Rolex really isn't like any other watch brand. In fact, the privately held, independently run entity isn't like most other
companies. I can say this now with a lot more clarity than most people
because I was there. Rolex rarely allows anyone into its hallowed
halls, but I was invited to visit their four manufacture locations in
Switzerland and experience first-hand how Rolex makes their famous
Rolex is a universe of its own: respected; admired; valued; and known across the globe. Sometimes I sit back and think about all that
Rolex is and does and find it hard to believe that at the end of the
day, they just make watches. Rolex does just make watches and
their timepieces have taken on a role beyond that of mere timekeeper.
Having said that, the reason a "Rolex is a Rolex" is because they are
good watches and tell pretty good time. It's taken me over a decade to
fully appreciate the brand, and it will probably take longer before I
learn everything I'd like to know about them.
The purpose of this article isn't to give you a totally inside look at Rolex. That isn't possible because as of now there is a strict "no
photography" policy at Rolex. There is a very real mystique behind the
manufacture because they are relatively closed and their operations
aren't public. The brand takes the concept of Swiss discreetness to a
new level, and in a lot of ways that is good for them. So since we
can't show you what we saw, I'd like to share with you some interesting
facts that every Rolex and watch lover should know.
Many watch lovers are familiar with the fact that Rolex uses a type of steel that no one else uses. Stainless steel is not all the same.
Steel comes in various types and grades... and most steel watches are
made from a type of stainless steel called 316L. Today, all the steel
in Rolex watches is made from 904L steel, and as far as we know, pretty
much no one else does. Why?
Rolex used to use the same steel as everyone else, but in around 2003 they moved their entire steel production to 904L steel. In 1988
they released their first 904L steel watch with a few versions of the
Sea-Dweller. 904L steel is more rust and corrosion resistant, and is
somewhat harder than other steels. Most important to Rolex, is that
904L steel, when worked properly, is able to take (and hold) polishes
incredibly well. If you've ever noticed that steel on a Rolex watch
looks different than other watches, it is because of 904L steel, and
how Rolex has learned to work with it.
A natural question is why doesn't everyone else in the watch industry use 904L steel? A good guess is because it is more expensive
and much more complicated to machine. Rolex had to replace most of
their steel working machines and tools to deal with 904L steel. It made
sense for them because of the amount of watches they produce, and
because they make all their parts in-house. Most other brands get their
cases made from outside suppliers. So even though 904L steel is better
than 316L steel for watches, it is more expensive, requires special
tools and skills, and is overall more difficult to work with. This has
prevented other brands (so far) from taking advantage of it, and is
something special that Rolex has. The benefit is obvious once you
handle any steel Rolex watch.
Given everything Rolex has done over the years it shouldn't come as a surprise that they have an internal Research & Development
department. However, Rolex takes it well beyond that. Rolex has not
one, but several different types of extremely well-equipped
professional science labs at their various facilities. The purpose of
these labs isn't just to research new watches and things that may go
into watches, but also to research more effective and efficient
manufacturing techniques. One way of looking at Rolex is that they are
an extremely competent and almost obsessively organized manufacturing
company - that just happens to make timepieces.
Rolex labs are as diverse as they are amazing. Perhaps the most visually interesting is the chemistry lab. Full of beakers and tubes
that carry liquids and gases, the Rolex chemistry lab is full of highly
trained scientists. What is it mostly used for? Well one thing that
Rolex stated is that the lab is used for developing and researching
oils and lubricants that they use in machines during the manufacturing
Rolex has a room with multiple electron microscopes and some gas spectrometers. They are able to take an extremely close look at metals
and other materials to investigate the effects of machining and
manufacturing techniques. These large areas are extremely impressive
and are used seriously on a regular basis to remedy or prevent possible
Of course Rolex also uses its science labs on the watches themselves. An interesting room is the stress test room. Here watch
movements, bracelets, and cases undergo simulated wear and abuse on
custom-made machines and robots. Let's just say that it would not be
unreasonable to assume your typical Rolex is designed to last a
lifetime (or two).
One of biggest misconceptions about Rolex is that machines build their watches. The rumor is so pervasive that even people at
aBlogtoWatch believed it to be mostly true. This is because
traditionally Rolex didn't communicate much on this topic. Well the
truth is that Rolex watches are given all the hands-on human attention
that you'd like to expect from a fine Swiss made watch.
