After months of will-they-or-won’t-they speculation across every corner of the watch world, Rolex dropped its new 2020 collections last week, and, boy, did they cause a stir. We got a totally new Submariner collection in a new, larger case, we got major updates to the Oyster Perpetual line that includes a new 41mm size and a ton of colorful dials, and we got some new dial and strap combos on other models including the maximalist Sky-Dweller. It was like a mini Baselworld as summer starts to turn to fall, firing up the hot-take machines from journalists, enthusiasts, and collectors alike.
Obviously, I was excited to dig into the new products themselves and to see what watch collectors think about the latest crop of Rolex watches. That’s always fun. But this year, I think the big lessons go beyond the watches themselves. We’ll have plenty of nitty-gritty coverage of the new watches, including some of our signature reviews, but for now, I’m thinking big picture.
Here are a few of my major takeaways from last week’s announcements. I want this to be a conversation, though. Let me know down in the comments whether you agree or disagree with my takes, or if you think there’s a major lesson I’ve left off. Alright, here we go.
#1 – Stop Worrying About The Numbers
When I first opened up a PDF spec sheet for the new Submariners and saw that glaring “41mm” staring back at me, I’ll admit I winced a little bit. “They’re making the Sub bigger?” I wondered to myself. Why? What gives? Are Rolex sport watches going to become unwearable for small-wristed wimps like myself? I decided to hold off on starting my Introducing story until I’d seen the watch in the metal, and, boy, did that turn out to be a good idea.
It’s easy when you assess and review watches for a living to rely on instincts and key bits of info that you can count on to make your job easier and more efficient. It’s just like any job in that way. But it turns out, I should probably pay less attention to numbers like case diameter than I have in the past. James has always been a proponent of lug-to-lug measurements for judging how a watch might wear. The new Submariner has me wondering if something like “outside lug width” or “lug to bracelet taper” might be something good to introduce too.
Wearing the most recent 40mm Submariner and the new 41mm Submariner side-by-side, it’s hard to believe that the latter is larger than the former. The form factor and overall profile make a much bigger difference than the diameter itself. The result is a watch that’s more comfortable and wearable than I’d expected. I won’t belabor the point, but if you’ve got the ability to try a watch on rather than relying on the top-line numbers, it’s almost always a better idea.
#2 – Rolex Is Paying Closer Attention Than We Think
It would be easy to look at the bright new dial colors that Rolex introduced in the Oyster Perpetual models and think that they’re some kind of optimism-driving move in the middle of a year that, by most measures, is straight trash. That would miss out on two crucial things though: 1) Watches are developed over years, not months, so Rolex was definitely working on these long before face masks and hand sanitizer were currency; and 2) These colors do not come out of a vacuum and actually aren’t new for Rolex at all.
Rolex often gets guff from the die-hard collecting community for not paying enough attention to the vintage enthusiasts and not actively leaning on its heritage in the ways that brands like Tudor, TAG Heuer, and Omega do. Rolex doesn’t really pay service to the vintage community in outright, overt ways. It’s not what they do. Or at least it wasn’t until last week.
A much deeper dive into this is coming, trust me, but these colorful dials are firmly rooted in the enamel Stella dials made in the 1970s for Day-Dates. The colors aren’t even just similar, they’re almost exactly the same – look at the new yellow dial side-by-side with a yellow Stella, if you have any doubts. Will most customers know anything about this? No way. But it’s a wink and a nod to the people who do, and it’s a clear sign that Rolex knows we’re here and wants us to know they see us too.
#3 – The 39mm Rolex Is (Almost) Dead
While I’m always going to be happy for new Rolex releases, there was one bit of sad Rolex news last week: The Oyster Perpetual 39 is no more. After a five-year run, it has been phased out of the collection, with the 41mm Oyster Perpetual replacing it. I get it, having 28mm, 31mm, 34mm, 36mm, 39mm, and 41mm OPs is a lot. But why do you have to do me like this, Rolex? The OP 39 was my personal favorite watch in the modern Rolex collection, and I know a lot of collectors who felt the same way. The Crown giveth, and the Crown taketh away.
In a vacuum, that news is what it is. There’s not much more to say – the largest OP got larger, and there’s now a 5mm jump from 36mm to 41mm. Alright. OK. Moving on.
But, what’s most interesting here is that this leaves just one 39mm sport watch left in the entire Rolex collection: The Explorer. The Air-King has a similar case to the Explorer but at 40mm, and the OP case at 41 isn’t all that different either. Will the Explorer stay 39mm long term or eventually swell in size with the rest of the collection? Only time will tell, but I’m officially on 39mm Watch 2020 until further notice.
#4 – Movements Matter, Even If Most Customers Don’t Realize It
Quietly, the biggest news from Rolex last week was that almost every model in the collection now has a current-generation movement with a Chronergy escapement. It’s kind of weird how late the Submariner was to the party, but now everything from the Sub and GMT to the Day-Date and Oyster Perpetual has a high-efficiency movement with longer power reserve and Rolex’s proprietary escapement inside.
For most people who buy one of the approximately one million watches that Rolex makes each year, the paragraph you just read will literally mean nothing. It’s pure gibberish. But that doesn’t matter. Rolex has made its name on making extremely high-quality watches that just work, and, in many cases, work better than watches that cost two or three times the price (if not more). There’s a reason why you can spot modern Rolex watches on the wrists of both A-list celebrities and the likes of Roger Smith.
Jack has often said that when he asked someone at Omega whether or not the Co-Axial Escapement helps them sell watches, he was told that there are maybe six people on the planet who understand horology well enough to really get why that technology is so important. I would imagine it’s the same for Rolex and their in-house tech. I can’t imagine, “Well, sir or madam, this watch also has our proprietary Chronergy escapement, with its paramagnetic hairspring” is the final straw that sells a bunch of watches. But I am extremely glad that Rolex is continuing to push in this direction anyway. Better is better, whether you understand why or not. And “better” is Rolex’s bread and butter.
#5 – Everyone Still Loves Arguing About Rolex On The Internet
This might be the only 100% accurate truism about watches today: If there is one new Rolex watch and five people having a conversation, you’ll get at least a dozen different opinions thrown onto the table. It’s some sort of mathematical anomaly, but it’s always there. We wrote five stories about the new Rolex models the night that they dropped and, as of publishing this, we’ve got more than 1,100 comments on those five posts. Am I surprised? Not one bit.
While some people might see this as silly – you can bet that 99% of the commenters are yet to see any of these watches in the metal, and many of the comments were made before live photos of any kind existed for most of these watches online – I see it as invigorating. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, our social and political orders are in question, and yet we’re finding ways to engage with one another over little mechanical timekeepers that we wear on our wrists. If that doesn’t make you chuckle a little bit, I don’t know what will.
This is quietly one of Rolex’s greatest strengths: Watch lovers take everything the company does so personally, despite the fact that the company tries its hardest not to make anything feel too personal at all. A new strap on a Sky-Dweller is either the second coming of the messiah or an abomination meant to personally insult one random watch collector; the 41mm Submariner is either the final evolution of the world’s most iconic watch or the shark jump that will drive the Genevois manufacture into obscurity. No matter what Rolex does, collectors don’t just take note, they care. In 2020, that’s about as good as it gets.