Diving deep

Probing the culture of Rolex and Tudor—plus their latest releases—at The Rolex Experience in Shanghai.


WORDS  BRIAN M. AFUANG

Rolex has been making timepieces for a mere 100 years or so. In the watchmaking industry this period translates to Wednesday noon two weeks back. Compared to brands boasting centuries of aristocratic relations, Rolex is an upstart, no more but a fledgling Kickstarter operation that only happens to wear a monarchical coronet crown for a company logo.

And yet, at present, it makes more luxury watches than any of its well-heeled peers. The brand last year was called by auction house Phillips as the “most powerful” in the watch industry. Its products, coveted by status seekers and horologists alike, adhere to exacting standards the brand has set for itself, if not for modern-day watchmaking in general. Consider: Rolex issues its own Superlative Chronometer certification, which requires its watches to be about twice more accurate as those certified as chronometers—really accurate watches—by the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute (or COSC, if following the French name).

Such a pedantic streak props a strong corporate culture, springing from which are watches like the Sea-Dweller, whose technology not only runs deep in the “Crown’s” culture, but also allows it to literally submerge to depths only a few other watches can manage.         

Rolex at this year’s edition of Baselworld—Switzerland’s annual watchmakers’ and jewelers’ expo — released the latest rendition of its seminal diver’s watch. Marking its 50th anniversary this year, the Sea-Dweller follows Rolex’s Baselworld 2016 sensation, the Cosmograph Daytona, whose overwhelming reception at launch time has yet to wane.

But in contrast to the rave reviews that are still being heaped on the Daytona, the response over the aesthetics of the new Sea-Dweller, identified as Ref. No. 126600, was mixed. What drew flak—and continues to do so—from certain quarters were the watch’s 43-millimeter case size (up from the previous version’s 40 millimeters) and the addition of Rolex’s Cyclops magnifying glass bubble over the date display.

You see, the piece’s present dimensions are its most inflated to date, not counting its even more abyssal Deepsea renditions, while the Cyclops, which has long been a fixture on Rolex’s similar-looking Submariner line, has never seen duty on a Sea-Dweller. So despite the assuring accounts of many journalists who have seen the watch upon its Baselworld launch, to a number of the Crown brand’s faithful the changes are apparently a tad too disconcerting, hence the stir.

EXPERIENCING ROLEX

A deep dive session with the watch should fix this. And short of Baselworld attendance, or priority access to a very privileged dealer (pieces are just trickling out of Switzerland), the next best chance for enthusiasts in this part of Asia to probe the latest Sea-Dweller is through The Rolex Experience.

Hosted at Rolex’s Brand Experience Center located in The Bund district of Shanghai, China, the program has welcomed into Asia Rolex’s latest produce—or “novelties”—for around six years now. Like in previous years, the 2017 edition, held from June 10 to Aug. 27, provided an immersion not just into the Baselworld releases, but also into the history of Rolex.

Housed within a major section of the Brand Experience Center, on the ground floor of the neoclassical The House of Roosevelt building, is a repository of items—literature, memorabilia, sundry parts and, of course, watches—that are significant to Rolex’s history. Serving as the doorway to this area is a floor-to-ceiling, golden rendition of Rolex’s fluted bezel, while an equally oversized Rolex logo announces the start and the end of a darkened hallway that wraps around a circular room. In this place, the Rolex narrative unfolds, aptly, in a clockwise direction.

1926 Rolex Oyster

An example of Rolex’s first watch housed in an Oyster case—an octagonal one from 1926—leads off the permanent exhibition. Coined in the 1920s, the Oyster tag refers to the brand’s innovative technology that prevents any hint of moisture from entering the watch’s case. To achieve this, it relies on a bezel, crown and caseback cover that can be screwed into place, sealing the watch hermetically. Just how deep-seated the Oyster technology has become to the brand can be gleaned in Rolex’s present product range: grouped into two, only a handful of pieces comprise the Cellini line while the bulk of the company’s produce belong in the Oyster collection.

