Craft / August 2015

The Future is Now: Behind The Scenes At Rolex

The world's leading watchmaker has not one but four manufacturing hubs, and on a tour of the hallowed sites, The Rake's Founder and Editor-in-Chief gained an insight into the brand's pioneering mix of human skill and mechanised artistry.

It was the Swiss linguist and semiologist Ferdinand de Saussure who espoused the theory that 'words are not mere vocal labels - they are the collective products of social interaction, essential instruments through which human beings constitute and articulate their world.' Although there are approximately 6,500 languages spoken on Earth, there is one word that is arguably the most universally recognised. Its two syllables summon the image of man at the very apogee of heroism, courage and resilience, for they have accompanied him to the summit of Everest and through the first breaking of the sound barrier.

That name is 'Rolex'. It's amusing to think of a young Hans Wilsdorf, the brand's Bavaria-born founder, coining the term in 1908 with the intention of creating a word that was short, easy to pronounce in any language, simple to recall, pleasant sounding, and that would look good on a watch dial. Little did Wilsdorf know that he was creating what would become the most recognisable horological utterance on the planet.

Then there is the way the watches look. The word 'iconic' is one of the most overused in editorial parlance, and yet: close your eyes and conjure up an image of a diving watch, and what you'll imagine is a Rolex Submariner. Do the same for a GMT watch and you'll no doubt picture a GMT-Master II. As for a chronograph, you'll likely visualise a Daytona. These watches are more than 'iconic' - they define the aesthetic blueprint of every imaginable category of sports watch.

So where are these incredible watches made? While it's amusing to think of a Zeus-like figure sitting atop an horological Mount Olympus, hurling more than half a million watches a year down to mortals he deems worthy, the reality is more intriguing. Why? Because every Rolex watch is created by a combination of competences located at four manufacturing sites in Switzerland. The movements are created in Bienne, the dials at Chêne-Bourg, the cases and bracelets at Plan-les-Ouates, and final assembly is undertaken at Acacias. But what is unique about Rolex is that, at each one of these sites, you will find a hitherto unheard-of merger of human craftsmanship and wildly futurist technology.

Rolex buildings in Geneva, Acacias.Rolex buildings in Geneva, Acacias.

Even the mighty Wilsdorf might raise an eyebrow at the sci-fi esque level of vertical integration that exists in his watch empire today, thanks to the late Patrick Heiniger, the son of Wilsdorf's successor, André Heiniger. Standing before what Rolex refers to with typical understatement as its 'automated stock and delivery system', you can feel your jaw slacken in amazement as you observe two football field-sized underground lairs, featuring an intricate network of whizzing, flying robots, reminiscent of the human battery towers in The Matrix, which pick up and deliver from a seemingly endless array of raw materials, components, finalised products and specialised tools.

In Plan-les-Ouates, there are two central independent vaults comprising 24,000 cubic meters (12,000 each) of storage space with 60,000 storage compartments. There is 1.5km of rail network allowing the automated delivery and pick up of components anywhere in the building. The system performs 2,800 tray transports per hour, and was a key element in Patrick Heiniger's vision for both vertical integration and efficient workflow. And while people often overlook Heiniger Jr's contribution to Rolex, the integration at the four sites, allowing the in-house creation of every component as well as the focus on the brand's core watchmaking technology (as represented by the brand's in-house Parachrom and Syloxi hairsprings, LIGA technology and specialisation in ceramic parts), can be attributed to Heiniger's prescience.

Bienne

Rolex's Bienne facility is where the movements come to life. It is a remarkable thing to witness the delivery of sheets and bars of brass material that will be turned into tiny intricate components for the watch, or to think that, once brought to life, many of these parts will be in a state of perpetual motion for time immemorial. Throughout the Bienne facility, you hear the steady industrial din of stamping and machining.

Perhaps the most dizzying array of technology is located at the Ebauche sector, which is where the brand creates its bridges, mainplates and calendar plates. Blanks arrive and are engineered using incredibly advanced CNC machines - 'Modules', in Rolex speak - that use up to 50 tools and are capable of creating 16 pieces simultaneously.

Rolex, atelier de Chêne-Bourg, vues dRolex, atelier de Chêne-Bourg, vues d'ensemble CE 04

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Wei Koh

The Rake's Founder & Editorial Director.