bienne had me absolutely floored. There is a famous children’s book by Roald Dahl called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In this book, young Charlie Bucket, who was born to a starving and penniless family, gains entry to the world’s most famous chocolate factory, one that has been shrouded in mystery and yet churns out the world’s most delicious chocolates and candies.
When I was invited, among a group of 20 journalists, to experience the fabled Bienne Rolex factory, where all of Rolex’s movements are made and where its famous R&D workshop is situated, I felt like Charlie Bucket winning the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
The event was ostensibly the inauguration of the new Rolex manufacture at Bienne, which integrates all the previous manufacturing facilities under one interconnected, shimmering, magnificent superstructure. To clarify, the watchmaking titan Rolex is comprised of four sites. Acacias is the world headquarters of Rolex, and where final assembly takes place; Plan-les-Ouates is where the watchcases are manufactured, and where gold for cases and bracelets is alloyed and cast; Chêne-Bourg is where dials are made; and Bienne is where the mighty heart of the Rolex watch is born.
So, what does watchmaking’s equivalent to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory look like? It is immensely clean, very modern, very white and very pure. It is devoid of artifice. The total site is sprawled across 92,000sqm — more than 17 American football fields. I love that Rolex has its own name for everything. So the multi-axis CNC machines that craft the baseplates — the chassis for every Rolex movement — are called “integrated modules”. This may be apt as the Rolex modules are the CNC-machine equivalent of the IBM Sequoia supercomputer: self-monitoring, continuously correcting for any deviations with up to 50 tools simultaneously machining 16 pieces. The Rolex baseplate requires 50 machining operations, accurate within tolerances of four microns. All the operations necessary to create an ébauche — stamping, milling, turning and measuring — are performed in one cycle.
My editor-in-chief Suzanne Wong gasps as we enter the machining room, exclaiming, “I’ve never seen so many multi-axis CNC machines before in my life!” What is important to understand is that these machines that cut, finish and jewel the baseplates of Rolex’s calibers are specifically created by Rolex in collaboration with their partners. They simply do not exist elsewhere.
A look around the room reveals that every single part of the watch — from the plates to the gear trains to the anchors to the balance wheels — are all manufactured completely in-house. The fact that the balance wheels are made in-house is a revelation, as the vast majority of the watch industry is reliant on an external supplier for this as well as escapement components and hairsprings.
Rolex balance wheels are machined from Glucydur, an alloy of copper, beryllium and iron, which has a very low coefficient of thermal expansion. The fact that Rolex makes over half a million balance wheels a year — based solely on the number of movements it sends to be certified as chronometers — illustrates it has the single greatest capacity for manufacturing in-house regulators of any brand in the watch industry.
It is important to note that every Rolex balance wheel is free sprung, meaning that it is not regulated using an external index, but purely by adjusting variable-inertia screws on the balance wheel — itself a system patented by Rolex in 1957. This is considered to be the most accurate and most stable way to adjust a balance wheel, and must contribute significantly to the Rolex watch’s legendary accuracy.
The design of the Rolex balance is also a sublime example of form following function. It is, first of all, very large, yet it oscillates at a high 4Hz speed, giving it phenomenal autonomy from shock; also, its variable-inertia screws are recessed on the inner surface of the wheel and limited to just four in number, so as to minimize aerodynamic drag and turbulence.
But the other secret to the modern Rolex watch’s phenomenal accuracy has to do with its hairspring. The hairspring is probably the single most important contributor to a watch’s accuracy. Thinner than a human hair, it is the spring that is attached to the balance wheel, which allows this wheel to oscillate back and forth with extraordinary accuracy. With a good hairspring, each swing of the balance wheel should be identical in amplitude (the angle which the balance reaches in its swing) and beat. A watch with isochronism is one where each oscillation of the balance wheel is identical to the next, regardless of shock, temperature variation or any other external influence.
