Rolex really isn't like any other watch brand. In fact, the privately held, independently run entity isn't like most other companies. It is a universe of its own: respected; admired; valued; and known across the globe. 

Rolex does just make watches and their timepieces have taken on a role beyond that of mere timekeeper. Having said that, the reason a "Rolex is a Rolex" is because they are good watches and tell pretty good time. It's can take you over a decade to fully appreciate the brand, and it will probably take longer before I learn everything you'd like to know about them.

Here some interesting facts that every Rolex and watch lover should know:

 

They Use An Expensive And Difficult To Machine Steel Because It Looks Better

Many watch lovers are familiar with the fact that Rolex uses a type of steel that no one else uses. Stainless steel is not all the same. Steel comes in various types and grades... and most steel watches are made from a type of stainless steel called 316L. Today, all the steel in Rolex watches is made from 904L steel, and as far as we know, pretty much no one else does. Why?

Rolex used to use the same steel as everyone else, but in around 2003 they moved their entire steel production to 904L steel. In 1988 they released their first 904L steel watch with a few versions of the Sea-Dweller. 904L steel is more rust and corrosion resistant, and is somewhat harder than other steels. Most important to Rolex, is that 904L steel, when worked properly, is able to take (and hold) polishes incredibly well. If you've ever noticed that steel on a Rolex watch looks different than other watches, it is because of 904L steel, and how Rolex has learned to work with it.

A natural question is why doesn't everyone else in the watch industry use 904L steel? A good guess is because it is more expensive and much more complicated to machine. Rolex had to replace most of their steel working machines and tools to deal with 904L steel. It made sense for them because of the amount of watches they produce, and because they make all their parts in-house. Most other brands get their cases made from outside suppliers. So even though 904L steel is better than 316L steel for watches, it is more expensive, requires special tools and skills, and is overall more difficult to work with. This has prevented other brands (so far) from taking advantage of it, and is something special that Rolex has. The benefit is obvious once you handle any steel Rolex watch.

 

Rolex Has Its Own Science Lab

Given everything Rolex has done over the years it shouldn't come as a surprise that they have an internal Research & Development department. However, Rolex takes it well beyond that. Rolex has not one, but several different types of extremely well-equipped professional science labs at their various facilities. The purpose of these labs isn't just to research new watches and things that may go into watches, but also to research more effective and efficient manufacturing techniques. One way of looking at Rolex is that they are an extremely competent and almost obsessively organized manufacturing company - that just happens to make timepieces.

Rolex labs are as diverse as they are amazing. Perhaps the most visually interesting is the chemistry lab. Full of beakers and tubes that carry liquids and gases, the Rolex chemistry lab is full of highly trained scientists. What is it mostly used for? Well one thing that Rolex stated is that the lab is used for developing and researching oils and lubricants that they use in machines during the manufacturing process.

Rolex has a room with multiple electron microscopes and some gas spectrometers. They are able to take an extremely close look at metals and other materials to investigate the effects of machining and manufacturing techniques. These large areas are extremely impressive and are used seriously on a regular basis to remedy or prevent possible problems.

Of course Rolex also uses its science labs on the watches themselves. An interesting room is the stress test room. Here watch movements, bracelets, and cases undergo simulated wear and abuse on custom-made machines and robots. Let's just say that it would not be unreasonable to assume your typical Rolex is designed to last a lifetime (or two).

 

Their Movements Are All Hand-Assembled And Tested

One of biggest misconceptions about Rolex is that machines build their watches. The rumor is so pervasive that even people at aBlogtoWatch believed it to be mostly true. This is because traditionally Rolex didn't communicate much on this topic. Well the truth is that Rolex watches are given all the hands-on human attention that you'd like to expect from a fine Swiss made watch.

Rolex uses machines in the process for sure. In fact, Rolex easily has the most sophisticated watch making machinery in the world. The robots and other automated tasks are really used for tasks that humans aren't as good at. These include sorting, filing, cataloging, and very delicate procedures that involve the type of care you want a machine to handle. Most of these machines are still human-operated though. And everything from Rolex movements to bracelets are assembled by hand. A machine however helps with doing things such as applying the right pressure when attaching pins, aligning parts, and pressing down hands. Having said that, all Rolex watch hands are still set by hand via a trained technician.

It would be an understatement to suggest that Rolex is obsessive about quality control. A predominant theme in the manufacture is that things are checked, re-checked, and then checked again. It feels as though their goal is to ensure that if a Rolex watch fails, it does so before it leaves the factory. Large teams of watchmakers and assembly people work on every single movement that Rolex produces. This is before and after their movements are sent to COSC for chronometer certification. And on top of that, Rolex re-tests their movements for accuracy after they are cased for several days while simulating wear before they are sent out to retailers.

 

An Army Of Gemologists Work At Rolex

It has been said that Rolex has preposterous standards for the materials it buys from its suppliers. This includes things like metals as well as precious stones such as diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. Rolex has a massive gemological department whose goal it is to buy, test, arrange, and set diamonds and other precious stones in a range of Rolex models. One of the things they do is check incoming stones to ensure that they are real. Using x-rays for example, they can test diamonds to ensure they aren't fake.

Rolex reports that in the years they have been testing diamonds, only two in 20 million have been fake. That might seem like such a small amount it isn't even worth their time to perform the test. Nevertheless, to ensure absolute quality, Rolex tests each batch of diamonds. This should also have an illustrative effect on the diamonds they use, which happen to only be IF in clarity, and D-G in color (the four grades closest to white).

Each and every diamond or precious stone (no matter how large or small) on a Rolex watch is hand-selected and hand-set. Rolex employs traditional jewelers to create custom settings for stones in their most exclusive watches, done using the same processes employed in creating the world's finest jewelry. It was amazing to see this level of artisanship and delicate care inside what many people believe to be a mass producer.

 

It Takes About A Year To Make One Rolex Watch

An advertisement for Rolex long ago claimed that it takes about a year to make a single Rolex watch. As suspicious as that sounds, it is true even today. Rolex produces almost a million watches a year, but surprisingly, no shortcuts are taken in the manufacturing process from what I could observe (and I've been to a lot of watch manufactures). Rolex is however interested in quality and efficiency. Basically, the entire company seems focused on producing the best watches, and continually seeing how they can make them better.

If you look at Rolex watches over time, they are more about evolution rather than revolution. This idea of always improving versus changing goes right into their manufacturing process as well. They are constantly learning how to improve quality through better processes and techniques. The move from aluminum to ceramic bezel inserts is a perfect example. Nevertheless, from starting to shape the parts of the case to testing a completed watch for accuracy, the process takes around one year.

Of course Rolex could speed this up for certain models if necessary, but each watch requires so many parts and virtually everything is made from base materials in-house. Once all the parts for a Rolex watch are completed, they are then mostly hand-assembled and individually tested. The testing and quality assurance process is rather intense.

A good example is how Rolex makes each of their watch dials. All of the dial are made in-house, and one of the most impressive facts is that all of the applied hour markers are set individually by hand. Often times at other brands, machines perform this process, but Rolex learned that a human eye is better trained to spot problems. So individual hour markers are applied and riveted by hand. Dials are dropped from 20cm up in the air to ensure that none of the hour markers fall out. This is a careful and time consuming process, and it is among the many elements of making watches at Rolex that is done by a skilled human being. Taken together, because of Rolex's rather fanatical dedication to quality across their huge production, watches take on average, about a year to produce.