6 minutes

Why have Rolex watches gotten so expensive?

By Jorg Weppelink
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Are you on the market for a Rolex? If you’ve done your homework, you probably know that buying one from an authorized dealer (AD) is pretty much impossible. And even if you do find an opportunity to buy one from an AD, plan to pay well over the Rolex list price. The same is true when you purchase a new or pre-owned Rolex on Chrono24. Whether these prices will eventually settle down remains to be seen. For now, let’s take a look at why Rolex watches are so expensive. Are they worth what you have to pay for them?

Rolex: The Ultimate Luxury Brand

Rolex has come to epitomize success and wealth. But it wasn’t always like that. Before the introduction of quartz watches, most mechanical watches were not considered luxury products. In those days, Rolex created some of the best tool watches around, some of which would become famous for pushing boundaries in extreme situations. Just think of the Explorer, Submariner, Milgauss, and Daytona, each developed to serve a clear functional purpose. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Rolex had a reputation for producing some of the best timepieces in the business, though not necessarily for creating luxury items. 

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the overall perception of mechanical watches changed from being functional timepieces to luxury goods. At a time when quartz was king and the Swiss watch industry was in the midst of a serious crisis, the Italians discovered a renewed interest in classic chronographs. The stories, traditions, and craftsmanship accompanying these timepieces made them highly sought-after symbols of good taste and wealth. This transition was the key to the revival of mechanical watches and the Swiss watch industry in particular. At the forefront of this shift was a revitalized appreciation of Rolex, which triggered a newfound interest in just about all of the brand’s classics. 

Rolex prices have increased significantly in recent years.
Rolex prices have increased significantly in recent years.

As the overall perception of mechanical watches shifted to one of luxury, the one brand on every watch enthusiast’s lips was Rolex. And Rolex got to work very skillfully marketing themselves. The result? Rolex is now so much more than “just” a watchmaker – they have firmly established themselves as one of the world’s leading luxury brands.  

Rolex: The Difference Between List Price and Market Price

The last five years have seen very noticeable increases in demand for Rolex watches, with prices rising accordingly. Because the brand limits its annual production, popular models have become increasingly hard to obtain through authorized dealers. These days, it’s a better bet to try your luck elsewhere to get a new or pre-owned Rolex, for instance, on Chrono24.  

List prices for Rolex watches range from roughly $6,000 for an Oyster Perpetual to $500,000 for a GMT-Master II Ice. Of course, that is a vast range. And the amazing thing is, it doesn’t matter what the price is; most of these watches demand over their list prices. Some models like the Submariner and the Daytona often sell for two to three times their official list prices. But why? Let’s take a closer look at the multiple factors at work here. 

Rolex watches often sell for well above their MSRP.
Rolex watches often sell for well above their MSRP.

Rolex: Mass Production at the Highest Level

One of the biggest secrets to Rolex’s success has been their consistent production of incredible-quality watches in large quantities. They are not a brand that produces high-end, hand-crafted pieces in smaller numbers like Patek Philippe or Audemars Piguet. Rolex still mainly mass-produces watches that offer remarkable quality for the money. And this is nothing new: The brand has been consistently doing this for decades. That’s why it’s no coincidence that you will find plenty of well-running 1960s and 70s vintage Rolex watches. 

The brand also regularly updates their materials and movements to increase the overall quality of their watches. The materials Rolex uses can withstand daily wear for decades, and their calibers famously run with remarkable accuracy for years while also being easy to service. All of this is done to make sure you’ll be able to enjoy your Rolex for your entire lifetime and perhaps even pass it on to the next generation. A high level of mass production with this kind of quality is a major Rolex achievement.  

The Secret to the Success: Creating Icons

Another major part of the Rolex success story is the incredible number of classic watches found throughout its history. I always find it intriguing how, way back in the 1950s, the Rolex design team achieved with the Submariner a style that would do nothing less than became universally accepted as the archetypal standard for diving watches. And speaking of horological standards, we all know that the GMT-Master would, of course, set the standard for what a dual time zone watch should look like and the Day-Date, an iconic luxury watch. All unforgettable icons, and all from Rolex. 

Rolex has created some of the most iconic watches ever. The Submariner is just one on a long list of horological classics.
Rolex has created some of the most iconic watches ever. The Submariner is just one on a long list of horological classics.

Throughout the brand’s history, Rolex design teams have updated these icons instead of replacing them with new models. Never did the brand feel the need to let go of a signature Rolex look, regardless of what was going on in the watch world around them. This persistence and courage have paid off for the brand. No other watchmaker has created as many icons that are still part of their collection, and maintain so much of the “DNA” of their original models. This is for me the true magic of the brand. You’ll find so much of the 1953 model in a current Submariner. Today’s GMT-Master II looks like the first GMT-Master that came out in 1954. That’s special, and a big part of the Rolex appeal.  

What People Are Willing To Pay For: the Image

Another factor playing a key role in why people are willing to pay so much for a Rolex is image. Rolex is of course a status symbol, a luxury product, and a display of wealth and success. And this has now been the case for decades. The brand cleverly markets itself as a luxury brand connected to cinema, arts, architecture, and sports, including tennis, golf, yachting, and auto racing. Rolex has created an aspirational image of luxury life that people want to be a part of.   

This pull has become even stronger over the last couple of years as Rolex watches have become increasingly harder to get. This exclusivity, or should we call it “unobtainability,” plays a big part in why people want a Rolex. There’s a magic to being able to buy something that others can’t get their hands on. This by the way why you’ll see some watch brands overusing their limited editions in some cases. Interestingly, although Rolex doesn’t produce limited edition watches, their timepieces are in fact essentially limited by the annual numbers they produce. So are Rolex watches truly scarce? To answer that, let’s move on to the final point of the article. 

Buying a Rolex means buying a status symbol.
Buying a Rolex means buying a status symbol.

Is Rolex Worth the Money?

Are Rolex watches worth the money they currently go for? That question can only be answered from a personal perspective. If you believe that the list price is the actual price you should pay, then you’ve arrived at your answer very quickly. The less-popular gold and steel Rolex models perhaps can be found at or around their list prices, as is the case with the Rolex two-tone watches that have always tended to be a bit less popular. Other than these exceptions, good luck finding any Rolex at list price. 

Vintage model Rolex prices have been on the rise as well, and in some cases have gone through the roof. Even neo-vintage and more recently discontinued models have become noticeably more expensive. Will you be able to buy a Rolex for a reasonable amount of money? Well, depending on what you define as “reasonable,” there may in fact be a timepiece or two out there for you. The most affordable options on Chrono24 include the vintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date, or Oyster Speedking models that you can find for under $3,000. Also be on the lookout for a nice vintage Datejust between $5,000 and $6,000. No surprises here though: these watches were considerably more affordable several years ago. 

So are Rolex watches worth the money? The answer is quite simple, if you ask me. If you’ve set your budget for your next watch, and find a Rolex that’s within it, your purchase can be worth the money. Rolex watches offer great quality, look amazing, and hold their value very well. For anyone prepared to pay current market prices for them, it’s hard to go wrong. We are, after all, talking about Rolex, the king of watches.   

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About the Author

Jorg Weppelink

Hi, I'm Jorg, and I've been writing articles for Chrono24 since 2016. However, my relationship with Chrono24 goes back a bit longer, as my love for watches began …

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