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What do Rolex’s 2019 watches tell us about plans for 2020?

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For many Rolex fans, 2019 has been an underwhelming year. With only one new model making its debut – the Yacht-Master 42 – the Swiss giant seems to be more focused on consolidation. It’s no secret that demand for the brand’s steel sports watches is far outstripping supply at the moment. On this basis, one might assume that Rolex is looking for ways to streamline production so that output can be increased.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible management is simply taking the opportunity to do some housekeeping during what is already proving to be a challenging year for the retail sector worldwide. The real question now though, is what could this mean for Rolex releases in 2020?

The best place to start looking for answers is by examining what the brand has done in 2019. And what it hasn’t. Of the various novelties announced this year, three models in particular have generated the majority of the buzz. And the controversy. The Yacht-Master 42; the yellow Rolesor Sea-Dweller; and, the GMT-Master II BLNR “Batman”. Each model is significant for different reasons and each holds possible clues as to what the future strategy at Rolex might look like.

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Rolex Yacht-Master 42 Ref 226659

More understated than its smaller sibling, the Yacht-Master 40, the styling of the new Yacht-Master 42 is somewhat akin to that of the Submariner. And in fact, when Rolex teased the first images on Instagram, that’s exactly what many people thought it was. Alas, for hardcore Rolex fans it was not to be. Not this year at least.

The black dial with contrasting white hands, hour markers and text is attractive and easy to read. The hour markers are fashioned from 18ct gold to prevent tarnishing and, along with the hands, are filled with the brand’s Chromalight luminescent material. Around the periphery is a bidirectional rotatable bezel fitted with a 60-minute graduated Cerachrom bezel insert in matt black ceramic. The case is made from 18k white gold, which is a blow for those who thought it might be steel. One can only imagine what the wait time for delivery might have been like though if it was.

Inside is a new-generation, self-winding movement entirely developed and manufactured by Rolex; the calibre 3235. It brings together all the brand’s latest technological breakthroughs, with its development resulting in the filing of several patents. Offering fundamental gains in terms of precision, power reserve and resistance to shocks and magnetic fields, this marks the first time this calibre has equipped a Yacht-Master watch.

What is perhaps most telling about the new Yacht-Master 42 though is the fact that Rolex chose to debut it this year. The collection has always had more of a niche following and so arguably there was no great demand for a new, slightly larger Yacht-Master. That’s not to say it won’t sell well but a quieter year, where there’s no other big releases to overshadow it seems like a sensible time to introduce such a model. But could this also be our first hint that Rolex is planning something big for 2020?

Rolex Sea-Dweller Ref 126603

It’s a relatively simple variation of an existing model, yet the Rolex Sea-Dweller Ref 126603 was arguably one of the most controversial watches of Baselworld 2019. That’s because this new model marks the first time 18ct yellow gold has ever been used in the Sea-Dweller range. For many it was a curious move by Rolex. The Sea-Dweller is after all fundamentally a tool watch. It has been since its debut more than 50 years ago and many thought – and still think – it should remain that way.

In reality, however, this is quite a clever commercial decision by Rolex. It brings together the best of both worlds, giving the Sea-Dweller a more luxurious appearance but without compromising on performance. This opens up the collection to a wider audience, something Rolex has already done quite successfully with its other dive watch, the Submariner.

It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch then to think that the next step for Rolex could be a solid gold model. Or perhaps a dial and bezel colour variation like the “Hulk” Submariner. Perhaps 2020 will see the unveiling of a “Captain America” Sea-Dweller made from vibranium? After all, the Sea-Dweller is already equipped with a new generation movement in the self-winding calibre 3235, so future variations will likely be aesthetic in nature. How those will be received by the market remains to be seen.

Rolex GMT-Master II Ref 126710BLNR “Batman”

It was almost a forgone conclusion for many that Rolex would update its popular black and blue GMT-Master II model this year. Nicknamed “Batman” for obvious reasons, the original model holds a special place in collectors’ hearts. That’s because it was the first Rolex to feature a bi-colour Cerachrom bezel. The big news is that the new version – Ref 126710BLNR – now comes on a Jubilee bracelet, just like last year’s Ref 126710BLRO (aka the Rolex ‘Pepsi’). A frustrating decision for fans of the Oyster bracelet but not an unexpected one. As a result, prices for the original Ref 116710BLRO have sky-rocketed on the secondary market.

