Reflections on the Rolex Waitlist (or How the Rolex Waitlist Saved the Watch Hobby)

Yesterday,  I had a lunch at a restaurant in San Francisco that I frequent as much for the watch voyeurism as I do for the excellent food.  This time, though, it was a lunch meeting so all business.

Still, watches do tend to intrude unexpectedly into many parts of my life and one of my lunch partners (call him Dave) wore a 44mm Breitling Superocean 57 in the brilliant sunburst blue on the classy Breitling Milanese mesh. 

Breitling Superocean Héritage II 42 Blue Dial Mesh New 2020 - Millenary  Watches

A small aside.  I've never been much of a Breitling fan.  I have historically thought their marketing has been cringe-inducing (the old sexist flight attendant ads and the modern #squadonamission stuff both make my toes curl  up out of sympathetic embarassment) and their watches have never really appealed to me.  I am a soft, lumpen, deskbound type and Breitling's sport watches bring up uncomfortable feelings about my lack of physical activity.
 

Reliable sources (*cough* @Hotwatchchick69) may have heard me call Breitling the Rodney Dangerfield of watches.  

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Yet, in more recent years, I've softened towards them.  The B01 Chronograph has some real horological chops (the first soup to nuts mass produced  automatic column wheel vertical clutch chronograph since time immemorial).  I've been a fan of Georges Kern since his Cartier days and think what he's done with the brand is little short of miraculous.

As detailed in many other posts on WC, I am inveterate pursuer of awkward watch conversations (both to my benefit and my detriment) and this time was no exception.  So I complimented Dave on the beautiful Breitling and openly wondered how he came about to own it.

Dave replied, simply, that he wanted something to celebrate his 40th birthday and when he walked into the local Rolex AD and asked about a Submariner, they told him it would be an 18 month wait.  So he bought the Superocean instead.  And he found that he liked it so much that he bought a B01 about 6 months later.

Dave is not a watch person by any stretch of the imagination.  He's just a guy who likes having a nice watch or two, and hasn't thought about them much deeper than that.  As far as he's concerned, there was  a shortage of Chex cereal at the grocery store, so he bought Crispix instead.

Chex | Chex Cereal, Chex Recipes and Chex Products | Chex.com

versus

Kellogg's Crispix, Breakfast Cereal, Original, Good Source of 8 Vitamins  and Minerals, 18 oz Box | Meijer

Among some, this might provoke outrage.  Chex and Crispix aren't substitutes!  One is a hexagon and one is a square!  One is uniform its its ingredients (all corn or all wheat), one is a bizarre hybrid of corn and rice.  Heresy!  And yet, Dave went to the cereal aisle and, when he saw Rolex was out, he chose a Breitling instead and loved it.

I am certain that this is not a unique story by any stretch of the imagination  but it raises an interesting question.  Is Dave's happiness due to the absurdity of the Rolex waitlist?

I am going to make a contention that  will certainly inflame passions on this site (particularly those sitting on Rolex waitlists).

I believe the Rolex waitlist, in its infuriating opaqueness, is the greatest boon to watchmaking and the watch collecting hobby since the invention of the automatic movement.  

Rolex, more than any other brand, represents a monoculture of watchmaking.  There is no doubt that they represent an excellence in watch making unmatched by most.  But its very iconic nature means that design ambition is exceptionally low .The oyster case is a classic but also is the same across much of their catalog.  Rolex favors exceptionally classic (boring) colors with a particular emphasis on black, white and blue.  Last year they let their hair down and introduced a couple color variations of the oyster perpetual.  This year, they discontinued half of them. 

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Coral Red Yellow and Turquoise Blue

Say goodbye.

I liken it to the way that Henry Ford talked about how he was happy to provide his customers any color of model T they wanted....so long as they wanted black.  Is this the watch world we want to live in?

Ultimately, Ford's insistence on a single model of car (revolutionary though that car was) for all consumers was tiring.   It took a greater automotive revolutionary in Alfred Sloan, who recognized that people didn't all actually like the same thing.  They liked different styles, sizes and colors of cars.  Customers liked more powerful engines (V6s instead of V4s).  This innovation in customer segmentation cemented Sloan's company, General Motors, as the most powerful car company in the world for a generation.

