Rolex: Whether connoisseur or novice, the Swiss luxury watch brand with a crown as its logo is a household name for anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last fifty years. For most people, Rolex is synonymous with luxury, prestige, and quality, and many a Rolex owner has basked in the investment potential of their timepiece. During its nearly 120-year history, Rolex has created innumerable sporty models that have since become the blueprint for entire watch categories. These include the legendary Submariner diving watch, the iconic Cosmograph Daytona chronograph, and the ever-popular Day-Date (to name just a few).
In this article, we’re telling you everything you need to know about the brand’s history and most celebrated models. You’ll also find out why Rolex watches tend to change hands at high prices, and which big-name celebrities have been seen wearing a Rolex.
- Key Moments in Rolex History
- Important Rolex Collections and Models
- Who wears Rolex watches?
- Why are Rolex watches so expensive?
- Do Rolex watches make good investments?
- Clash of the Titans: Rolex vs. Omega
Key Moments in Rolex History
Hans Wilsdorf is one of the most prominent names in the world of watchmaking. When this enterprising and inventive young man from Kulmbach, Germany, moved to London via Switzerland in 1905 at the age of 24 and decided to set up his own business, his aim was to import Swiss watches to Britain. The only thing missing was a catchy brand name.
Legend has it that the melodic two-syllable word “Rolex” was contrived only after an endless juggling of letters. One morning, Wilsdorf was rolling through London on the top deck of a horse-drawn omnibus, and suddenly had a eureka moment: Rolex! The name met his demands for simplicity and individuality, and sounded good, too.
From the very start, the young brand aimed to achieve a high level of quality and innovation. In 1914, for example, Wilsdorf succeeded in getting the accuracy of his watches certified – something that had previously been reserved for marine chronometers. In 1926, Rolex introduced the world’s first waterproof watch with the patented Oyster case. The design, in which the bezel, crown, and case back are hermetically screwed into the case, features in most Rolex models to this day.
It was during the 1940s that the Rolex Datejust was introduced, which is still hugely popular today. The Datejust displays only the date in addition to the time. Rolex’s big break came in the mid-1950s, with the release of two highly-successful new watches, the Submariner and GMT-Master. This was followed by the Rolex Day-Date, an elegant precious metal timepiece that made history by becoming the watch of several U.S. presidents.
The first Rolex chronograph debuted in 1963. A few years after the Omega Speedmaster and Heuer Autavia, Rolex created its own timepiece for the racetrack, the Cosmograph Daytona. Through the decades, the Daytona also rose in rank to become a luxury watch of the highest order.
More recently, Rolex has focused on the discrete evolution of its own early legendary timepieces and on materials research, which led for example to the creation of Rolex’s patented Chronergy escapement and Parachrom hairspring. With more than 7,000 employees and sales in the billions, Rolex is a true watchmaking giant.
Important Rolex Collections and Models
While most luxury watch brands have one or two significant series in their portfolio, virtually every collection in the Rolex catalog is a classic, due in large part to the high level of innovation and design skill that drove the brand between the 1940s and 60s, but also to clever marketing decisions and the meticulous maintenance of its various models. As a result, virtually every Rolex is instantly recognizable, regardless of its age.
Rolex first introduced the Datejust in 1945. As the name suggests, the watch displays just the date in addition to the time, magnified by a lens in the crystal. The Datejust is available in sizes from 28 to 41 mm and with a wide selection of dial colors. As for materials, you can choose between stainless steel, white, rose or yellow gold, and platinum. For more information, check out our Rolex Datejust Buyer’s Guide.
Dot indices, Mercedes hands, a rotating diving bezel, and water resistance to 200 m (20 bar, 656 ft): Almost every watch enthusiast knows and loves the Rolex Submariner. Introduced in 1953, the tool watch was one of the very first professional diving watches. Its design is unmistakable, such that even someone new to the world of watches will associate the Rolex brand with the look of the Submariner.
Rolex Submariner: The OG Diving Watch
The Rolex GMT-Master first appeared in 1955. Rolex designed the watch for the American airline Pan Am (Pan American World Airways), who wanted a timepiece for its pilots and flight attendants. In 1982, the GMT-Master II appeared, which differed from its predecessor primarily in its hour hand, which can be adjusted independently. Today, the former tool watch is one of Rolex’s most sought-after models.
The Rolex Day-Date, also known as the “President Watch,” has been on the market since 1956. It was the first wristwatch to display the date and day of the week. When manufacturing the Day-Date, Rolex uses only precious metals like platinum or yellow, white, or rose gold. The Day-Date got its nickname because several U.S. presidents and other heads of state have adorned their wrists with this model.