The latest iteration of the “Batman” is powered by a new-generation movement entirely developed and manufactured by Rolex, calibre 3285. Equipped with a Parachrom hairspring, offering greater resistance to shocks and to temperature variations, as well as the brand’s Chronergy escapement, it offers a guaranteed power reserve of approximately 70 hours.

A further two GMT-Master II’s in white gold have also joined the line-up, both worn on the Oyster bracelet and both equipped with the same calibre 3285. One features a classic blue dial, while the other boasts an eye-catching silver meteorite dial.

More telling is the fact that four references have also exited the collection, with Rolex no longer offering the GMT-Master II without a bi-colour cerachrom bezel. Likewise, steel models are now distinguished by the use of the Jubliee bracelet, whilst those with precious metals exclusively use the Oyster bracelet. As a result, the GMT-Master II collection has slimmed down to six distinctive yet uniform models.

Streamlining To Increase Supply?

This is a bold move by Rolex as the discontinued models were still strong sellers. At the same time, it also gives our best indication yet that the brand might actually be committed to streamlining its collections in order to speed-up production. But does Rolex have any real incentive to increase supply to the market? A recent report on the watch industry by Morgan Stanley found that Rolex sales were worth $11.6 billion to retailers around the world last year. And in fact, the brand now accounts for 22.2% of global watch sales. And that’s with the most popular models all but impossible to find from authorized retail partners. Nothing seems to be dampening demand.

This is, however, driving some less than savoury behavior, particularly on the secondary market where re-sale prices have reached extraordinary levels. Popular models have long wait lists at retailers, yet genuine examples can be readily found outside of authorized channels. If you’re willing to pay extortionate premiums that is.

Rolex is trying to help genuine watch lovers buy its products, and its authorised dealers are making it more difficult for people to buy and flip watches by holding back warranty papers for a year. This is hardly normal behavior, and customers parting with several thousand pounds will be rightfully miffed that they are not even getting the full box and papers set with their purchase.

The far better way to combat flipping is by increasing supply to the market to more closely match demand. Whether this is a strategy Rolex will choose to adopt, however, is anyone’s guess. Based on the brand’s history, it seems less than likely.

The other big question the consolidation of the GMT-Master II collection raises is who will be next to go on the chopping block? The most likely candidate is the Submariner. Many thought the Submariner and Submariner Date would be updated with new generation movements this year. That was clearly not the case but one can’t imagine Rolex will wait too much longer. This of course would be a welcome move. What’s concerning fans of the crown now, however, is what other changes Rolex might make to these popular models.

Based on the approach to the GMT-Master II is doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility that we might see a steel Submariner on a Jubilee bracelet next year. And perhaps even a discontinued model or two. It’s well-known that if Rolex believes that making changes to a watch will make it functionally better, those changes will be made. Regardless of feedback from the market. Remember a few years ago when the Sea-Dweller suddenly had a cyclops? It’s unlikely sure, but the very thought of it is still keeping fans around the world up at night.

Bring On 2020

Whatever happens, it seems that 2020 is going to be an exciting year for Rolex. Maybe we’ll finally see the triumphant return of the black and red ‘Coke’ GMT-Master II? Or perhaps the ‘Hulk’ will usher in new design codes for the Submariner collection? It’s impossible to say for sure. The best thing you can do is expect the unexpected, which is very foreign territory for Rolex indeed.

About the author: Tom Mulraney is a 10-year veteran of the watch industry. He is the publisher and editor of The Watch Lounge, a digital magazine with a unique take on the world of luxury watches. www.thewatchlounge.com

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Alex Douglas

The author Alex Douglas

1 Comment

  1. If you consider the endless Rolex sports watch inventory of many grey market dealers who sell over list price, and who you’ll note, are usually only a few doors down from Rolex Ads, coupled with the infinite waiting times at the actual Ads, it’s not rocket science to connect the dots and come to the reasonable conclusion that many Rolex Ads are secretly supplying grey market dealers as a way of getting round Rolex list price requirements- i.e. splitting the difference with the grey market.. The real question is- what is Rolex doing about it??? If Rolex don’t sort out this dodgy dysfunctional situation i for one will be buying other brands in future.

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