The Appeal of a Rolex

Patek Philippe may have been reigning supreme in the auction world, but in recent years Rolex timepieces have also started to make some headway with collectors.

Last May, a 1958 Rolex GMT Master with a Bakelite cognac-brown bezel sold for a record-breaking $3.5 million at Philips, setting a new world record for the brand.

Christie’s has taken note and will be holding an auction entirely dedicated to Rolex. To be held in Geneva on May 15, ROLEX 1930s‑2010s will retrace most of the history of the brand with 116 lots and 55 different references, with estimates ranging from $2,000 to $800,000.  Meanwhile, Philips will also auction on May 13-14 a unique Rolex, Ref 6062 with a black dial and gold case, known as the “Bao Dai” watch, sold to the last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty in Vietnam in 1954. Last sold in 2002 for $235,000 it now has an estimate of $1.15 million.

Ever since Mercedes Gleitze endorsed the brand by wearing a Rolex Oyster watch while swimming across the English Channel in 1927, Rolex has been synonymous with sports, adventure and excellence, and the company’s controlled and focused branding strategy has kept it at the top of the luxury watchmaking industry. Interbrand, a brand consulting firm, ranked Rolex the 72nd-most-valuable global brand in its 2015 survey, with a brand value of $3.9 billion.

The secret of its success: a strategy that eschews fashion and emphasizes craftsmanship, performance and innovation. The company has also maintained its brand image by limiting production, while remaining focused on one product: watches.

The company was founded in 1905 by a young German businessman, Hans Wilsdorf, and his brother-in-law, William Davis, and Rolex was registered as a trademark in 1908. From the beginning, the brand established a reputation for performance and innovation: in 1914, a Rolex watch received a Class A precision certificate from Kew Observatory, an honor previously reserved to marine chronometers, and in 1926, Wilsdorf invented and patented the first truly waterproof watch, fittingly named the Oyster. After Gleitze crossed the English Channel, Wilsdorf decided to capitalize on her endorsement and took out a front-page advertisement in a British paper labelling the Oyster “The Wonder Watch That Defies The Elements” and featuring a photo of Gleitze wearing the watch in the water. This was the first time that the brand had found a dramatic opportunity to demonstrate its watches’ unique performance characteristics; many more would follow from Sir Edmund Hilary’s historic Mt Everest climb in 1953 to Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ two-year Transglobe expedition in 1982, the first surface journey made around the world's polar axis. The marketing strategy was clear: in a world of uncertainty, there always appeared to be one thing heroes and adventurers could count on — their Rolex.

Though the company began sponsoring Himalayan and polar expeditions in 1933, it was really in the late 1950s that Rolex pioneered the concept of supporting selected sporting events. After associating itself with a little known 24-hour endurance race called the Daytona Continental (now renamed the Rolex 24 at Daytona), it looked to the worlds of yachting, equestrianism, golf and tennis.

The company has also been carefully aligned with people who are identified as having Rolex’s pioneering spirit. From Sir Malcolm Campbell, the holder of the land speed record, in 1935 to Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier in 1947, and Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mt Everest, Rolex has a long history of associating its name with sporting achievement and celebrity.

Over the years, the brand’s status has been further reinforced by having famous actors and their characters in action movies sporting a Rolex, from Sean Connery in James Bond mode wearing the Submariner model, to Paul Newman’s Daytona model or Steve Mc Queen’s Explorer II model.


Building a successful luxury brand that endures requires tremendous focus and a clear understanding of the company’s purpose and heritage so that its values are consistently upheld, even in difficult business conditions.

Rolex has been favored among “ultra-successful” people for years, building a loyal clientele that see its watches as special, reflecting their self-image. This is one reason why the brand has never risked loyalty by offering discounted watches.

Brand loyalty will now be tested with collectors at the Geneva auctions. The last time such a large Rolex auction was held was in 2006 for the historic sale of the Guido Mondani’s collection which had 300 vintage Rolex timepieces. That sale raised 11.03 million Swiss francs.

One of the highlights of the Christie’s Geneva sale will be a very rare chronograph with a tropical lemon dial circa 1970 (est: $500,000‑800,000). According to Christie’s the Rolex gold 6264 Paul Newman tropical lemon dial is a watch that almost nobody knew existed until recently.

Another extremely rare watch on offer will be a stainless steel chronograph known as “Green Khanjar” Daytonas, which were made for the Sultan of Oman to be presented as tokens of appreciation. Fewer than 10 examples of this model in stainless steel, references 6263 and 6265, are known to exist. (Est: $320,000 – 420,000).