A WORLD APART
INSIDE THE ROLEX MANUFACTURE
REVOLUTION delves into the heart of the Rolex manufacture to discover a unique fusion between state-of-the-art technology and traditional human values that results in — hands down — the best performing mechanical watches in the world
By Wei Koh
It’s one of those moments in life when you know you'd never be the same afterwards. You'd be changed forever; your emotional fabric, your chemical composition, your perspective on reality, irrevocably altered. It must have been like this for Alan Shepard, sitting strapped to the chair of his space craft, the nose cone pointed at the deep, cosmic otherness known as space. And as the massive engines ignited beneath him, he felt their power shake him to his soul. As they propelled him into the unknown, he must have known what it was like to feel true awe. So it was for the small group of journalists selected to step foot, for the first time in decades, into the most foreboding realm in the luxury universe — the Rolex factory and headquarters in Geneva. Here it was, a totemic edifice to one of the most powerful, yet most secretive companies on the planet.
Outside the Rolex manufacture; stark glass facade shield a secret universe of watchmaking within
Who is Rolex? Rolex is a company that has been the gold standard for brand equity, quality and function over the last century. A company known even in the farthest reaches of the world. Rolex watches hold their value with such stability that they could be used as an alternate global currency. The company makes such accurate watches that should all electronic navigational technology become irreversibly corrupted, ship captains and pilots could still plot their course with Rolexes. It produces more mechanical watches than all the other high-end watch companies in Switzerland combined, yet manages to outshine them all in performance, accuracy, ease of use and robustness. But for years, Rolex has also been an information black hole, where questions on movements, manufacturing techniques and technical innovations vanished as quickly as light in a world of total darkness. So, Rolex lovers became ciphers learning to read the language of its creators through the mechanical language of their movement, cultivating a comprehension of their grand ambitions and majestic achievements from the small evolutions that emerged each year in their watches.
Then one day, just like Charlie’s Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, an invitation materializes; and you find yourself standing outside the shimmering reflective glass walls, built to intimidate and to ensure that the world within remains a world apart. So, you step inside its doors and already your head is filled with wild, hallucinatory thoughts:are you about to descend to a top-secret facility buried three miles underground, where captured alien space technology is harnessed to create watches beyond all human comprehension? As you open your eyes, your mind reels to comprehend the full magnitude of what’s passing before them. And suddenly, that deep, painful desire; that all-too-human yearning to learn more, to become the vessel of transcendent knowledge, is satiated. And as if you’ve looked upon the face of God, you are enlightened and changed forever.
But hang on. We know what you want to know. Because we’ve heard the gripes, the asides, the whispers spoken with the venom of jealous courtesans. “Rolex only makes three movements,” they say, “How can they call themselves a manufacture?” This is largely true for their Oyster (although, this year, they added the Regatta chronograph caliber 4160), but they make these movements exceptionally well. In fact, I defy any other manufacture to submit their movements for comparative testing related to accuracy and shock resistance. Like Wesley says in The Princess Bride, “The end result can only be humiliation galore.”
All precious metals are made from core elements by Rolex at the in-house foundry. This expertise allowed Rolex to create Everose, the only truly stable rose gold in the world
So, is the inner world of Rolex devoid of human life and filled with futuristic robots and replicants that have walked off the set of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner? Yes, and no. Robots are used, but an immense amount of human involvement goes into the creation of Rolex’s watches. The word “manufacture” comes from the Latin description “to make by hand”, and there is plenty of this going on inside Rolex. Movements are hand-assembled and easily as artisanal in approach as movements assembled at similarly industrialized manufactures such as Breitling, Panerai and Roger Dubuis. Delicate operations such as coiling and separation of hairsprings are still exclusively performed by hand. These processes are artisanal and so far in advance of the rest of the watch industry that they do not exist at any other watch factory in the world.
What about the fabled robots? Well, they do exist. The entire inventory of parts in several of Rolex’s facilities is overseen in rooms five stories tall and the size of football fields, presided over by massive robotic superstructures with super-fast drones gliding at warp speed on surrealistically silent rails. Cases are similarly polished by robots. The result? Super-human production efficiency and perfection.
Ultimately, what your mind struggles with is that Rolex is unlike any other watch manufacture. It is designed and built from the ground up to optimize quality as well as mass industrialization. It is totally integrated, and with the exception of making its own steel (they buy it from Austria and use surgical grade 904L, which surpasses the 316L used by everyone else, for corrosion resistance), it can do virtually everything involved in making its watches in its four sites: Bienne (where movements are built), Plans-les-Ouates (where cases and bracelets are made), Chêne-Bourg (where dials and gem-setting elements are fabricated), or at the Rolex HQ (where watches are assembled and hairsprings made). All precious metals are forged from raw elements, which allowed Rolex to create Everose, the only rose gold in the world with color that remains consistent even after exposure to chlorinated water.