Displayed next to the 1926 Oyster is a piece that marks the arrival of another Rolex innovation —the brand’s first Oyster Perpetual model. Though not the first to devise a mechanism with which to render the act of winding a wristwatch by hand unnecessary—English watch repairer John Harwood is credited for this, after getting a patent in 1923—Rolex is generally regarded in the industry as having refined the system, in which the key is a weighted rotor that oscillates when the watch is moved, winding the caliber’s mainspring in the process.

In 1931, when the first Oyster Perpetual model was released, Rolex had by then been recognized for both waterproofing and chronometric capabilities. The self-winding mechanism completed the hat trick. Surely, branding it “Perpetual”—just as “Oyster” was in the case of the waterproof technology—was quite a savvy marketing move, too.

More of Rolex’s innovations are presented in the circular room. A new display included this year is that of a working Rolex caliber 3255, which spins slowly as the weighted rotor remained in one position, effectively winding the movement. Adding to the geeky cool factor is an oversized Cyclops stuck on the display’s glass enclosure, which magnifies the working caliber.        

The presentation goes beyond techie talk in another section of the hallway. There, looped on a bank of video screens are the achievements of various sports personalities and musicians deemed by Rolex as representative of the qualities on which the brand has propped its status—“Testimonees,” Rolex calls these people.

Its corporate literature also notes that the Testimonee concept started in 1927, when Mercedes Gleitze swam in the English Channel for 10 hours, an Oyster watch strapped to her wrist. When the watch emerged intact from the rather lengthy dip, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf put out a front-page ad on the UK edition of Daily Mail to proclaim the stunt.     

BASELWORLD NOVELTIES

The “museum” tour suitably prepped the exhibition of Rolex’s Baselworld 2017 releases, among which pieces the Sea-Dweller has the limelight hogged.

Now powered by the brand’s caliber 3235, which was first assigned on the Rolex Datejust 41 of 2016, the new Sea-Dweller is technically superior from the model it replaced (launched only in 2014). Its movement now boasts a power reserve of around 70 hours, up from 48 hours, and is fitted with Rolex’s newer developments like the Parachrom Blue hairspring, Paraflex shock absorber and Chronergy escapement. Through a combination of exotic alloys (the Parachrom is largely a mix of niobium and zirconium) and clever engineering (Chronergy is composed of lighter parts when compared to the classic lever escapement, which saps a lot of the energy supplied by the mainspring), the caliber 3235 better resists magnetism and shocks while also improving accuracy. The 3235 replaced the caliber 3135 that has slogged as the corporate workhorse since 1988. It also carries, of course, Rolex’s Superlative Chronometer certificate, meaning it is accurate to within two seconds every 24 hours.

Carried over in the new Sea-Dweller are the Cerachrom ceramic bezel that is coated with PVD and a dusting of platinum (making it utterly scratch-resistant), Chromalight hands and hour markers that glow blue in the dark, and a helium release valve—the model’s signature feature upon its launch a half-century ago, and which helps the watch achieve its 4,000-foot depth rating. Curiously, a line of red text marking on the dial pays homage to the prototype Sea-Dweller, not to the original, “double red” watch from 1967.        

Rolex Sea-Dweller

Despite its added bulk, the new Sea-Dweller wears its size well. Its expansion is suitably masked by slightly beefier markings on the bezel insert and prominent indentations, dictating the piece’s proportions. The deft contouring of its hefty case, as well as the highly adjustable Oyster steel bracelet, allows the watch to drape over the wrist—even if admittedly sitting high off it. After a while, the Cyclops simply blends in with the industrial-tool quality of the watch.

In short, the Sea-Dweller may have gained some acreage and sprouted a Cyclops, but on the wrist all the grousing about the changes is mere fuss.

