Why Rolex is so popular after nearly a century, especially now that so many other excellent watch brands are around, is a legitimate question. A Rolex is partially assembled by hand, and partially by machine, and certainly one can find more affordable watches that are ostensibly just as accurate, handsome and sturdy. So how does Rolex continue to stay on top of the Swiss mechanical watch game?
On the surface, one has to accept that Rolex has effortlessly maintained its place among today’s most recognizable status symbols, cutting across cultures and geography as a truly global brand. It’s hard to watch a tennis match, yachting regatta, auto race, or golf tournament without the Rolex crown pasted all over it, and famous actors, musicians, and regularly politicians sport Rolexes. Good luck getting through a major airport without seeing a Rolex clock, reminding you of the brand’s ubiquity.
Certainly Rolex’s brand cachet motivates a good portion of sales, but it doesn’t account for the fact that Rolex watches — old and new alike — are a surprisingly great value, and incredibly well made. When all of Rolex’s proprietary mechanical technology, cutting-edge materials, and timeless designs are accounted for, Rolex has always made excellent watches that simply don’t cost as much as their equivalents from other brands (with Omega billed as a perennial exception). The solid value of a Rolex is a little hard to see at first glance (they are certainly not inexpensive), but after shopping around for equivalents, most agree that Rolex is doing things right — including, in some cases, with regard to pricing. Rolex’s steel sports watches exhibit value better than many others, and that’s made them especially hard to get.
Buying a Rolex: Sounds Simple, But Not Always
Buying a new Rolex can be a complicated endeavor because Rolex intentionally shorts demand on more than a few models (especially steel sports models), thus creating years-long waitlists at authorized Rolex dealers. Getting on those lists is itself a challenge requiring investment of time and money. Buying a pre-owned Rolex is also a complicated endeavor because there are myriad details that can be significant in determining the value and desirability of any individual watch — plus you’ll have to evaluate the watch’s condition, inside and out.
How to Buy a New Rolex
Walk into any authorized Rolex dealer, and you’re going to see a lot of Datejusts, Day-Dates, Oyster Perpetuals, perhaps a Milgaus, maybe an Air-King, and usually a fresh batch of Cellini dress watches in a wide range of sizes and colors. You’ll always see a swath of women’s models. You might see a few sport watches in precious metals like a Skydweller, a Yachtmaster or even a Submariner; or you might not. Prices on new Rolexes are typically non-negotiable, and if you find what you like among the Rolexes on offer, then it’s a fairly straightforward purchase.
The Problem With Steel
What you won’t see at an authorized Rolex dealer these days are steel sport watches — Daytonas, Submariners, Seadwellers, Skydwellers, GMT Masters, Explorer I and II in steel are nowhere to be found. From the legendary Parisian dealer Bucherer to the lovely Betteridge Jewelers in Vail, Colorado and Greenwich, Connecticut, to the Rolex boutique on Madison Ave in NYC, we (mostly) haven’t seen a steel Rolex sports on display for at least a couple of years. If you’re pushy, as we were recently in Paris, you might convince the salesperson to pull a steel Rolex sports watch out of the safe just to check it out, but even that is a rare privilege, perhaps afforded only to pushy journalists.
Why is that steel Rolex in the safe? And who’s gonna get to purchase it?
The Idea of the Waitlist
It’s in the safe waiting for whomever is next on the dealer’s waitlist for that model. Getting on that list isn’t easy. At Betteridge Jewelers in Greenwich Connecticut (a town full of hedge fund-types and, thus, gorgeous watch boutiques), my request to get on the waitlist for a steel Skydweller was politely rejected. “Well, those models are going to go to people who have a long-standing relationship with the owner.” “Could I get on the list?” I asked. “We have a gold one I can show you,” came the well-rehearsed answer. Not even a pushy watch journalist was going to simply waltz onto that list.