Rolex uses machines in the process for sure. In fact, Rolex easily has the most sophisticated watch making machinery in the world. The
robots and other automated tasks are really used for tasks that humans
aren't as good at. These include sorting, filing, cataloging, and very
delicate procedures that involve the type of care you want a machine to
handle. Most of these machines are still human-operated though. And
everything from Rolex movements to bracelets are assembled by hand. A
machine however helps with doing things such as applying the right
pressure when attaching pins, aligning parts, and pressing down hands.
Having said that, all Rolex watch hands are still set by hand via a
It would be an understatement to suggest that Rolex is obsessive about quality control. A predominant theme in the manufacture is that
things are checked, re-checked, and then checked again. It feels as
though their goal is to ensure that if a Rolex watch fails, it does so
before it leaves the factory. Large teams of watchmakers and assembly
people work on every single movement that Rolex produces. This is
before and after their movements are sent to COSC for chronometer
certification. And on top of that, Rolex re-tests their movements for
accuracy after they are cased for several days while simulating wear
before they are sent out to retailers.
Rolex makes their own gold. While they have a small handful of suppliers that send them steel (Rolex still works the steel in-house to
make all the parts), all the gold and platinum is made in-house. 24k
gold comes into Rolex and it is turned into 18k yellow, white, or
Rolex's Everose gold (their non-fading version of 18k rose gold).
Large kilns under hot flames are used to melt and mix the metals which are then turned into cases and bracelets. Because Rolex controls
the production and machining of their gold, they are able to strictly
ensure not only quality, but the best looking parts. To our knowledge
Rolex is the only watch manufacture that makes their own gold or even
has a real foundry in-house.
The philosophy at Rolex seems to be very pragmatic, if a human does it better, then let a human do it, if a machine does it better, then
let a machine do it. In fact the reason more watchmakers don't use
machines is two-fold. First of all machines are huge investments and in
many instances keeping people around to do it is less expensive.
Second, they don't have the production demands that Rolex does. In
fact, Rolex is fortunate to have the ability to equip its facilities
with robotic help where needed.
The epicenter of Rolex's automation prowess is the master supply room. Massive columns of parts are attended to by robotic servants that
store and retrieve trays with parts or complete watches. A watchmaker
needing parts must simply place an order with the system, and it is
delivered on a series of conveyer systems to them in about 6-8 minutes.
It isn't surprising that Rolex is keen on security. At their foundry for example, I was given a bar to carry around that weighed in at just
over $1,000,000 worth of Everose gold. There is a lot more of that, as
well as valuable completed watches that need safekeeping. Rolex employs a
series of extremely meticulous security checks and they had a James
Bond-style safe that is located a few floors underground.
I noticed that rank and file watch assembly employees have an interesting system on their desks that required their ID badge be docked
at all times after being identified with a fingerprint scan. Everything
is scanned and cataloged. In fact, each Rolex watch movement has a
unique serial number that is photographed and matched with a case that
also has a different unique serial number. In the future when the watch
is serviced, a watchmaker can learn everything there is to know about
Accessing the Rolex safe requires entering a bank vault door and passing an iris scanner that identifies you via your eyes. When Rolex
parts move from location to location, they are transported in highly
discreet unmarked (and likely heavily armored) trucks. Rolex is very
serious about their safety, and for a really good reason since it is
often said (in truth) that Rolex watches are just as good as money.
All Rolex Oyster case watches are thoroughly tested for water resistance. The way that this is often done at watch manufactures is
with an air-pressure tank. A watch is placed in a small chamber that is
filled with air, and if the pressure changes at all, it means that air
leaked into the case. Each Rolex Oyster, as well as Oyster dive watches
begins with this air pressure treatment. In fact, each case is tested
both before and after a movement and dial are placed inside of it.
Dive watches receive a separate treatment all together. After being air pressure tested, Rolex proceeds to test the water resistance of each
and every Rolex Submariner and Deep Sea watch in actual water. This
type of test is much less common. Submariner watches are placed in large
tubes that are filled with water to ensure that they are water
resistant to 300 meters. The test is extremely complex because Rolex
employs a complex system for testing if water entered the case.
