06/05/2024
 4 minutes

New Strategy from Rolex: The Power of Collaborations

By Aaron Voyles
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New Strategy from Rolex: The Power of Collaborations

The watch industry is a constantly evolving ecosystem. From styling to the engineering behind these wrist-bound instruments, things change fast. The same can be said for watch marketing. Just over a decade ago, the majority of watchmaking brands only operated rudimentary websites that were barely fit for purpose. 

What’s more, the importance of social media has only begun to hit home for most brands, and physical trade events that are open to the public, e.g., Geneva Watch Days, Dubai Watch Week, Watches and Wonders, are only beginning to welcome the layperson into the fold. Yet another marketing element that has finally gone mainstream is collaborations. While the watch industry was built on the concept of collaboration, i.e., a watchmaker would source cases from the local case maker and dials from the local dial maker, in recent years, collabs have come back in a different way, as brands publicly join forces with one another to create watches that raise interest and intrigue and capitalize on new demographics. While this is not news for most of us, it seems that Rolex has just caught on and finally changed their stoic approach to marketing to incorporate collaborations of varying degrees. So, let’s take a look at their most recent collabs and explore how these point to a shift in their business strategy. 

 

Rolex’s Collaborative History

It’s important to note that Rolex was founded on the principle of taking someone else’s product and marketing it to a new demographic. Hans Wilsdorf’s original idea for Rolex – or Davis & Wilsdorf, as it was known at the time – was to take Swiss cases and movements and assemble them into Rolex-branded watches; not dissimilar to the collaborative heart of watchmaking I mentioned above. As time went on, the brand offered co-signed dials in a more outward form of collaboration.  

Rolex Explorer II ref. 16550 cream Dial tiffany
Rolex Explorer II ref. 16550 Tiffany cream dial

However, this changed in the early 1990s, when Rolex cut ties with Tiffany & Co. and ceased honoring warranties on watches that Tiffany had stamped their logo on. From then until very recently, Rolex was a one-man band, looking inward with very little influence from the rest of the industry. However, that seems to have changed in recent years. 

 

Changing Tides

I suppose one of the earliest signs of Rolex beginning to collaborate with third parties was when they launched the Deepsea D-Blue in 2014, to celebrate James Cameron’s roughly seven-mile descent into the Mariana Trench in 2012. Boasting a two-tone, blue-to-black gradient dial reminiscent of the sea’s murky depths, this watch was a clear break from what Rolex had shown us for the 20 years prior. 

Rolex Deepsea D-Blue
Rolex Deepsea D-Blue

Following on from the Deepsea D-Blue, Rolex launched the Air-King ref. 116900 in 2016. Inspired by the bespoke dash clocks that Rolex had made in 2014 for the Bloodhound SSC, a vehicle designed to break the land speed world record (the project ran out of funding and ultimately failed), this watch was another break from Rolex’s rather insular approach to watchmaking. However, with two “collaborations” released in two years, Rolex’s creative juices seemingly ran dry. 

 

The Collaborative Revival

In November 2022, Rolex launched another homage to James Cameron’s 2012 descent into the Mariana Trench with the Deepsea Challenge, a 50-mm titanium behemoth that has a depth rating of 11,000 m (36,000 ft). Considering how utterly impractical it is as a daily wearer given its incredible size and water resistance, the Deepsea Challenge reveals itself as a marketing ploy from Rolex to celebrate their link to a third party’s achievement, while also showcasing their abilities as a watchmaker. For me, this marks the beginning of Rolex’s shift in strategy, whereby they begin to reveal just how important collaborations could be to the brand’s long-term growth.  

Daytona Le Mans
Daytona Le Mans

Soon after the Deepsea Challenge, Rolex launched one of their most sought-after modern releases ever: the Le Mans Daytona, a limited edition white gold Daytona that pays homage to the Paul Newman Daytona of the past, while also celebrating Le Mans’ 100th anniversary. Produced from July 2023 to April 2024, this timepiece was a very deliberate move from Rolex to leverage a third party’s history and tie it in with a watch of their own. While Rolex shared a history with deep-sea exploration through the Trieste bathyscaphe and James Cameron’s original 2012 journey into the watery depths of the Mariana Trench, their links to Le Mans were much less tangible. Nevertheless, the model was a massive success and currently trades well into the $250,000 range. 

 

Rolex Today

As we have since found out, things were just getting started with the Le Mans Daytona. This year, we’ve already seen the release of two more collaborative watches. Launched as the first novelty of 2024, Rolex released the Day-Date Vienna Philharmonic to celebrate Rolex’s 15-year sponsorship of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Boasting a dial specially designed for and inspired by the orchestra, this watch is another clear move from Rolex to capitalize on their links to third-party events and organizations in order to drive interest in their timepieces. 

Just two months after the release of the Philharmonic Day-Date, Rolex unofficially revealed another novelty at the 2024 Oscars in March: a new Day-Date. While it’s not offered as a limited edition, this highlights Rolex’s changing strategy as they seek to market their watches in creative and unusual ways, particularly when you consider how steadfast their marketing approach had been since the early 1990s. With the proliferation of collaborative releases across the industry, and the increasing pace of these releases from Rolex, it seems only natural to expect more of special edition releases from the Geneva-based giant in the future, as it seeks to keep things fresh for collectors who may have grown a little bored with the brand’s stale marketing in years gone by.


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About the Author

Aaron Voyles

I love everything about watchmaking, from the artistry of their design to the engineering hidden within their movements and the history that breathes life into their stories.

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