Today, 90 percent of Rolex watches today feature the brand’s in-house Parachrom hairspring. Parachrom is a material that is smelted in-house by Rolex from a combination of niobium, zirconium and oxygen. It is drawn using various dies, from a solid bar to a wire thinner than a human hair. It is then hand-coiled in sets of three, hand-separated and then placed in a machine invented by Rolex to give it a uniform Phillips curve to aid in perfectly concentric breathing. The Parachrom hairspring is totally unaffected by magnetic fields, and up to 10 times more resistant to shock than a normal hairspring.
Probably the most interesting room at the Bienne manufacture is hidden from most eyes. But I had, almost a decade ago, the opportunity to see its equivalent at Rolex’s Geneva manufacture. It is a huge, cavernous room — think the human-battery towers in The Matrix — that holds all the stock for all the different parts. Robots fly on wire through the air to pick different parts off the shelves and gently deliver them to belts that then transport them to different parts of the manufacture at high speed. There was also, in Geneva — the facility that deals more with casemaking — the opportunity to see the semi-robotic operation used to finish cases; this, counterpointed by the extremely human operation of movement assembly at Bienne, demonstrates that Rolex is and has always been about the best combination of tradition with innovation, with the sole objective of creating the best and most reliable product.
There have always been fables about the projects Rolex decided not to do. For example, it decided not to pursue George Daniels’ Co-Axial escapement; it consciously decided not to use silicon parts despite being the very first brand to experiment with silicon in extensive tests utilizing all configurations of escapement components, including silicon monobloc anchors with integrated pallets; it decided not to use the blade-driven constant-force escapement now adopted by Girard-Perregaux (known in GP parlance as the Constant Escapement); it also decided not to industrialize a perpetual calendar that a young Franck Muller once built and showed them.
But I prefer to think about what Rolex has done, which is, today, to build in excess of half a million incredible, staggeringly beautiful timepieces — every one of which works better than almost any other watch from any other brand in the industry. I prefer to think of Rolex as being the most independent, autonomous and forward-thinking watch manufacture in the world. It is the institutional brand, the (for lack of a better comparison) Apple of the watch world, and always has been — long before Steve Jobs was even born.
Finally, I prefer to think about what Rolex has done to shape the history of human culture.
During the event, I had, thanks to the very kind Virginie Chevallier, the opportunity to speak to the chairman of Manufacture des Montres Rolex SA, Maître Bertrand Gros. We discussed a story that he mentioned during his opening address at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Bienne. It’s the story of the Allied POW watches. During World War II, if a captured British officer wrote to Rolex explaining the circumstances of his capture, the loss of his watch and the place he was being held, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf would send him any watch he wanted on credit — to only be repaid once the Allied Forces won the war.
An estimated 3,000 watches were ordered by British officers and, true to Wilsdorf’s belief that “a British officer’s word was his bond”, I was told by Rolex’s dynamic communications director Arnaud Boetsch that these were, almost without exception, paid off immediately after the war. Wilsdorf’s act hugely raised the morale of the POWs because it demonstrated his unwavering belief that the Nazis could not win the war. The legend of this act spread to the US, which helped pave the way for Rolex’s success there. Just as importantly, this program allowed Corporal Clive James Nutting, who was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, to order a stainless-steel chronograph, ref. 3525, without which the legendary Great Escape could not have taken place. This watch was specifically used to time guard patrols to allow each escapee to pass through the tunnels into freedom. I joke that had Nutting’s watch not been a Rolex, there was a chance that the Great Escape would not have succeeded.
Rolex’s amazing history and its extraordinary legitimacy in being part of the fabric of human perseverance and conquest can never been manufactured. And because of this incredible history, every watch that the brand creates today literally resonates with authenticity.
I mention to Maître Gros that the world has 6,500 spoken languages, but to me, the most international one, the one that defies cultural divides and unites people regardless of religion or creed, is the language of the world’s best mechanical watch: Rolex. He nods his head sagely and says, “Young man, I am inclined to agree.”