On April 23, 1989, American football team the Green Bay Packers drafted Tony Mandarich as the 2nd overall pick in that year’s draft. Being drafted at all into the NFL (National Football League) is something less than 1% of top 1% of college football players achieve. To be drafted 2nd overall means that you are at the top of your craft, one of the best in the sport, and should lead you to a promising career. He was drafted in the same year as some of the best players of all time, including Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, and Deion Sanders, all of whom went on to have Hall of Fame careers.
Tony Mandarich was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, was being touted as one of the best offensive linemen prospects ever, and was nicknamed “The Incredible Bulk.” Tony was not only a large man, built to stop some of the best players from tackling his quarterback, but he also had an equally large ego. He was once quoted as saying, “I am not like other players, I am Tony Mandarich, and they have to understand that. If they don’t like it, that is just the way I am and they are going to learn to like it.”
Tony washed out of the NFL after 3 mediocre seasons. His poor performance, attitude, and rumored drug use led him to become one of the biggest NFL draft busts of all time. This not only leaves a stain on Tony’s career, but also the team he played for. NFL teams make a large investment in first round draft picks like Tony and when that investment doesn’t pan out, they feel they have overpaid for something they could have either avoided altogether or got something better somewhere else (for less draft capital).
If Tony Mandarich were a watch, he would be a Rolex.
Rolex was once considered a leader in horology innovation and brought, popularized, or patented so many things to this industry that we sometimes take for granted. The Oyster case is claimed by Rolex to be the first waterproof case for wristwatches. Rolex’s website also claims to have invented and patented the automatic winding movement and introduced the date window on a watch dial. These innovations are available on nearly every wristwatch available today, at least where they make sense to be.
Some of their inventions and innovations became so popular that there are elements of a watch by which we refer to them with the name Rolex gave them. For example, the Jubilee bracelet was introduced by Rolex in 1945 and they coined the name. The same goes for the Oyster bracelet; both styles of bracelet were created and popularized by Rolex.
The list of Rolex inventions and contributions to horology goes on and on. The leaps and bounds they made are what rocketed them to the forefront of almost every person’s mind as the pinnacle of luxury watches. Although some of this can be considered marketing tactics, there is something to be said for popularizing an idea or technology. History is written by the winners after all. There is a solid majority of people who believe that when it comes to a wristwatch, Rolex is the best you can get. Considering that there are watches out there that are far superior to Rolex in almost every way, this is nothing short of astounding for Rolex to have accomplished. It is nearly impossible to think of another product that is inferior to others yet is widely considered the best.
I have no intention to lay out the history of Rolex and why and how they got where they are today. I doubt your eyeballs have the stamina for it, but to say their research and development and marketing teams knew exactly what they were doing is an understatement. I am laying this out because I do not want to discount the fact that Rolex has been an industry leader for decades and other watch brands follow their lead.
We’re nearing the point where Rolex gets drafted as the second overall pick. This is where we begin to hear Rolex saying, “We are not like other watches, we are Rolex, and they have to understand that. If they don’t like it, that is just the way we are and they are going to learn to like it.”
A Best Buy to Overpriced
At the time of this writing, a stainless steel Rolex Submariner reference 124060, is listed at an MSRP of $8,950. For a tried and tested dive watch from one of the most storied Swiss watch brands on the planet, this price is an arguable bargain. At the very least, it is a fair price considering the demand for the brand’s (and perhaps the world’s) most popular model. In recent years, the price of actually obtaining a Rolex Submariner has skyrocketed. Granted, the MSRP hasn’t changed, but the cost to get one for the average consumer has become almost unattainable, even if you have the cash on hand to buy one.
The reasons for this are twofold. Purchasing a Submariner from anyone but an authorized dealer will leave you with a bill at two to almost three times the MSRP. According to watchcharts.com, the average sale price of a Rolex Submariner is $16,085 at the time of this writing. The price has risen steadily over the past several years, and even 6 months ago, the average price was $2,000 less.
The second reason is that authorized dealers usually don’t have steel sports models of Rolex watches in stock. If they do, it is likely that they aren’t going to sell them to a first-time Rolex buyer. These watches are so in-demand that you often need a connection or extensive purchase history to be able to walk out the door with the Rolex of your choice. This has led many to buy watches they don’t want to establish that purchase history. For a brand that has some of the most in-demand watches in the world, they are either intentionally choking the supply or whoever oversees their supply chain is, for lack of a better term, an idiot.
