While Rolex is, without a doubt, one of the most instantly recognized brands around the world, the company’s presence is stronger in certain countries than others. Today, the United States is one of the brand’s top markets, notching sales over $1.5 billion in 2018. A survey by investment bank RBC Capital Markets reports 12.3% of affluent Americans have their sights set on purchasing a Rolex watch in 2019. The same survey also examined overall brand awareness and found Rolex leads on four out of seven core brand attributes among American consumers. These include most exclusive, innovative, superior quality, and distinctive. In addition, Rolex’s global strategy spans beyond U.S. consumers alone. The brand’s corporate structure employs hundreds of Americans between the company training centre and the subsidiary based in the U.S. The Rolex brand’s rise to power in the American market has unfolded over the past century. Here, we uncover the evolution of Rolex in the U.S.
The first big push in the U.S.
Importing and exporting has been a core part of the Rolex business model since Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis founded the brand in 1905. However, through two World Wars, changes in tariffs, and other regulations, it took time for the brand to establish its global supply chain overseas. Though Rolex had a presence in the U.S. in its early days, the brand did not see a notable surge in interest from the American market until the 1950s. That decade, President Dwight D. Eisenhower helped popularize the Datejust in the American market when he appeared on the cover of Life magazine wearing the watch in April of 1950. Throughout the remainder of the 1950s and beyond, presidents like Lyndon B. Johnson would carry on the tradition of wearing a Rolex, with the yellow gold Day-Date eventually garnering the nickname the President. With the endorsement of the most powerful figure in the country, Rolex quickly became the ultimate status symbol in the States.
Rolex’s prominence in the American market during the 1950s spanned beyond politics. The era also marked the rise and accessibility of intercontinental travel, and in 1954 Rolex partnered with Florida-based Pan American World Airways to develop the first GMT Master as the official watch of the air carrier. The model featured a two-tone red and blue colour scheme, reflecting Pan Am’s signature hues. Like the office of the presidency, the jet-setting lifestyle represented a certain superiority and exclusivity – the same qualities Americans continue to associate with Rolex. Today, this beloved style of the GMT is considered the most iconic among Rolex purists and has since been dubbed the Pepsi. Over six decades later, it continues to be one of the most popular iterations of the model. The brand’s work with Pan Am over half a century ago was just one of many partnerships that helped to solidify Rolex’s reputation in the modern American market.
Continued momentum for Rolex in America
Over the course of the next decade, Rolex would strengthen its reputation in the U.S. by becoming a potent force in American sports. In 1963, it started its sponsorship of the 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race (now called the Rolex 24 at Daytona) in Daytona Beach, Florida. A few years later in 1967, Rolex began its enduring relationship with golf in America when it presented the legendary Arnold Palmer with a gold Oyster Perpetual. In the remainder of the decade, its associations with the sport quickly expanded, with golfers Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Over half a century later, Rolex has continued to grow its presence in the way of sports within the American market. The brand has extended its presence on the golf circuit as the Official Timekeeper of the U.S. Open since 1980 and the U.S. Women’s Open since 2003. It has also enlisted a number of pro golfers, such as the legendary Tiger Woods, as brand ambassadors. More recently, the brand established the Rolex New Guard, consisting of a number of today’s pre-eminent American golfers, including Bryson DeChambeau, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, and Justin Thomas.
Rolex has also established strong ties in the sport of tennis in the United States. Recently, in 2018, it solidified a partnership with the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA). As a result, Rolex notably became the Official Timekeeper and the Official Timepiece of the U.S. Open, the fourth and final Grand Slam tournament of each season. However, the partnership also includes the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, Ohio, making Rolex the sponsor of all nine Masters Series events. Last but not least, its work with the USTA supports the organization’s National Campus, which serves as the hub for mission-related tennis activities and programs, as well as the USTA Foundation, which helps under-resourced youth.
From strategic partnerships to strategic business moves
Rolex is an undeniably pervasive force in American culture, from politics to travel and sports. It is an equally important player in American business. In 2013, after a nine-year hiatus, Rolex reintroduced its sister brand, Tudor, back into the U.S. market in select retailers across the country. Within a year, Tudor had expanded its commercial presence to traditional boutiques where Rolex was already sold and to other luxury watch retailers. Tudor also worked to strengthen its reputation in the U.S. by following in Rolex’s footsteps and securing key partnerships in American sports. It became the official sponsor of the International Motor Sports Association with the Tudor United SportsCar. In addition to strategic marketing, Tudor was able to appeal to consumers in the U.S. market with an exceptional service system. With the impressive sales and service infrastructure Rolex has built in the States, Tudor’s American customers instantly gained one of the largest and most detailed networks of repair and after-sales service.
In July 2019, the discovery of the Rolex GMT Master, Ref. 1675 worn by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now took the news by storm.
More recently, at the end of 2018, Rolex announced a piece of major business news: Rolex’s U.S. President and CEO Stewart Wicht would be retiring at the end of the year. Though he only served in this role for seven years, he had been with Rolex since 1975 and is credited with playing a key role in elevating the brand’s partnerships, image, and overall sales in the U.S. market. Following his retirement, Wicht was honoured with the Jewelers of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Today, he continues to serve on Rolex U.S.A.’s board of directors as well as the boards of the American Gem Society and American Swiss Foundation. In January 2019, former President and CEO of Rolex Canada Luca Bernasconi assumed Wicht’s place at the head of Rolex U.S.A.
What’s next for Rolex enthusiasts in the U.S.?
In July 2019, the discovery of a long-lost Rolex model took the news by storm. What was once one of the great missing watches in history – the Rolex GMT Master, Ref. 1675 worn by American film legend Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now – was miraculously discovered in a family dresser. In December 2019, Phillips will offer the iconic timepiece in its flagship New York auction, Game Changers. The yellow-gold Day-Date President, Ref. 1803 that Rolex gifted to champion golfer Jack Nicklaus will also be up for auction. For Rolex enthusiasts in the U.S., the Game Changers event could indeed be game-changing for their collections. Both these models are not just significant pieces of Rolex history. They are emblematic of Rolex’s deeply rooted and enduring legacy in the U.S.