The reception toward Rolex’s new Sky-Dweller is unanimously warmer. While the model’s first version, introduced in 2012, was described by American writer Gary Shteyngart in a March 2017 article in The New Yorker as “a watch that looks like a Russian oligarch just curled up around your wrist and died,” the tweaked piece launched at the last Baselworld, in contrast, is more evocative of nobility. Credit here goes to a tidier dial, on which thick stick markers have replaced the previous model’s Roman or Arabic numerals—some of which were slashed by the large subdial readout for the second time zone. At best, the touch is a bit messy.

Despite the cleaner design, the Sky-Dweller remains imposing on the wrist due to its fluted bezel, generous 42-millimeter case size, and multifaceted surfaces that pick up and reflect light, dazzling any observer. The fresh Rolesor versions, a combination of either steel and 18-carat yellow gold, or steel and 18-carat white gold, bolster the model’s wrist presence (a handsome steel with a blue dial variant is also available) while remaining readily identifiable as Rolexes. Beneath the Sky-Dweller’s surface beats Rolex’s caliber 9001 (also equipped with Parachrom Blue and Paraflex), which has a power reserve of about 72 hours and is rated a Superlative Chronometer as well.

Polarizing though its aesthetics might be, what cannot be argued is that the Sky-Dweller is, at present, Rolex’s most complicated model, boasting of dual time and annual calendar functions on top of a date display and a rather clever and discreet month indicator (a red dot peeks through any of the 12 apertures located at the tip of each hour marker).

Rolex Daytona

Just a year and a few months after its introduction—and with demand still far outstripping supply—the Daytona has received an update in the form of a new bracelet option. Fitted for the first time in the model is Rolex’s Oysterflex, which, this being made by Rolex, is not a mere rubber strap as it would initially seem to be, but rather is fashioned from titanium blades that are then coated in elastomer. The result is that the bracelet—it’s not a strap, mind you—offers the liquid-resistant and outdoorsy qualities of rubber straps but is far more comfortable and quite snug, in the best possible way, on the wrist.

Matching the Oysterflex are the Daytona’s new 18-carat yellow or white gold cases, as well as the two-tone Rolesor. The black Cerachrom bezel that’s partly responsible for the watch’s fame lives on this year, as well as all the technical pieces, like the celebrated caliber 4130, Rolex’s first in-house chronograph movement that was introduced in 2000 for that year’s new Daytona.

The rest of the Oyster collection novelties were freshened up aesthetically. The Yacht-Master II gained hands reserved for Rolex’s Professional models (moniker: Mercedes hands), replacing the straight hour and minute pointers it used to have, and its markers for 12 o’clock and six o’clock have turned into a triangle and a rectangle, respectively. The Datejust 41 and Lady-Datejust 28 are now available in steel cases, adding to the myriad dial options the pair comes with.

Rolex Cellini

A model line that interminably exists and vanishes in the Rolex vault is the Cellini. It reappeared in 2005, arriving in a rectangular form to honor the first Rolex Prince models from the 1920s and 1930s, before being reinterpreted at Baselworld 2014 as classically styled, round timepieces finished in precious metals. The 2017 novelty that adds to this last rendition, aptly christened Cellini Moonphase, features a moonphase display on a disc housed within a subdial—unlike numerous moonphase displays that are only partly visible from beneath the dial.

Depicted on the deep blue enameled disc are images of a full moon and a new moon, the former rendered in a meteorite appliqué, the latter as a silver ring, with stars completing the night sky scene. A gold triangle marker on top of the subdial points to which phase the lunar cycle is in as the disc revolves.

Set against a white lacquer dial, thin markings, a subtly fluted bezel, and indices and 39-millimeter case hewn from 18-carat Everose gold, the moonphase display turns hypnotic an exquisite detail to an already stunning piece. As if these elements are not enough, a bright blue hand with a crescent moon tip, which locates the date of the month on a track running on the edge of the dial, is paired with the celestial display. No doubt, Rolex shoots for the haute horlogerie moon with this timepiece.