By fusing technology with traditional artisan values, Rolex is capable of creating close to one million watches a year (based on the number of COSC certificates it has applied for per annum), all of which exhibit perfect performance. The Rolex factory is more reminiscent of high-end car factories, like the Volkswagen Phaeton plant in Dresden, than anything related to watches. Its critical differences from other watch manufactures, as detailed in the following articles, make Rolex literally a world apart from all other pretenders to its famous crown.
UNLOCKING THE MYSTERIES OF THE HEART
THE PARACHROM HAIRSPRING
In his novel The Pugilist at Rest, the author Thom Jones describes an American solider in the Vietnam War, reeling from the concussive fallout of mortar fire. He looks at his wrist and sees that the onslaught has been so brutal that orange dust has managed to penetrate under the acrylic of his Rolex watch. But amazingly, the watch continues to function. This fictional image is belied by an irrefutable truth. A Rolex is the only mechanical watch that will provide unfailing accuracy 100 percent of the time in the most hostile environments and the most brutal situations. It is one of the few luxury objects on earth that derive their value not just from quality and branding, but also from an intimidating level of reliability.
THE REGULATOR — THE KEY TO ACCURACY The single most important component that distinguishes an accurate mechanical watch from one that isn’t, is the beating heart of the watch called the balance. Like in a human being, a watch’s heart regulates its life. The balance, in simple terms, is a wheel fixed with a spring. It receives pulses of energy that travel from the watch’s energy source, called the mainspring. Every time it receives a pulse of energy, it swings in one direction until spring tension forces it to swing back in the opposite direction. The action of this spring tensing and releasing is called “breathing”. This action regulates the locking and unlocking of power delivery which, if you can imagine, is like someone locking and unlocking a tap at precise intervals. The more regular the intervals, the more accurately time is kept. What makes for the greatest consistency in timekeeping? Absolute uniformity in the oscillation of the balance. And what accounts for this uniformity is the quality of the watch’s hairspring, and its ability to breathe regularly and concentrically.
The hairspring is a miracle of micro-engineering. It is a piece of metal rolled finer than a human hair and coiled into the shape of a spiral spring, then expected to expand and contract with near perfect regularity and in perpetuity. To give you some perspective on how demanding this task is, measuring time with a precision within one second a day — which Rolexes do — is like measuring a kilometer with a discrepancy of less than a centimeter. Add to this that the watch is worn on the wrist, where it is subjected to impact, shocks and a myriad motions, and you can see how these could generate massive disturbances to the delicate regulating organ pulsing eight times per second. So, how is it that the Rolex Oyster can be worn while jogging, playing tennis or golf, scuba-diving, or even mountain biking, without diminishing its timekeeping accuracy? The secret is in the quality of the two components comprising its living heart: its balance wheel and its special Parachrom hairspring. Watch companies don’t tell you that creating a hairspring is an imperfect science. Tiny geometric and material variations, and the process of coiling result in every hairspring varying slightly in the rate at which it contracts and expands. To resolve this, watchmakers use balance wheels with small opposable weights that can be adjusted to make oscillations go faster or slower by altering the inertia of the balance wheel. Sometimes, inertia needs to be altered so radically that material is removed from the balance wheel by drilling holes into it. But due to the precision of Rolex’s hairsprings and balances, the only regulation needed to fine-tune its watches to an accuracy of one-eighth of a second is the turning of the well-designed Microstella nuts on the inner rim of its balance wheel. This balance wheel design is another example of Rolex’s dedication to optimizing accuracy. By placing the nuts inboard instead of on the outer rim where they are easier to adjust, Rolex massively reduces aerodynamic turbulence caused by weights as they tear through the air at the rate of 28,800 vibrations per hour.
It is in the alchemic realm of the hairspring that Rolex has achieved an industry leading level of technical innovation. In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of watches with hairsprings made from silicon and even diamond. But these watches are mostly concept pieces, and their total number is no greater than a few hundred. The rest of the watches produced in the world rely on a type of ferromagnetic alloy made from a mixture of iron, nickel and chromium discovered in the 1930s by scientist and Nobel Prize winner Charles-Edouard Guillaume.
Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona
GUILLAUME — THE ROOTS OF ACCURACY Due to temperature changes, the elasticity of the hairspring actually varies depending on the ambient temperature. If temperature increases, a carbon steel hairspring (the type used prior to Guillaume) will lose its elasticity, resulting in a tendency for the watch to start to lose on its rate. A decrease in temperature will have the opposite effect. Cut, bimetallic compensation balances partially canceled out temperature error, but imperfectly; and in addition, carbon steel hairsprings are extremely prone to becoming magnetized. Guillaume’s invention of a form of nickel steel, known as Invar, resulted in the ability to create so called “self compensating” hairsprings, in which temperature error is almost completely eliminated, and the descendants of such hairsprings are still in use today.
A NEW ERA OF ACCURACY INTRODUCED BY ROLEX All that changed in the 1990s when Rolex discovered and patented a new alloy they named Parachrom that they would use to create hairsprings capable of unprecedented levels of performance. But what makes Parachrom superior to Invar hairsprings? For one, Invar hairsprings are easily susceptible to magnetic influence. Place your watch too close to a stereo speaker and it can easily become magnetized. The coils of the spring attract each other and no longer breathe regularly or concentrically, resulting in major loss of accuracy. Watches becoming magnetized are, to this day, one of the most prevalent service problems. While many manufactures make anti-magnetic watches with soft-iron inner cases, it is only Rolex that has decided to “treat the disease” and not simply alleviate the symptoms of magnetic influence on the hairspring.
The second marked superiority of Parachrom to Invar is its greater suppleness, resulting in hairsprings that are ten times more shock-resistant. The real-world application to a watch equipped with Rolex’s Parachrom hairspring is that you can go through life confident that your watch will not be affected by the vast majority of magnetic fields; that you can wear your Rolex for the most rugged sport without fear that shocks will cause loss of accuracy or, even worse, permanent damage.
Daytona caliber 4130 chronograph movement
WHAT IS PARACHROM? What exactly is Parachrom and how is it made? Its base material consists of 85 percent niobium and 15 percent zirconium. These materials are also used to create heat shields in nuclear power plants, so their melting point is supremely high. To merge the two materials, Rolex utilizes electron bombardment inside a high vacuum condition, which creates an environment of 2,300 degrees Celsius. It is remarkable to witness these two materials becoming one. They are fed vertically through an arc-melting ring, and while they appear as solid metal below the melting point, they transform into a ring of fire at the point at which they combine. To ensure that the two materials are perfectly combined, this fusion takes place three times, with the bar of Parachrom rotated at each pass. The end result is a bar of Parachrom 30 centimeters long that can be used to create 10,000 hairsprings.
The processes after this reduce the thinness of the metal to the diameter of a strand of human hair. During these operations, the 30-cm bar of Parachrom comes to occupy a length of two kilometers. It is rolled, heat-treated to temper it, and then wire drawn. In the first pass through a wire die, it is pulled with a force of 100 kilograms. After this, an additional element, oxygen, is introduced to the alloy. By passing the wire through a furnace, the Parachrom is encouraged to absorb oxygen through its surface. Oxygen changes the thermal coefficient of the material, allowing it to react in the desired manner when the balance wheel’s inertia changes.
Finally, the wire goes through its last drawing when it is reduced to 100 microns in diameter, resulting in a length of three kilometers. The wire is then flattened using high-pressure rolling, reducing it to 50 microns in thickness and 150 microns in height. It is cut into sections 20 cm in length, which are placed inside a mold to provide the coiled shape of the hairspring, and then handrolled in the traditional technique. Remarkably, for all the work done by the massive and intimidating drawing and rolling machines, the operation to create the hairspring’s form is conducted by the human hand. Once the springs are separated, they are given a final heat treatment to relieve stress and ensure that they stay permanently in shape. The blue color of the springs is not due to flame bluing, but added during an electro-chemical process, which stabilizes the properties of the hairspring by adding a layer of oxide — essentially oxygen ions bonded to the exterior of the spring. After which, the hairsprings are given their signature Breguet overcoil, where the exterior of the spring is bent across the top of the entire spiral to aid concentric breathing, before being fixed to the collet and stud.
The strictest levels of precision are observed throughout the entire manufacturing of the hairspring — an embodiment of Rolex’s philosophy of ensuring that quality is optimized right from the very start of production. Says Rolex’s technical director Jacques Baur, “During hairspring manufacturing, precision is of incredible importance. A variation between 44.9 and 45.1 microns represents a difference of four minutes in error per day. At Rolex, our philosophy is always to focus on quality right from the beginning.”