The Rolex waitlist serves a similar purpose.  The waitlist at Rolex has created a tremendous market share gap that other companies have rushed to fill with new and innovative products.  Among Rolex's peer competition set, I can think of countless what-ifs that might not have happened without the Rolex waitlist driving customers to search for alternatives.

In no particular order:

  • Does Breitling get religion and start putting out watches that people want with interesting dials and excellent movements if it does not perceive the market opportunity among dissatified would be Rolex owners?
  • Does the Santos de Cartier (with its bold style, toolless bracelet adjust and quick change straps) get the credit it deserves as as a best in class datejust/OP competitor if the datejust and OP hadn't become as rare as hen's teeth?
  • Does the  Omega Seamaster Diver 300 (with the master coaxial movement) become the celebrated watch it so obviously deserves to be without the absurdity of the Rolex Submariner market?
  • Does Tudor get to embrace its weird (aluminum bezels on vintage divers, bronze watches with applied numerals, bicompax chronographs) without big brother Rolex being as dull as dirt?
  • And the biggest one of all, does Grand Seiko have a market for its beautiful, brilliant, artistically challenging dials, without Rolex being Rolex and limiting production?
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Does Cartier ever make this bad boy if the world is flooded with datejusts?

And these are giant brands, backed by massive conglomerates with balance sheets in the tens of millions, if not billions.  Some (though certainly not all) of these innovations might have hit the market in the absence of a Rolex shortage.  But what of the premium microbrand movement that has delivered watches of tremendous value to thousands who might have been happy Rolex customers instead?  

I would argue that  Monta, Orion, Halios, Balitc, Lorier, Zelos, and countless others simply don't exist were it not for a shortage of Rolexes relative to demand.  Despite superior service and often truly excellent products, the customer can't demand what  it doesn't care to research out.

25 boutique watch brands

Companies such as Oris might be around, but vastly reduced.  We might still get an Aquis , but would they have the money to invest in a Pro-Pilot X or Caliber 400?  The watches these companies sell fund the next generation of watch design and technology innovations.

If there were ample Rolexes available, I am certain many would simply buy a Rolex and stop there, rather than explore the depth and breadth of our hobby.

As grabbed the check yesterday, I, as I always do, scanned the room for watches.  True, I saw Rolexes, Submariners and Datejusts mostly.  But I also I saw Omegas and Breitlings, Tudors and Cartiers, Grand Seikos and Zeniths.  I saw a Greubel Forsey, a Habring, and even a very clean looking Dan Henry.

The watch world we have today is wonderful.  It is diverse and it is interesting.  The ability to express yourself via your wristwatch is greater than it ever has been in history  It is the furthest I can think of from a monoculture.  I think we have the Rolex waitlist to thank for it.

-----

What's that?  

Yes, I'm still waiting for my ceramic Daytona. 

Yes, it's bullshit.  

Shut up.

Fin.

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Interesting point, and I think you might be correct. Although, I think it’s important not to bend over backwards giving Rolex credit, they certainly don’t have the health of the watch world, or my satisfaction in mind. 

Oh, and how do you recognize all those watches?  I have trouble telling an Invicta from a Rolex without staring to a degree that invites security to intervene. 

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A very interesting read and,to me, the truth of it became more apparent the more I read.

I am a recent collector and so far have only inexpensive pieces.

But my collecting spark was ignited by a visit to a Rolex Store in London.

Without a doubt that started my interest in watches although not in Rolex as a brand.

My first automatic purchase was a Vostok! Quickly followed by Orient, Seiko and Hamilton. 

That Rolex store with its unobtainable pieces and ridiculous "waiting  list" definitely got me into collecting!

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Bravo!

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Nice write up and Breitling is doing some good work lately, but seem to really dislike 39-40MM in any watch I want. The B01 is brilliant and the SuperOcean line is really sharp.  To your questions, my unqualified opinion:

  • Does Breitling get religion and start putting out watches that people want with interesting dials and excellent movements if it does not perceive the market opportunity among dissatisfied would be Rolex owners? 