Authorized dealers are not allowed to jack up the prices on any Rolex, an interesting point when you consider that a percentage of folks lucky enough to get a new steel Rolex sports watch immediately flip them for multiples of the sticker price. However, it would seem that most authorized Rolex dealers shun flippers, considering association with these profiteers bad for business, and alienating to those seeking a good relationship with an authorized Rolex dealer.
Getting on the List
And so, the reality of getting a current model year steel Rolex sports watch involves either building a relationship with a known flipper (which we don’t recommend; see above), or building a positive, long-term, close relationship with an authorized Rolex dealer (which we highly recommend to those hungry for late model steel Rolexes).
Building a relationship with an authorized Rolex dealer will likely involve becoming a regular customer — and browsing won’t cut it; you have to make purchases. All this may smack of nepotism, but it’s really just an extension of mutual loyalty between retailer and customer, akin to getting a table at an impossible-to-book restaurant, getting inked by a renowned tattoo artist, or being fitted by a celebrated tailor. Persistence, patience, and loyalty can eventually earn you access to the waitlist. And then, you’ll wait.
“Most authorized Rolex dealers shun flippers, considering association with these profiteers bad for business, and alienating to those seeking a good relationship with an A.D.”
How to Buy a Pre-Owned Rolex
Whatever the age, you’re going to want to know a number of things about any pre-owned Rolex in order to get exactly what you’re looking for at a reasonable price. We certainly won’t be the first to say “condition is everything,” but it most certainly (almost) is. Though every seller of pre-owned watches seems to break a watch’s condition into their own stratified rating system, the following ranking is a decent way to assess what you’re looking at.
New Old Stock and Box-Fresh Rolexes
Obviously the best condition a watch can be in is new condition, and, though rare, it’s not entirely impossible to find older models yet to be sold, or which were sold and have sat unused (think “inappropriate gift,” etc.). Interestingly, even unopened watch boxes can be environments in which patina and/or corrosion develop, so even a New Old Stock Rolex requires some assessment before purchase.
These will have been used, but they have not been abused or altered in any way. They typically are newer and show no signs of wear or patina. Rolex’s alloys — especially the modern Oystersteel — can withstand years of use without showing much damage. A gold Rolex is more susceptible to scratches and dents, as are older steel models. Thus, mint Rolexes tend to be newer and steel.
Used & Unpolished
These watches will show signs of use, like scratches and dents, but have not been polished. Polishing is a process that changes the dimensions of the watch case to varying degrees by shaving off metal, often rounding previously sharp corners and connection points. Serious collectors generally avoid polished Rolexes, but everyone has their own threshold. There’s no hard rule here.
Used & Polished
These watches may appear to be in better condition than an unpolished watch, but they may cost you less because they’re not 100% original. Again, feelings about polishing are purely subjective, and the amount of metal removed may be a factor in working out the price — purists prefer unpolished watches.
“Polishing is a process that changes the dimensions of the watch case to varying degrees by shaving off metal, often rounding previously sharp corners and connection points.”
When a watch is water-damaged, run over by a car, left in a chemically toxic environment, or otherwise beat to shit, it may be a candidate for restoration. Generally we would recommend that only an experienced collector or enthusiast who understands what’s involved take on such a project. Nailing a fair price for the watch is tricky at best, as is estimating restoration costs. It’s a good practice, at the very least, for the beginner to avoid watches whose parts have been updated or replaced, as this can significantly affect the value of a Rolex (or any) watch.
Box & Papers (Full Set)
Whatever the condition of the Rolex, original box (inner and outer) and papers (original punched sales card; warranty information; etc.) will assure a higher price. You may not care about these items, and that’s fine, but know that any documentation (especially service records) is desirable, and there’s a particular love for original receipts with the serial number on them because they verify the origins of the watch.
In watch nerd parlance, a watch with the original box and papers is called a “full set,” though sometimes a particular dealer might only consider a watch a “full set” if both inner and outer boxes are present along with all paperwork and all accouterments that originally came with the timepiece (Rolex Oyster-cased watches ship with a small anchor, for example).
