At around this time every year, the internet sees an increase in a particular type of speculative content on what Rolex will release next. Much of this chatter focuses on the usual suspects; new dials, new case materials, perhaps the addition of a key ceramic element. So far, so sensible. However, every year, an ambitious photoshop render is determined to resurrect from Rolex's storied past one of the brand's rare, complicated offerings, like the “Padellone”or the “Killy”. After the fresh crop of models are announced, the hum dies down, and those holding out hope for the return of complicated Rolex are invariably disappointed.
One of the earliest complicated Rolex watches.
Hope keeps bringing them back. So effective is Rolex's shroud of secrecy that it's entirely possible that somewhere in the manufacture is a team of crack engineers assembling calibres of unprecedented complexity. You never know. However, truth be told, the recreation of those historically significant references is unlikely. The reason for that is simple. Rolex makes exceedingly popular, exceedingly reliable watches. Adding functionality makes them fiddlier and more niche.
Where does this dream of complication come from? First and foremost, among the complicated Rolex of days past is the reference 6062. This watch, which debuted in 1950, is significant for many reasons. Firstly, it's almost mythically rare, with the consensus being that only a few hundred were produced across its three-year production run. It's also one of only three Rolex watches to feature a moon phase – the reference 8171 “Padellone” is the first – and the first to feature this level of complication in a waterproof Oyster case.
Two Rolexes with a rarely-seen moonphase, the ref. 6062 and 8171.
This alone is enough to make the watch incredibly desirable, but add to the equation the fact that, even though it was only made for a very short period of time, there are numerous variants of the reference, which adds even more depth for collectors. Finally, there's the Bao Dai – a yellow gold 6062 with black, diamond-set dial belonging to Vietnam's last emperor. This watch appeared on the market in 2002, selling for 370,000 CHF, the most expensive Rolex ever sold at the time. It sold again in 2017, for a little north of 5,000,000 CHF, making it the most expensive Rolex ever sold at auction, again, at least until Paul Newman's chronograph sold a few months later.
The only watch to be the most expensive Rolex ever sold at auction twice, the ‘Bao Dai’ ref 6062.
Another significantly complicated historic Rolex is the “Killy”, the triple calendar chronograph reference 6236. Worn by Olympic skier Jean-Claude Killy, who leant the reference his name, the 6236, like the 6062, is housed in an Oyster case. It is the final reference in a series of Dato-Compax watches that was introduced in 1947 with the reference 4767.
Not only was the 6236 limited in its production run – only being made for four years – but it also has a complex movement at its heart. On its own, this is enough to make it rather sought after. The major difference between this reference and the 6062 is the calibre – this watch is powered by the Valjoux-based calibre 72, rather than an exclusive movement. The same can be said of one of the other famous complicated Rolexes - the Daytona - which relied on outsourced engines from Valjoux, and later Zenith, until the introduction of the calibre 4130 in 2000.
The un-Rolex-like complex inner workings of the ref. 6236.
Given these few brief examples and the sky-high prices they command on the secondary market, it would be easy to assume that there's a natural demand for modern complicated Rolex. In reality, the opposite is true. Watches like the 6062 and 6236 are expensive because they were relatively unpopular back in the day. It's the same story with the much more prevalent Daytona. Unloved when new, these watches lingered on shelves until, decades later, popular tastes changed and provided these complicated outliers with a new lease on life.
Rolex's bread and butter are ultra-reliable time-only watches. Three hands and an Oyster case. This is what Rolex has always done best. When they do innovate in complications, it's generally geared towards simplicity and real-world functionality. Since the Quartz Crisis, there has been little call for mechanical chronographs, for example, or triple calendars that are needed in everyday use. Adding this extra layer of complexity could compromise the rock-solid reliability that Rolex is built on.