    I do not think people truly holding out for a Rolex genuinely settle for a Breitling. Casual shopper? Absolutely, and to your point, many brands are getting a lift as a result of Rolex's controlled distribution and desire to be something special. 
  • Does the Santos de Cartier (with its bold style, toolless bracelet adjust and quick change straps) get the credit it deserves as as a best in class datejust/OP competitor if the datejust and OP hadn't become as rare as hen's teeth? This one is a stretch. 

    The Santos wears and feels more like a dress watch, despite it having roots in aviation. Everyone who sees mine says it is too dressy, so take that for what it is worth.  From a $ to $ perspective, yes it is a better value, but I would still take the Rolex movement all day long. I also like the Omega ATs or the IWC XVIII in that range. 
  • Does the  Omega Seamaster Diver 300 (with the master coaxial movement) become the celebrated watch it so obviously deserves to be without the absurdity of the Rolex Submariner market? 

    It is an awesome watch, but for many spending that kind of money, they want some means of specialness or exclusivity. The SMP does not check those boxes and Omega will make and sell as many as possible. The watch itself is arguably on par or better than the Sub (technically), but the whole package?  Nope. Their bracelet still sucks and is as far from luxury as an Acura TLX is to an S class. That is, it is fine, until you try them back to back and see where the money difference is. I would argue Monta makes a better bracelet than any Omega offering. 
  • Does Tudor get to embrace its weird (aluminum bezels on vintage divers, bronze watches with applied numerals, bicompax chronographs) without big brother Rolex being as dull as dirt?

    Tudor is clearly the playground.  I do not think Rolex are dull, but they are meant to be timeless, like a Porsche. The idea is one can look at them in any generation and instantly recognize it. Yes, they mess around with strange variants, but as a whole, very conservative. 
  • And the biggest one of all, does Grand Seiko have a market for its beautiful, brilliant, artistically challenging dials, without Rolex being Rolex and limiting production?

    Maybe. In some markets more than others I would imagine. 
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Very well put. I personally am not a Rolex person as the price/performance is not really what I am looking for, but I have to acknowledge that everything I do look for in a watch has been influenced by them and the state of the market that they created. Unique design, water resistance, value, availability, all things that the market would not be driven to provide if not for the demand for Rolexes. Sort of hate to admit it, but you are spot on!

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thekris

Interesting point, and I think you might be correct. Although, I think it’s important not to bend over backwards giving Rolex credit, they certainly don’t have the health of the watch world, or my satisfaction in mind. 

Oh, and how do you recognize all those watches?  I have trouble telling an Invicta from a Rolex without staring to a degree that invites security to intervene. 

I'm a watch neeeeerrrrd.  Even got the thick rims to match.

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Guvnor64

A very interesting read and,to me, the truth of it became more apparent the more I read.

I am a recent collector and so far have only inexpensive pieces.

But my collecting spark was ignited by a visit to a Rolex Store in London.

Without a doubt that started my interest in watches although not in Rolex as a brand.

My first automatic purchase was a Vostok! Quickly followed by Orient, Seiko and Hamilton. 

That Rolex store with its unobtainable pieces and ridiculous "waiting  list" definitely got me into collecting!

I think most of us are this way!  

We start because of the watch brands we know.

We continue because of the watches we actually like!

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AllTheWatches

Nice write up and Breitling is doing some good work lately, but seem to really dislike 39-40MM in any watch I want. The B01 is brilliant and the SuperOcean line is really sharp.  To your questions, my unqualified opinion:

  • Does Breitling get religion and start putting out watches that people want with interesting dials and excellent movements if it does not perceive the market opportunity among dissatisfied would be Rolex owners? 

    I do not think people truly holding out for a Rolex genuinely settle for a Breitling. Casual shopper? Absolutely, and to your point, many brands are getting a lift as a result of Rolex's controlled distribution and desire to be something special. 
  • Does the Santos de Cartier (with its bold style, toolless bracelet adjust and quick change straps) get the credit it deserves as as a best in class datejust/OP competitor if the datejust and OP hadn't become as rare as hen's teeth? This one is a stretch. 