It did not miss.

HOUSE OF TUDOR

Rolex’s own Tudor brand, started by Wilsdorf in 1946 to serve up cheaper but no less well-crafted watches, in recent years has been resurgent, thanks in large part to pieces that recall the brand’s past hits. At Baselworld 2012, Tudor unveiled its Heritage Black Bay model (whose aesthetics take off from its own and Rolex’s diver’s watches built from the 1950s onwards), and since then the watch has regularly spawned variants to evolve into a full range. This year, four Black Bay novelties came out at Baselworld—the 41, Steel and Gold (S&G), Steel and Chrono—all of which were also presented at The Rolex Experience gig in Shanghai.

Tudor BB S&G

As its name identifies it, the 41 is the 41-millimeter version of the Black Bay 36, the dressiest among the Black Bay litter that was somehow perceived as “feminine.” The 41 seeks to dispel this, while the ETA-sourced caliber 2824 self-winding movement, as well as the absence of a rotating bezel, ensures the watch remains affordable.

For their part, the S&G and Steel both strut distinctive styling cues, the former with two-tone steel and yellow gold case, the latter with a bezel that was left without color (only a bare, brushed steel finish). Seen up close the S&G is quite interesting as its gold-capped details come across as more muted, less yellowy, than what press photos might suggest, and its available steel bracelet—also two-tone—is likely to bring out the geek in any watch aficionado. This is because of the bracelet’s links, which are locked into place by very visible rivets, just like how things were done on Tudor watches during the mid-1900s.

Both the S&G and Steel debut date displays (at three o’clock, minus a Cyclops) on the Tudor line. The two also share power plants—Tudor’s own MT5612. Brought out in 2015, this in-house caliber boasts a 72-hour power reserve, has a silicon balance spring, and is a COSC-certified chronometer. At this pair’s price range, such specifications are simply great bang for the buck—with or without a David Beckham endorsement.

Tudor BB Chrono

Actually, great value is what the Chrono pitches as well. This is a piece, after all, that fuses the all-weather, water-resistant capabilities of a diver’s watch (depth rating: 660 feet) with the millisecond precision afforded by a chronograph function. Plus, its movement—Tudor’s MT5813—was derived from Breitling’s caliber 01, which has earned the watchmaking world’s respect since its 2005 introduction.

This movement uses a vertical clutch, so engaging the chronograph function is more seamless because the gears that need to move are always meshed together, eliminating any possible wobbling of the hand that counts the seconds. And, as inherent in vertical-clutch setups, it also does not affect the amplitude of the movement when the chronograph is in use, guaranteeing better timekeeping accuracy regardless if the chronograph is ticking or not. Like the caliber 01 the MT5813 is a COSC chronometer, too.

Tudor Clair de Rose

Such Black Bay developments guaranteed the horologist press largely ignored the other model line Tudor brought out at the last Baselworld—the Clair de Rose. An overt ladies’ watch, the Clair de Rose has received its most significant update since its 2011 release at the Swiss spectacle.

In its latest guise the watch takes on a more classical form; the stylized Tudor rose motif and other floral touches on the dial of the previous version have given way to a pronounced sunburst relief and other fret-like decorative patterns on the new piece. Roman-numeral markers and hands in blue lacquer matched to a crown tipped by a bright blue gem also define the Clair de Rose update, as do very ornate steel cases and bracelets in three sizes (26, 30 and 34 millimeters for the cases). A dial festooned with pieces of diamond is also available. Beneath the sheen the watch retains its ETA-sourced movements—the caliber 2824 for the biggest version, and the caliber 2671, which has always been used on ladies’ watches because of its petite dimensions, for the two smaller watches. While an image of the Clair de Rose will not exactly pop into mind at the mention of “Tudor,” the watch’s existence indicates Tudor does not balk at taking a different watchmaking route.

Obviously, this comes from a culture that takes after its Crown parent’s.