Rolex's quest for reliability extends beyond the watch on the wrist, and into its broader business practices. One of the most significant structural shifts in the watchmaking industry in the last generation has been the move towards “in-house”. It's a nebulous term at best, full of caveats. It’s often limited to movements, allowing the cases and bracelets to be produced by third party specialists. The increased focus on “in-house” production could be seen partially as a sales strategy, one made possible by the increasing corporate consolidation of a complex and diverse network of small manufacturers and services.
The iconic Geneva home of Rolex.
Rolex is one of the most startling examples of this conglomeration. Many would assume that the famous firm has been proudly and wholly independent since its inception. In reality, Rolex, like most of the industry, relied on a network of suppliers up until the 1990s, and it wasn't until a strategic series of buyouts, engineered by CEO Patrick Heiniger, that Rolex truly started bringing production “in-house”. Rolex acquired casemaker Genex, bracelet maker Gay Frères, dial maker Beyeler, crown maker Boninchi and others through the ‘90s and early 2000s, with the acquisition of movement manufacturer Aegler in 2004 being the final major piece of the puzzle. Today, Rolex watches are made in three main facilities, in Bienne, Plan-les-Ouates and Geneva.
The narrative of bringing it all “in-house” is an oversimplification. Aegler – for example – have been exclusive makers and suppliers of Rolex movements, except for chronographs, since the 1930s. However, complete ownership allows for control over every aspect of production, allowing for consistency in both production and quality control.
Precision and reliability
Rolex's firm grasp on every aspect of manufacturing does have an impact on the watches they make. Compared even to the catalogues of Rolex's closest commercial rivals, its offering is conservative. To be sure, there are a lot of individual products, but that's largely down to the profusion of dials, materials and sizes on offer. New references are comparatively rare. New complications are even rarer. That comes down to the underlying ethos behind the brand. Above all else, a Rolex watch is a precise, robust timekeeper.
One of the more complex calibres that Rolex produces, the 4130 used across the Daytona range.
Take, for example, the calibre 4130, the movement that is, to date, Rolex's only in-house chronograph. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the El Primero it replaced, but it's instructive to see what changes the calibre 4130 brought in. Rather than adding bells and whistles, Rolex removed them – cutting the component count by about 20 per cent, simplifying the mechanism, ensuring more reliable winding and allowing for a larger power reserve. It also uses a more precise vertical clutch. Collectors can argue the pros and cons of the movements ad nauseam, but for Rolex, the priorities of the calibre 4130 can be summed up in one key word; simplification.
An appetite for complication
For all that Rolex's assortment focuses on time-proven complications with real-world applications, there are still a few archaic touches in the catalogue. One of the most overlooked Rolex releases of modern times is from 2017: the Cellini Moonphase. This watch, the third ever Rolex moonphase, is one that doesn't grab the headlines, simply because it lacks an Oyster case. The Cellini family stands alone in the Rolex line-up, as a somewhat dressier option when sat next to its sporting cousins in the Oyster Perpetual collections.
The technical aspects of some of Rolex’s complex line-up.
Another complicated offering from the crown is the Sky-Dweller, first introduced in 2012. This large watch is touted as the most complicated Rolex ever produced, with an annual calendar and a dual time display. While the annual calendar function is impressive on its own, the true indicator of how Rolex approach complications today is in the bezel. Rather than require the wearer to fiddle with crown positions and adjusting the wrong function, Rolex invented the Ring Command Bezel, which first saw action in the Yacht-Master II, a specialised take on a rotating bezel. The wearer rotates the bezel to determine what function the crown is adjusting. It's seeming simplicity belies the fact that the bezel itself adds some 60 additional components into the watch.While it is inappropriate to draw comparisons between Rolex's current complicated watches and those it made 60 years ago, it is interesting to note that the Cellini Moonphase, the Sky-Dweller and the Yacht-Master II, as complex as they are, are far from the brand's most popular performers. Perhaps this proves the point that while Rolex today can make functionally complicated watches that live up to the brand's requirements for reliability, it's doesn't necessarily reflect what consumers want. It makes smarter commercial sense to keep it simple and stick to indestructible three-handers like the Datejust and the Submariner.