    The Santos wears and feels more like a dress watch, despite it having roots in aviation. Everyone who sees mine says it is too dressy, so take that for what it is worth.  From a $ to $ perspective, yes it is a better value, but I would still take the Rolex movement all day long. I also like the Omega ATs or the IWC XVIII in that range. 
  • Does the  Omega Seamaster Diver 300 (with the master coaxial movement) become the celebrated watch it so obviously deserves to be without the absurdity of the Rolex Submariner market? 

    It is an awesome watch, but for many spending that kind of money, they want some means of specialness or exclusivity. The SMP does not check those boxes and Omega will make and sell as many as possible. The watch itself is arguably on par or better than the Sub (technically), but the whole package?  Nope. Their bracelet still sucks and is as far from luxury as an Acura TLX is to an S class. That is, it is fine, until you try them back to back and see where the money difference is. I would argue Monta makes a better bracelet than any Omega offering. 
  • Does Tudor get to embrace its weird (aluminum bezels on vintage divers, bronze watches with applied numerals, bicompax chronographs) without big brother Rolex being as dull as dirt?

    Tudor is clearly the playground.  I do not think Rolex are dull, but they are meant to be timeless, like a Porsche. The idea is one can look at them in any generation and instantly recognize it. Yes, they mess around with strange variants, but as a whole, very conservative. 
  • And the biggest one of all, does Grand Seiko have a market for its beautiful, brilliant, artistically challenging dials, without Rolex being Rolex and limiting production?

    Maybe. In some markets more than others I would imagine. 

I have nothing but unqualified opinions!

But my general reflection is that the vast majority of watch buyers are tremendously unsophisticated.  And while they are the unwashed masses, they also fund all the weird shit the watch nuts like.

So you can certainly say that an Omega isn't exclusive enough or a Santos isn't a real datejust competitor or that people don't compare Breitling to Rolex.  I think watch nuts might agree with you.  I doubt the general populace agrees.

And that's where the real money is.

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AllTheWatches

Nice write up and Breitling is doing some good work lately, but seem to really dislike 39-40MM in any watch I want. The B01 is brilliant and the SuperOcean line is really sharp.  To your questions, my unqualified opinion:

  • Does Breitling get religion and start putting out watches that people want with interesting dials and excellent movements if it does not perceive the market opportunity among dissatisfied would be Rolex owners? 

    I do not think people truly holding out for a Rolex genuinely settle for a Breitling. Casual shopper? Absolutely, and to your point, many brands are getting a lift as a result of Rolex's controlled distribution and desire to be something special. 
  • Does the Santos de Cartier (with its bold style, toolless bracelet adjust and quick change straps) get the credit it deserves as as a best in class datejust/OP competitor if the datejust and OP hadn't become as rare as hen's teeth? This one is a stretch. 

    The Santos wears and feels more like a dress watch, despite it having roots in aviation. Everyone who sees mine says it is too dressy, so take that for what it is worth.  From a $ to $ perspective, yes it is a better value, but I would still take the Rolex movement all day long. I also like the Omega ATs or the IWC XVIII in that range. 
  • Does the  Omega Seamaster Diver 300 (with the master coaxial movement) become the celebrated watch it so obviously deserves to be without the absurdity of the Rolex Submariner market? 

    It is an awesome watch, but for many spending that kind of money, they want some means of specialness or exclusivity. The SMP does not check those boxes and Omega will make and sell as many as possible. The watch itself is arguably on par or better than the Sub (technically), but the whole package?  Nope. Their bracelet still sucks and is as far from luxury as an Acura TLX is to an S class. That is, it is fine, until you try them back to back and see where the money difference is. I would argue Monta makes a better bracelet than any Omega offering. 
  • Does Tudor get to embrace its weird (aluminum bezels on vintage divers, bronze watches with applied numerals, bicompax chronographs) without big brother Rolex being as dull as dirt?

    Tudor is clearly the playground.  I do not think Rolex are dull, but they are meant to be timeless, like a Porsche. The idea is one can look at them in any generation and instantly recognize it. Yes, they mess around with strange variants, but as a whole, very conservative. 
  • And the biggest one of all, does Grand Seiko have a market for its beautiful, brilliant, artistically challenging dials, without Rolex being Rolex and limiting production?

