(Editor’s Note: LifeWatch is a new feature at WATCHA. We’ll explore lifestyle features with a horological twist. Jon Brown is a Raleigh, NC resident and self-diagnosed and untreated Rolex addict).
The problem with being enthusiastic about what most people consider extreme sports is that occasionally one gets into a disagreement with the ground. Now, as I’m sure you know, the ground is pretty solid and is totally immobile. Unless you’re on a lava flow, in which case you have a bigger problem, or unless you’re on an iceberg, same thing. Watch out for the world’s few remaining polar bears.
When you take a human body, add a significant amount of speed, and hurl it into the firmament with the lovely additions of tree roots, rocks, barnyard animals or polar bears, the resulting crash usually does some kind of damage to that human body. I have become a very serious expert over the last decade and a half on that damage. I have broken many things, torn things, strained things, bruised things, concussed my head, and have had to be surgically repaired. So you would imagine then that I have decided to take it easy as i have aged closer and closer to forty.
No such bloody luck.
I smashed myself into the ground yesterday on my local bicycle trail, which I have ridden probably a thousand times. I’m not even sure exactly what happened; except for one moment I was hurtling through the woods enjoying myself and then next i was on the ground in pain and making sure that everything worked properly. Then I got up and realized my handlebars were kilted sideways so I really must’ve hit the ground hard, even for me. As i write this, the next morning, sitting in my recently-adopted cat’s haven and laughing at their silliness, everything hurts. My left shoulder is functional, but just. My left hip – which was protected by a pair of armored shorts – is going to be spectacularly colorful in a day or three. My left ribs are tender. Both of my shins are bruised below where my knee pads cover because when you crash a bicycle your legs smash into your frame. My right hand is superbly sore for some unknown reason. I guess you could say that my pride is a bit sore also but at this point I’ve binned it so often on snow and dirt that my guardian angel has probably written me off as a hopeless case. As is so often the case, when one is mashed up and stiff and incapable of normal movement and behavior, one thinks. So I apologize for thinking and vomiting that thought onto a digital page. Yet here we are.
If the human body is so breakable, you would imagine that folks tend to create things in their own image. Beautiful, but flawed. Capable of very little in the way of rough handling before a head falls off, or a hand is lost to an overly enthusiastic high-five. In the main, this is true. If you’ve ever purchased a cat toy, you will know that a determined animal can destroy that toy in under a minute. If you’ve ever purchased a car, and accidentally bonked it into a bank, you’ll appreciate that they are not as sturdy as one may hope. We don’t make cars in the likeness of an elephant, which is nigh indestructible without a bullet in an insanely large caliber fired from a laughably large gun. And then you’ll likely have the PETA crowd after you, so I don’t suggest elephant hunting as a pursuit.
How then do we explain the wonder that is Rolex?
When I was growing up, my pediatrician wore a gold Rolex Datejust. I didn’t know that it was a Datejust at the time, just that it was a shiny gold watch and he told me it was a Rolex. That was thirty or more years ago and I imagine his grandson is wearing the watch and that it looks brand new. How on earth is that possible? If we made things like humans were put together the bloody thing would have bashed into a doorknob twenty years hence and been consigned to the scrap heap. Or spent a great deal of time in hospital being repaired.
Rolex began early in the twentieth century with the idea that it would be reliable, robust, (eventually) waterproof, and accurate. Hans Wilsdorf (let us pause to be glad, for the millionth time, that they’re not called Wilsdorfs) didn’t set out to create high horological masterpieces like messrs Patek and Phillipe, or those madmen at Vacheron Constantin. He wanted to build quality items that were NOT white goods. Well, for one thing, white goods didn’t exist then. You could purchase a small English county for thirty quid, but that also was a lifetime’s worth of earnings for your average person. So if you bought something you needed it to last.
Translated into the twenty-first century, I myself am a passionate collector of timepieces. In a way I have been since I was five, and was enamored of my father’s beautiful Swiss Army watch with a simple, white dial that showed the time in twelve-or-twenty-four hour increments, the date, and how many seconds past the hour it was. The red bezel was beautiful, and i wanted that watch more than anything in the world except perhaps the GIJoe aircraft carrier. As an aside, I now own that Swiss Army watch of dad’s, and it doesn’t work anymore but I’ll never not have it in my top drawer. I never did get the aircraft carrier though. First world problems and such.
I received a Swatch watch at some point in either 1985 or 1986. One’s grasp of annual time is a bit elastic at that age (much like one’s body, which i am currently wishing were still the case) so forgive me for not being precise. It was black, with red windowpane lines on the dial. It told the time, without a date or seconds. It had a wild rubberized “dial protector” because they were cheap so had mineral crystals that scratched like cats on cardboard. I loved that watch until it fell into dust at some point in my childhood and was consigned I’m sure by my mother to a bin. I wish I still had it, even if it was a wreck, because for me it was genesis.
