How Rolex Became King: A Brief History of the World’s Best-Known Watch Brand

This is why the crown has never been dethroned.

There’s a moment in Gary Shteyngart’s recent novel, Lake Success, when the main character, Barry Cohen—a faltering hedge fund manager who is obsessed with watches—shows a young woman whom he has just slept with a selection of his watch collection. She picks up his F.P. Journe and says, “I love this one . . . Are you saving up for a Rolex?” In another scene, Cohen tries to convince a former colleague to wear a Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar rather than a Rolex Sky-Dweller out to a club, with the idea that the Patek will attract women of integrity, but his colleague goes with the sure bet: his Rolex. Shteyngart’s positioning of Rolex as a cultural touchstone works because Rolex is, in actuality, the first—and often the only—watch brand people think of when it comes to high-end timepieces.

Mercedes, Gucci and Apple have achieved a similar status on par with Rolex’s. These brands have rooted themselves so deeply into the global culture that they have come to represent much more than the products they label; they symbolize wealth, success, style and quality. Their cultural prominence has made these companies indefatigable kings of their respective domains. As Rolex approaches its 100th anniversary, it is possible to pinpoint the visionary strategies that put the company on the horological throne. Five of those strategies stand out: Rolex’s technical innovation, marketing élan, design consistency, financial independence and selective scarcity have generated the company’s unrivaled success among watch brands.

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