The silent evolution Rolex has built its enduring brand on innovation

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If you want to know the time, you can easily go out and pick up a cheap plastic watch for your wrist. With the advent of smartphones that we all carry around, you could also check there. Both perform the function of telling the time perfectly. But a watch can be so much more than just an instrument for making sure that you don’t miss your 3 pm spin class with Alphonso. Whatever watch you choose to buy it is going to send a message to whoever sees you wearing it. And that’s actually what always made me look the other way when I saw one.
In the 1980s, I would never have been spotted wearing a flashy watch. At the time, the company was making its watches for the highest social class. Gold, silver or platinum — bedazzled with jewels. They were status symbols, especially here in the Middle East. People wore Rolexes so others could see them wearing Rolexes. Unlike other “luxury” watch brands, everyone knew Rolex and understood immediately that the person wearing it had parted with a considerable pile of cash for the privilege of doing so. Or they just came back from a meeting – or a shopping trip – with a Gulf prince.
As time passed and perception changed, so too did the Rolex branding strategy. By the 1990s, Rolex responded to the changing times by beginning to expand production of its stainless steel watches, focusing less on the gaudy gold ones synonymous with the opulent luxury of the Gulf countries. Rolex also began marketing itself as the watch of adventurers and sporting events. Their watches are sophisticated, high quality and can survive even the most hostile conditions. Rolex is now the official timekeeper for top sporting events in tennis, golf and Formula 1 racing. When filmmaker James Cameron voyaged into the Mariana Trench in 2012, the robotic arm on his submarine wore a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller Deep Sea Challenge watch. These notions of exploration and extraordinary achievement are not a new concept for the brand. Tenzing Norgay, who accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary to the top of Mount Everest, wore a Rolex. Such feats are a world away from the drug fueled, institutional greed of Wall Street in the 1980s.
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The brand has also managed to stay independent through its 100-year-plus history, rebuffing the advances of major conglomerates like LVMH that had already swallowed up other luxury brands like Tag Heur, Zenith and Dior Watches. What made this possible is Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf’s well-executed succession planning. When Wilsdorf’s wife died in 1944, he established the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, and shortly before his death in 1960 he transferred all of his shares to the foundation, ensuring that the company’s income would go to charitable causes.
After learning this, and seeing all those dazzling steel watches on hands clapping ever so elegantly in the stands at Wimbledon, I do believe I’ve changed my mind about a brand with an unchanging face that has born witness to changing times for over 100 years.
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