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What to expect from Rolex in 2021

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ROLEX CHÊNE-BOURG SITE, GENEVA

Guessing what Rolex will launch and discontinue this year is more than just an idle way to pass the hours in lock down; it can be as lucrative as studying the stock market or racing form because what the world’s biggest luxury watchmaker decides has a significant impact on secondary market prices for existing references (note the price rises before and since Patek Philippe confirmed it was nixing the 5711 for evidence). So, armed with little more than an encyclopedic knowledge of Rolex’s archive, its recent product pipeline and wider trends in the watch industry, Robin Swithinbank takes a punt at predicting what the brand will reveal in April.

If you’ve ever pondered Kierkegaard’s assertion that ‘life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards’, you could be forgiven for wondering whether he was actually considering the luxury Swiss watch industry’s novelty cycle – and particularly that of Rolex.

To outsiders, the industry’s use of the word ‘novelty’ is at best ironic, so incrementally small are the visual steps forward most brands make each year. Few laymen would have much idea Rolex actually makes ‘novel’ watches, so unflinching is the great marque’s approach to its core forms.

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But of course, it does and it will.

The big reveal

All should be revealed on April 7, when the brand takes part in its first Watches & Wonders and its first online watch fair. Very novel.

To go back to Mr Kierkegaard, it’s highly unlikely any of these new watches will rewrite the rubric. Rather, they’ll be spins on past triumphs – backward looks, forward steps, if you will.

This, of course, doesn’t curtail the great annual guessing game, which this year, as any, has been preoccupying the watch-focused corners of the internet for some months already. What will Rolex do this year? Really, no one outside the company knows.

Despite the size of its workforce, Rolex continues to keep an extraordinarily tight lid on its winter activities – so much one wonders if employee pillow talk isn’t somehow observed – leaving guessers with only one course of action. To look backwards.

This means no one in their right mind would call an all-new model. Or anything that’s not round. Or manufactured with materials from the exotics box. As the joke has it, Rolex only makes one watch.

It also doesn’t stop us trying to articulate why Rolex’s product strategy still works – and seems to work better every year. While we’re here, Morgan Stanley, one of the big players in the bigger game of guessing individual watch brand annual turnover, has just published its annual Swiss watch industry report, estimating Rolex’s turnover at CH4.42bn.

That may be some way down on its 2019 estimate of CHF5.2bn – for obvious reasons – but it still casts Omega into a distant second on CHF1.75bn. Moreover, Morgan Stanley now believes Rolex to have 24.9 per cent market share, up from 23.4 per cent in 2019. Put Omega, Cartier and Patek, ranked two through four in the research, together and you only just tip Rolex’s total. Even in a pandemic and without an ecommerce business, Rolex is crushing the competition. If it ain’t broke…

There isn’t one reason why the Rolex way works, of course, and we could list relatively tangible elements such as build-quality and design simplicity among them, alongside the un-ignorable impact of decades of brilliant marketing. But to my mind, the fundamental reason is more deep-rooted than any of those.

The success of last year’s Oyster Perpetual launch is likely to be built upon in 2021, hopefully with additional colors for the 41mm family.

It’s nostalgia. The emotional hold of nostalgia over a watch buyer, and particularly over a Rolex buyer, is second to nothing in pushing people over the purchasing threshold. For longer than anyone alive can remember, Rolex has been heroic. Whether that was because your dad wore one, or because James Bond did.

The power of this nostalgia isn’t new. It was there before the pandemic. In fact, I’d argue it’s been there since at least the mid-1990s, when TAG Heuer dipped back into its archives and revived Monaco and Carrera. In that act alone, it was almost as if Switzerland was saying we needn’t worry about the exponential pace of change now rewriting inherited social and fiscal codes, because it would be here for us, the same as ever before, no matter what. The industry has been providing us with rose-tinted glasses ever since.

Rolex in 2021

What then of 2021? Well, let’s apply the nostalgia theory to our low-level wager, which points to this being the year of the Explorer II. It’s exactly 50 years since the original Ref. 1655 Explorer II landed, and because Rolex has previous with half-centuries, it seems a safe bet for a revamp.

The 50th anniversary of Rolex’s Explorer II is unlikely to go unmarked this year.

In 2003, it brought out the Submariner Ref. 16610LV, a piece with a green aluminium bezel that marked the 50 years since the Sub’s introduction. Dubbed the Kermit by fans, it was revived last year after a 10-year hiatus, quickly joining the long list of waiting-list Rolex watches.

Less easy to predict is what Rolex might do with it. Created for spelunkers, the original had a fixed 24-hour bezel, the idea being that in the pitch black of a cave, the watch would serve as a tool for determining day from night. Unlike the current generation though, it wasn’t a GMT.

It’s highly unlikely Rolex would reduce the functionality of a Professional model, so don’t expect the GMT function to clock out, and nor should we expect a smaller case. At 42mm, Explorer II is an out-and-out instrument watch.

With the 39mm Explorer, not to mention the Oyster Perpetual line, Rolex has the sub-40mm category licked anyway.

What we might get – again, keeping nostalgia in mind – is a retro spin on the look. The original had a black dial, baton hour markers rather than dots, straight rather than Mercedes hands, and the 24-hour scale on the bezel was less blocky – and far prettier – than on the current model. I’d gladly see any or all of those details return, reworked in Rolex’s suite of state-of-the-art materials. Rolex will have to be careful adding a ceramic bezel, or the online watch commentariat will call it a Chronomaster (that one’s for you, Zenith).

What also seems likely is a movement upgrade. Rolex’s next-generation calibres have been seeping through the collection since the first of them was introduced in 2015, but has yet to reach Explorer II. Sticking with that thought, it hasn’t reached the Milgauss either, a watch that’s due an update and that I can’t ever see being pulled altogether, despite the rumours.

Too much nostalgia in it to throw away, for starters. Renewed this year? I doubt it. I’d like to think Rolex is sitting on a project to significantly up the Milgauss’s performance, one for another year.

If Explorer II is as good a bet as there is, what could follow behind it is a moment in the sun for the Perpetual movement, now 90 years in the making.

Rolex introduced its perpetual movement 90 years ago.

And no prizes for guessing new dial colours after the success of last year’s Oyster Perpetual rainbow, nor fresh material combinations or the odd smattering of precious stones.

Allowed a final prediction, I’d suggest what isn’t coming. Some guessers have called a ladies Submariner, which strikes me as highly unlikely, partly because there’s no precedent for it, and partly because even if it did put out a 36mm Sub (already too small), Rolex wouldn’t call it a ladies watch.

Across cultures, case diameter requirements vary wildly, and then there’s the concept of the unisex watch, which is on the rise. While Rolex can hardly be credited with driving the genderless watch bandwagon, at the same time, many of its designs have hurdled gender boundaries without so much as a stumble.

Anyway. All this looking back-to-front is giving me misty eyes and a neck ache. To April then, and a novel-ish future.

 

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