ROLEX GMT-MASTER II: FIELD TEST
I like to think of these scenarios in my head. What if I got approached by a group of scientists to re-enact the social experiment experienced by Robinson Crusoe? But the catch is, instead of being stuck on some godforsaken rock with the unappealing troglodyte that was Crusoe’s trusty manservant Friday, here, my Fridays would be four highly eroticized, long-toed Ukrainian fashion models suffering from clinical nymphomania, and who, through a long process of electrolysis, have had every hair follicle below their collar bones permanently removed. Even better, as a big believer in hygiene, at our disposal would be freshwater showers, L’Occitane en Provence toiletries, endless baskets of Santa Maria de Novella soaps, a bidet that shoots high-pressure jets of Chanel No. 5, a pedicurist and a whole lot of toothpaste.
Now, say I could only bring one watch with me to this island. And I would need it to coordinate my lady friends to pick up food drops and rotate my beach chair at certain hours to optimize my suntan. I would also need it to allocate appropriate lovemaking time to each of them so they wouldn’t descend into jealous rages, which we all know could lead to unwanted weight gain. Time here is the lord that dominates all order in our delicate social structure, so I need a watch that I know will function flawlessly in the most challenging conditions. I also need a mechanical watch because of its ability to function in perpetuity. Immediately, the Rolex GMT-Master II with its sexy ceramic bezel comes to mind. But would it survive the punishing series of tests I would submit it too? With no other option, I purchased one and torture-tested it to see…
12 THINGS ABOUT ROLEX YOU DIDN’T KNOW BUT SHOULD!
1. Rolex was first to implement free-sprung balances across its entire range of Oyster watches. Free-sprung balances are regulated by adjusting the inertia of the balance. The other system for regulating watches uses a regulator to adjust the torque of the hairspring. It is easier to implement, but not as reliable. Free-sprung balances also require a high degree of precision and uniformity in balance and the hairspring.
2. Rolex was the first to experiment with silicium as a material for escapement components. Prototype escapement wheels and pallets were created at the IMT for Rolex out of silicum. While interested in silicium, Rolex feels that the traditional materials, with correct lubrication, offer superior performance as they create less friction. However, it continues to conduct extensive research on alternative materials, including silicium and artificial diamond for many applications in watchmaking, and continues to study these techniques.
3. Rolex’s proprietary balance wheel uses special Microstella nuts that are easy to adjust and set on the inner rim of the balance to reduce aerodynamic turbulence.
4. Back when Rolex used the Zenith El Primero chronograph movement for their Daytona watches, movements were detuned from 36,000 vph to 28,800 vph. Rolex found that reducing vibrational speed and using a balance with greater inertia led to better long-term accuracy and stability.
5. Rolex’s Parachrom hairspring is the only metallic spring totally impervious to the force of magnetism. It is also ten times more resistant to shock than traditional hairsprings made from Invar.
6. We have reason to believe that in the near future, all Rolex watches will use Parachrom hairsprings. Rolex is the only large commercial watch brand with this level of independence from Nivarox, which supplies the majority of hairsprings in the Swiss watch industry.
7. Rolex was the first to produce a modern GMT watch (the GMT-Master II), where date was synchronized both forwards and backwards to local time. This way, if you ended up in a time zone earlier than yours and had crossed the international date line, your date would turn back as the hands pass the midnight threshold.
8. The vertical clutch in Rolex’s in-house chronograph calibers is the only vertical clutch that can be totally disassembled for service. In all other vertical clutch chronographs, the clutch mechanism is simply overlooked during service and must be fully replaced if it is not functioning.
9. Rolex’s Yacht-Master II Chronograph is the first regatta chronograph where the duration of the countdown can be programmed. This is because there is no standardization of countdown for boat races around the world.
10. If the countdown on the Yacht-Master II is started late, pushing the reset pusher will cause the minute countdown hand to leap to the nearest minute before. If the countdown is started early, the minute countdown hand will be repositioned to the minute after. This function allows boat captains to instantly synchronize their watches with the race’s official countdown.
11. Rolex’s Everose rose gold is the only rose gold that will maintain its color even after exposure to chlorinated water. The stability of its color comes from addition of platinum to its composition. Traditionally, rose gold comprises of 75% gold, 21% copper and 4% zinc.
But when exposed to pool water or even some tap water, chlorine ions dissolve the copper atoms, leaving only gold on the surface. Rolex’s Everose consists of 76% gold, 22% copper and 2% platinum. The platinum stabilizes the copper atoms, preventing chlorine from affecting them.
12. Rolex watches feature the only widely industrialized movements where date can be adjusted regardless of the position of the watch’s hour hands. In almost all other watches, when the hands are between 9 am to 3 am, adjusting the date can result in serious damage to the watch.
Not so for a Rolex — a further example of Rolex’s dedication to useful innovation.