The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona is one of the most sought-after chronographs of all time. Introduced in 1963, the watch was primarily used for timekeeping at professional racetracks. The model was so unpopular at first that Rolex considered discontinuing it. It wasn’t until Hollywood legend and amateur racecar driver Paul Newman was regularly seen wearing his Daytona that the watch found favor with the public.
In 1967, another professional diving watch joined the lineup, the Rolex Sea-Dweller. This model is essentially a more robust associate of the Submariner. Early editions were water-resistant to 1,200 m (120 bar, 3,937 ft), which was a real novelty at the time. Today, Rolex offers many variants of the Sea-Dweller, including models made of precious metals or titanium, such as the Sea-Dweller Deepsea Challenge introduced in 2022, which is water-resistant to 11,000 m (1,100 bar, 36,090 ft).
Who wears Rolex watches?
The list of celebrities with Rolex watches is long, so we put together a small selection of living legends who’ve been known to sport a Rolex watch from time to time.
- Roger Federer: Swiss tennis legend Roger Federer has been a Rolex brand ambassador for many years. So it’s no surprise that he owns several Rolex watches. Among these are a GMT-Master II Batman ref. 116710BLNR, a Day-Date ref. 228235 in rose gold, and a gold Daytona “Orange” ref. 116588SACO. The latter is currently available on Chrono24 for around 360,000 USD.
- Rihanna: Pop icon Rihanna also likes to adorn her wrist with Rolex watches. She’s been seen wearing a vintage King Midas, a two-tone Datejust, and a rose gold Day-Date, among others.
- Cristiano Ronaldo: Soccer legend and Chrono24 investor Cristiano Ronaldo is a self-confessed watch fan and Rolex wearer. He owns, for example, a gold GMT-Master II ref. 16758SARU, a diamond-encrusted white gold GMT-Master II, and a gold Daytona Rainbow (ref. 116595RBOW). Learn more about Cristiano Ronaldo’s watch collection in this article.
- Brad Pitt: Hollywood legend Brad Pitt has been spotted wearing a variety of Rolex watches over the years. Among them are a gold Day-Date ref. 228238, gold GMT-Master II ref. 116718, and a stainless steel Daytona (presumably the ref. 116520).
Why are Rolex watches so expensive?
Anyone who’s followed the Rolex watch market closely in recent years will have seen that prices for certain models have defied any rational explanation. The fact that Rolex offers exceptional quality and timeless designs at correspondingly high prices needs no further explanation at this juncture.
Although competitor Omega hold a similar position in the market, Omega watch prices have increased only in a few isolated instances. We can therefore assume that the upward trajectory of Rolex prices is primarily a result of the prestige of the brand and bedazzling brand name. Another factor may very well be the often low supply of and extremely high demand for Rolex watches – conditions that drive up prices on the secondary market. Therefore, along with design and quality, prestige and availability also play a role in Rolex watch prices.
Do Rolex watches make good investments?
Although the market has cooled considerably since 2022, stainless steel sports models in particular offer a real opportunity for long-term appreciation. Ultimately, it’s a question of skillful entry into the world of Rolex, if and when there is real investment potential.
For example: The Rolex Daytona ref. 116520 with a white dial and in new condition demands an investment of approximately 35,000 USD on Chrono24 (as of August 2023). Exactly three years earlier, the watch changed hands for 26,000 USD. In August 2013, you would have needed to invest just 10,200 USD. Over a period of 10 years, the value of the watch increased by nearly 245%.
The example above is roughly the median in terms of value appreciation. Some Rolex models perform even better in terms of investment, some worse. In his article “The 3 Top-Performing Rolex Watches of the Past 5 Years,” Chrono24 Magazine editor Jorg takes a look at some other exciting Rolex watches with investment potential.
Clash of the Titans: Rolex vs. Omega
So you want to buy a watch from either Rolex or Omega, but can’t decide which? Then you’re in good company; my colleague René compares Rolex and Omega in a separate article. In principle, a look at the price tag should solve your predicament: In terms of technology and quality, Omega is on par with Rolex but comes at a comparatively lower price. Which leaves you with design, functionality, and brand status. The first two points will be determined by taste alone, since both Rolex and Omega offer attractive classics with all the usual complications.
But if you want to show off your luxury watch to friends and colleagues, Rolex is probably the better choice. If you want a timepiece with real investment potential or at least a stable value over time, Rolex is, again, the one to beat. Nevertheless, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of Rolex or Omega.