The former was recently discussed in several articles, with Rolex’s statement being that restricting the supply is not a tactic they are currently employing. They also did not give any indication that there are steps in place to increase supply to sell more watches. You know…something a company with a hot product would want to do. With that said, I hardly suspect any organization intentionally restricting their supply to say so. Whatever the reason, it has left a bad taste in the mouths of many. The frustration is palpable and for good reason. Rolex is often seen as a capstone brand that many buy to celebrate an achievement or life event. If you’re not in the know about this supply situation and you walk into a dealer to purchase one to celebrate your big job promotion, imagine the disappointment.
Watch consumers looking to purchase a Rolex today are the Green Bay Packers, three years after drafting Tony Mandarich. You had high expectations, you’ve saved the money to make an investment in something you believe will make you happy, and now you’re left with literally nothing. Your draft pick has left the building and has given no indication he is coming back.
A Lack of Innovation & Access
Imagine a scenario in which you show someone a list of Rolex’s inventions and innovations since their inception to the 1960s. You then told that person that not only are they still in business, but they make some of the most popular products in their industry. It is safe to assume that the person you told this to would think Rolex is still a top innovator in the field and they are pioneering new technology. Charlie Murphy said it best, “Wrong. Wrong!”
In fact, the lack of innovation at Rolex HQ is almost a joke among watch enthusiasts at this point. When Rolex releases a “new” watch and the only thing that has changed is the style of bracelet (to one that already exists, by the way), it is hard to get excited about what they are doing. This is also the reason I sat down to write this. Rolex seems to be expecting us to bow down and kiss their feet when they grace the watch world with what I would categorize as the laziest watch releases in the industry. Phoning it in would be a compliment.
Nearly every watch brand will have a bust when it comes to a new release. You’re almost guaranteed to have a lackluster reception to one or two of your new watches. When it comes to Rolex, you’re guaranteed to be disappointed. Rolex knows this and they surround their releases with yes men who find ways to hype up what is the watch equivalent to nature releasing a banana in a new shade of yellow. Unfortunately, the people hyping up these lackluster releases are the watch media outlets and blogs. This is curious to me as Rolex appears to be one of the few brands that doesn’t hand out watches for review or press. Most reviews of their watches are from a writer who was able to buy one. At Rolex’s price point, this is odd.
A search of two popular watch media outlets, Hodinkee and Time & Tide, will show that any hands-on with a Rolex is either at a show or an owner review. Hodinkee covered the two-tone Explorer which was lent by a friend of the writer who had purchased one. Time & Tide’s review was written by the owner of the watch.
Regardless of the popularity of your brand, most people are going to Google your watches to look at photos, determine specs, and read an honest review about the watch. Watch blogs are still the best place to do this. When that access is limited to a writer having to purchase a watch to do this, the review is already skewed. They bought it; they obviously like it. There is no way to be critical in the ways that matter. The unfortunate side effect of this is an echo chamber of bandwagon love for Rolex.
It is easy to argue that Rolex doesn’t need to send review samples because, well…they don’t need to. The watches are so in-demand, what is the point of having someone review them. While I can agree with that argument to a certain extent, I don’t believe it paints the entire picture. If that were truly the case, Rolex would simply update their website with the new models, let everyone figure that out for themselves, and go mad trying to get one. There is value in having media outlets talk about your product, no matter how sold-out they are.
Tony Mandarich likely led a life of success on the football field. While he had great coaching that allowed him to improve as a player, there came a point when Tony believed he was the best at what he did. He had good reason to. His friends, family, and coaches likely told him so and it was confirmed with the second overall pick in the 1989 draft. However, when your ego gets the best of you and all you hear is how great you are, what happens when you encounter someone who is doing it better?
Who is Innovating?
When writing this, I discussed my ideas with some of the Watch Clicker staff and one argument I heard often was, “Rolex doesn’t need to do that, everyone knows who they are.” It’s a valid argument. They don’t need to cater to the press to sell their watches. A Rolex Submariner is sold before it lands on a watchmaker’s bench for assembly. But should that stop innovation?
The short answer is no. There are two things that will happen to Rolex. Their competitors will innovate past Rolex and Rolex will become archaic in terms of technology. No matter the technology, if you’re standing still, you’re going backwards. The other, while less likely to happen in the short term, is that Rolex will become so unattainable that consumers will look elsewhere. There is no shortage of watch brands to buy your next dive watch from.