    Maybe. In some markets more than others I would imagine. 

I think you’ve nailed the Omega vs Rolex argument. I keep seeing stories/vids about how much better the 300 is than the Su, but I just can’t agree. Omega makes really great watches, but there’s an ocean between a “nice” watch and a Rolex. Rolex just has a certain something that isn’t about movements or stats, so you can’t outdo them by out stating them. Logically it’s silly, but that doesn’t make it untrue. 
 

As for the bracelet, you lost me. My Speedy is the only Omega I’ve ever handled, but I like it’s bracelet. In fact, it feels much more solid and luxurious thank the oyster on my (admittedly much older) Datejust.

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Many excellent points and 

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I agree that design ambitions within the Rolex brand are very low. They have a few classic designs with a very high recognition. For better or for worse, as a victim of their own success, they can't deviate too much.

That being said: Their designs largely don't work for me. That's also the reason why I was never particularly upset about any waitlist. If I wanted to spend money on a watch, companies like Sinn, Longines, and a few others have what I'm looking for, should I feel like spending money.

I don't think that Rolex inspired other companies to be competitive, because most other watch companies compete in the same space. In fact Rolex is fairly unique, as a luxury brand that appeals to watch collectors and the general public alike. 

It is true that other companies compete with creative designs, but these designs are generally older than the Rolex hype. What the Rolex phenomenon did, was to renew an interest in automatic luxury wristwatches overall.

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Edge168n

I'm a watch neeeeerrrrd.  Even got the thick rims to match.

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Get some tape on those and you’re set. 
 

But seriously, I can’t tell real from “homage” at any distance. Maybe I just don’t hang out at the right places. 

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I suspect you're giving too much credit to Rolex, but in general the premise is not too far off the mark.

Rolex made its name back when they were like Tudor/Omega/Breitling today, expensive yet still reasonably affordable/available for middle managers. 

With the newer middle managers shifting to Apple Watch/Garmin, or Omega/Tudor/Breitling, Rolex may end up becoming an "old man's" watch... they're already an Old Lady's Broach.

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Edge168n

I have nothing but unqualified opinions!

But my general reflection is that the vast majority of watch buyers are tremendously unsophisticated.  And while they are the unwashed masses, they also fund all the weird shit the watch nuts like.

So you can certainly say that an Omega isn't exclusive enough or a Santos isn't a real datejust competitor or that people don't compare Breitling to Rolex.  I think watch nuts might agree with you.  I doubt the general populace agrees.

And that's where the real money is.

I do not disagree, in a traditional market, but Rolex has not been playing in that market for ages for many models. We are also talking in a watch forum, so we are not the norm or otherwise unsuspecting watch buyers. :-)  

The watch/jewelry shopping public have no idea about the current Rolex situation. Like your friend, they go to Rolex, get shut out, and buy something else. They likely have no clue about the history of what they are buying or the comparables. To most, a watch is a watch. Nothing wrong with that, but it is also no sweat off of Rolex's back. 
 

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thekris

I think you’ve nailed the Omega vs Rolex argument. I keep seeing stories/vids about how much better the 300 is than the Su, but I just can’t agree. Omega makes really great watches, but there’s an ocean between a “nice” watch and a Rolex. Rolex just has a certain something that isn’t about movements or stats, so you can’t outdo them by out stating them. Logically it’s silly, but that doesn’t make it untrue. 
 

As for the bracelet, you lost me. My Speedy is the only Omega I’ve ever handled, but I like it’s bracelet. In fact, it feels much more solid and luxurious thank the oyster on my (admittedly much older) Datejust.

I think it depends on the speedy. New Speedy they actually put work into the bracelet. I have the last gen Sapphire Sandwich (310.30.42.50.01.001) and the bracelet is all kinds of meh. Nothing special for the price point.  When it came time to buy the SMP 300, that was somehow worse and the lack of taper made it less than ideal, so I opted for the rubber strap instead. One of the few times I broke the "Buy the bracelet version" rule and I am not going to lie, very glad I did.