After the watches exit the tank, they are heated up and a drop of cold water is placed on the crystal to see if condensation forms. An
optical sensor then scans them for trace amounts of water. Less than one
in a thousand watches fail the test. The story is much more intense for
Deep-Sea watches. Rolex co-developed a special high-pressure water tank
with COMEX to depth test each Deep-Sea watch. The pressure tank looks
like something from a science fiction movie. Imagine something that
looks like a several ton Gatling gun. This machine takes well over an
hour and measures each watch to a pressure equivalent to 12,000 meters
It has been said that Rolex has preposterous standards for the materials it buys from its suppliers. This includes things like metals
as well as precious stones such as diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. Rolex
has a massive gemological department whose goal it is to buy, test,
arrange, and set diamonds and other precious stones in a range of Rolex
models. One of the things they do is check incoming stones to ensure
that they are real. Using x-rays for example, they can test diamonds to
ensure they aren't fake.
Rolex reports that in the years they have been testing diamonds, only two in 20 million have been fake. That might seem like such a small
amount it isn't even worth their time to perform the test. Nevertheless,
to ensure absolute quality, Rolex tests each batch of diamonds. This
should also have an illustrative effect on the diamonds they use, which
happen to only be IF in clarity, and D-G in color (the four grades
closest to white).
Each and every diamond or precious stone (no matter how large or small) on a Rolex watch is hand-selected and hand-set. Rolex employs
traditional jewelers to create custom settings for stones in their most
exclusive watches, done using the same processes employed in creating
the world's finest jewelry. It was amazing to see this level of
artisanship and delicate care inside what many people believe to be a
An advertisement for Rolex long ago claimed that it takes about a year to make a single Rolex watch. As suspicious as that sounds, it is
true even today. Rolex produces almost a million watches a year, but
surprisingly, no shortcuts are taken in the manufacturing process from
what I could observe (and I've been to a lot of watch manufactures).
Rolex is however interested in quality and efficiency. Basically, the
entire company seems focused on producing the best watches, and
continually seeing how they can make them better.
If you look at Rolex watches over time, they are more about evolution rather than revolution. This idea of always improving versus changing
goes right into their manufacturing process as well. They are constantly
learning how to improve quality through better processes and
techniques. The move from aluminum to ceramic bezel inserts is a perfect
example. Nevertheless, from starting to shape the parts of the case to
testing a completed watch for accuracy, the process takes around one
Of course Rolex could speed this up for certain models if necessary, but each watch requires so many parts and virtually everything is made
from base materials in-house. Once all the parts for a Rolex watch are
completed, they are then mostly hand-assembled and individually tested.
The testing and quality assurance process is rather intense.
A good example is how Rolex makes each of their watch dials. All of the dial are made in-house, and one of the most impressive facts is that
all of the applied hour markers are set individually by hand. Often
times at other brands, machines perform this process, but Rolex learned
that a human eye is better trained to spot problems. So individual hour
markers are applied and riveted by hand. Dials are dropped from 20cm up
in the air to ensure that none of the hour markers fall out. This is a
careful and time consuming process, and it is among the many elements of
making watches at Rolex that is done by a skilled human being. Taken
together, because of Rolex's rather fanatical dedication to quality
across their huge production, watches take on average, about a year to
After having said all of the above it probably doesn't come as a big surprise that Rolex makes virtually everything in-house as a totally
vertically integrated manufacturer. As of right now the only major parts
that Rolex doesn't make for all of their watches are the synthetic
sapphire crystals and many of the dial hands (though I have a feeling
the latter will change in the next several years). Rolex produces their
own gold, cases, bracelets, dials, bezels, and movements in-house with
incredible efficiency and quality.
It isn't just that Rolex can afford all the most useful machines, but also that Rolex invests into processes and techniques that are
tightly-held trade secrets. The real value inside the Rolex factory are
their tools and know-how, which no one could replicate even if they had a
copy of their facilities.
Making everything in-house allows Rolex to be truly independent. Watch collector's often agree that there is the watch industry and then
there is Rolex - the two just happen to make similar products. It is
hard to love watches and not appreciate what Rolex is and what they
produce. Traveling there I can fully understand why they aren't only the
most successful high-end watch manufacture, but why they are also one
of the most successful luxury brands in the world.