How to Vet a Pre-Owned Rolex
Choose Your Rolex Model and Year
Sounds simple, but with the myriad small alterations Rolex makes year to year, this may be trickier than you first imagine. (Also keep in mind that Rolex watches are made in batches, meaning that a watch whose serial number indicates a production date of 1989 may, for instance, have actually been produced in late 1988). Talk to experts whenever possible; refer to Rolex resources (many collector’s books exist, though they’re pricey); use the internet judiciously when researching, and vet your sources.
Decide Upon What Condition Your Rolex Has to Be In For You to Purchase It.
Does it need to be perfect (unused or mint), or can you tolerate some wear? Are you comfortable with some polishing, or are you a purist who demands an unpolished Rolex?
Establish a Price Range
One of the best ways to check current market prices is to check recently completed auctions on eBay. Looking at classified listings on online sales forums can be helpful, too, as they’re often left in place after the sale. Lastly, there are a number of excellent dealers who sell pre-own Rolexes, including Crown and Caliber and Bob’s Watches, and their pricing is typically fair and consistent, if slightly higher than what you’d pay to an individual seller.
Find Examples, and Target Your Specific Rolex
If you’re lucky, there will be a few examples of what you’re looking for available at one time, and you can hone in on the one that best matches your requirements and desires. If you’re seeking a less common example, you may find yourself on an extended hunt.
Buy The Seller
Whether your target Rolex is with an individual or a dealer, do not make the purchase until you’ve gotten to know the seller. Many seller feedback systems exist. eBay’s is proven, and Etsy’s is great, too (you’d be surprised how many Rolexes show up on Etsy). Most forums have a way to gauge a seller’s reputation. You may even ask and individual or a dealer for references. If possible, get the seller on the phone or meet in person to get a vibe reading. If you sense any shadiness, move on.
Vet The Rolex’s External Condition
If the dealer passes muster, then it’s time to vet the watch itself. The condition of the case, dial, hands, and so on is typically not up for debate. If you’re not seeing the watch in person, then ask for photos from multiple angles, demand hi-resolution images so you can zoom in, and ask any questions (no matter how dumb they sound) if you’re not sure about what you’re seeing.
Vet the Rolex’s Mechanical Condition
Most mechanical watches need to go through service every 5-7 years (though modern lubricants and non-metallic materials are extending service intervals). Unfortunately, many watches do not receive regular service. Any service records are going to add assurance, but likely also raise the price. If there are no service records, then ask the seller for the service history. If a service was done properly, the movement would have been disassembled to some degree, cleaned, rebuilt, and lubricated, and there should be a receipt from the service center detailing the work performed
The type of work done during a service can range from “checked over,” to “regulated” to “cleaned and lubed” (which is an iffy answer), to “fully disassembled and rebuilt.” If any parts were replaced, ask if they used genuine Rolex parts; if they did not, there is actually a legal precedent in the US Courts that requires that (a) third-party Rolex parts be stamped as not original, and (b) the parts be marked “third party” on any service receipts. If all else fails, get images of the movement, and show them to a trusted watchmaker for their evaluation, or get a watch with a satisfaction guarantee period and have it looked over.
Seek a Warranty and/or Satisfaction Guarantee
Many pre-owned Rolex dealers will offer you a warranty. Make sure they’re specific about what it covers and for how long. If buying from an individual, some online sellers (via eBay especially) will offer a money-back satisfaction guarantee period for you to get the watch in hand and have it checked out.
Wheel, Deal & Buy Your Rolex
In most cultures, the price of a used item is up for negotiation, and in most cases you can expect to pay at least slightly less than whatever the asking price is for a pre-owned Rolex. For the most part, given that you have a handle on the condition and trust the seller, the prices for pre-owned Rolexes are pretty stable. Don’t expect to get an incredible deal, but don’t expect to get gouged either. Offering to pay cash will often allow you to shave off some cost from the final sale price, as it saves the dealer having to pay credit card processing fees.