At some point during my elementary schooling, I was finally able to convince my dad to purchase for me at the enormous cost of (i believe) about $29.99 a Timex Ironman Indiglo. It did a heap of things I never used, glowed in the dark when I pressed a button, and as I stated last week was haute couture for a small boy in school. It was festooned with a “The Band” strap, which I’m now convinced could have towed the Titanic, and i wore it as proudly as a boy could do until I became enamored with Air Jordans, and was a Boy Scout.
For my twelfth birthday, in 1991, I received what was to me at the time an incredible gift. An all-black, somewhat evil-looking Victorinox Swiss Army Renegade. The dial was similar to my dad’s but the numerals glowed, the handset was stouter than a lunch-lady’s forearms, and it was the greatest single thing I owned at the time. I actually still possess this watch, and the luminant has fallen out of the hands, it looks like it has literally been through a meat grinder, and it won’t work either, but MAN i loved that watch. FOR YEARS AND YEARS.
Then something weird happened.
When one of my best friends graduated high school, in 1998, his parents gifted him a Rolex Submariner (which I now know to have been a reference 16610LN). I had never seen any other Rolex and known it, aside from that pediatricians. But this one was different. It was chunky and steel and full of purpose. I tried it on, and I LOVED it. Then I found out what a Rolex cost. I was stunned.
I went through a whole process, over the next few years, of trying to understand fine watches and how they were priced and why. I eventually was able, in 2001, to acquire my first automatic watch, a Breitling, which at the time cost about 2/5 the same as my friend’s submariner. I could not fathom why the Sub cost so much more. I spent years maligning Rolex as the easy expensive choice of rich fools soon parted with their money, when one could have an Omega Seamaster for half the cost of the Sub. And a Seamaster could do everything a Sub could. Except for one very important thing that took me years to understand.
Today, twenty-one years after my buddy received that Submariner, it is still functioning beautifully. It keeps solid time, and although the date wheel is slightly off kilter (by about two teeth on the gear that drives it because he whacked it into a rock wall climbing on outward bound) it still works as well. It has never been serviced, never been babied, never been treated like an expensive item. To be frank, he’s beaten the absolute crap out of it for twenty years and it’s never missed a beat.
THAT is what differentiates a Rolex from the competition. Nothing is as robust, as purposeful, as inherently indestructible. There are many competitors who make many fine watches. But very few watches on earth can take the amount of abuse a Rolex can and keep trucking. Example: my own Breitling, after only about 10 Zyears, began losing a great deal of time per day (watches are regulated, for those who don’t obsess, to a + or – seconds per day rating). Why was this? It was beefy, purposeful, built for diving and general outdoor tomfoolery, and should be as reliable as a Sherman tank.
It wasn’t. I whacked it into the door to my retail shop at a ski resort one afternoon and it wasn’t the same. Had to go to the doctor for what was an expensive fix – actually the fix almost cost half what the watch had. It’s fine now, but my four-year-old Rolex GMT Master 2, affectionately known as the Batman, has been snowboarding, climbing, surfing, camping, hiking, adventuring through an unknown number of countries, and has never lost one iota of it’s performance or purpose. It tells me the time in two time zones (three if i rotate the bezel) very accurately, it’s unaffected by my own clumsy ways (refer to me crashing my bicycle above), and it remains one of the most accurate wristwatches I own.
My wonderful Rolex SeaDweller 50th Anniversary accidentally went mountain biking with me in asheville one afternoon for about two hours. I had not intended to go biking in any serious way, in fact was just looking to find a trail entrance. I ended up bounding about Bent Creek recreation area for two hours and that watch never complained. It’s huge, heavy, and built like the newer tanks, whatever we call them now. It rattled around my wrist uncomfortably and banged itself up and down probably two thousand times in those two hours.
Next morning it was still BANG on time. Try doing that with almost any other Swiss watch with an automatic movement. This is what separates Rolex from anyone else. They are neither the most expensive, nor the prettiest. They don’t have exquisite finishing of their movements, nor aventurine dials. They are not as showy and flashy as many people think unless blanketed in diamonds.
If you buy a Rolex today – which is actually very difficult in the main – you can be utterly assured that it will be ticking just fine in fifty years when your own ticker needs electrical assistance.
Therein lies the long term value in a watch that most people see as a luxury trinket. Therein also lies why a lot of serious Rolex folks kind of grin and nod when someone tells them about their Hublot or Panerai or IWC or whathaveyou. I love my Panerai. IWC makes fabulous watches. Hublot is a touchstone for a divided market but they do make interesting things.
But none of them, not one, is a Rolex. And that is why Rolex wears the crown and everyone knows that name.
Now only if Rolex could manufacture shoulders, hips, and shins.