The former is happening right now. Most of Rolex’s watches are three-hand date and time watches. GMTs and chronographs also dominate their popular models, but watches like the Datejust and Submariner are their bread and butter. They have made a few technological advances in their respective movements, mainly to increase accuracy, power reserve, and anti-magnetic properties. However, that is something almost every other watch brand on the planet is doing and doing it just as well as Rolex.
Innovation in horology now boils down to new materials and movements. Omega seems to be leading the charge in movement innovations. The silicon balance spring was introduced by Omega, and they’ve placed a significant amount of resources into the development of their Master Chronometer Co-Axial movements. The Co-Axial escapement was invented by George Daniels, but Omega helped him develop it further to industrialize it.
Of course, Omega isn’t the only one developing groundbreaking technology. Zenith has the Defy line of watches which can be summed up as the concept car of the watch world. The purpose of Defy is to experiment and create new technology for future watches. From watches that feature a 1/100 second chronograph to cases made of carbon fiber, the entire purpose is break through ordinary watchmaking.
Bulgari is breaking so many records with the Octo Finissimo line that they have created a page on their website dedicated to showcasing these record-breaking watches. Whether you would think these records have any merit or not, these are insane watches created by a brand who also sells cologne and handbags.
Oris launched the Calibre 400 in 2020 and not only does it have antimagnetic properties and a 5-day power reserve, but they are standing behind this movement with a 10-year warranty and a recommended service interval of 10 years. From what many consider an entry-level Swiss brand, this type of innovation is impressive and shows that they are willing to keep pushing that innovation forward.
You don’t have to be a huge Swiss brand to innovate. Orion Watches recently released the Tesseract, a watch whose sole purpose is to bring back American horology innovation. The dial of the Tesseract is CNC milled to create an insanely detailed geometric pattern.
What did Rolex do this year? It released a GMT with a green bezel and a crown on the left side.
After being cut from the Green Bay Packers in 1992, Tony Mandarich spent a few years recovering from substance abuse before entering rehab and recovering from addiction. In 1996 he humbly returned to the NFL. Unfortunately, his career was cut short by an injury but during his 3 years back in the NFL, Tony tried to make a difference on the football field.
Time to Cut the Cord
The bottom line—and if you’ve made it this far, you’ll likely know where I am going—is that Rolex doesn’t deserve the praise it gets anymore. Rolex is a dinosaur standing on the shoulders of the greater watchmakers that came before them that actually innovated at the brand. Releasing watches that do nothing but lengthen the waitlists (or make them start all over) for those who just want to buy a quality watch is not what a leader in the industry does.
In any industry, the leaders in that respective field should be setting an example for those who are trying to achieve that success. I’ve leveled some harsh realities at Rolex and some of them are questions that we need to be asking them as consumers, media outlets, and those with a vested interest in this community. Rolex isn’t alone in some of the things I’ve laid out in this article. With that said, when the leader in the industry is setting the standard that the status quo is okay, what lead is there to follow?
If Rolex is truly experiencing a supply shortage and doesn’t want to sacrifice their quality to increase it, why are they the only brand not taking steps to correct it? There is a difference between having difficulty scaling production and not caring to do anything about it. If Rolex can break the silence to tell us that scarcity of their products is not their strategy, surely they can tell their fans and consumers what they are doing to help reduce that scarcity. If the intention is to keep scarcity in place, then the brand should be doing more to put those coveted watches in the hands of reputable dealers as far too many are ending up in the gray market with insane markups.
Rolex needs to start innovating again, and we need to push them to do so. The cash reserves at the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation must be busting out of the mountains of Geneva because I can’t imagine they’re spending all that money on developing a destro GMT where they don’t even move the date to the other side of the dial. I realize they are technically a non-profit, but surely there is money being spent on R&D. There must be some smart minds at Rolex and those minds should be used to bring back the glory days of Rolex when they were creating watches and parts of watches that became household names in the watch community.
I want to want a Rolex. Currently, I don’t for a number of reasons, but when it is so popular that there are more replicas and/or homages of it than the real thing, you have a problem. Rolex is under the impression that their current popularity will carry decades into the future by creating a product people lust after so intensely that they are willing to pay 2-3 times as much for it. In the early 2000s, Blackberry phones were some of the most popular pieces of technology on the planet. Everyone wanted one and I can’t imagine what demand would have been like if the Internet were where it is today. However, a lack of innovation and believing consumers would always want the same thing led to their downfall. While they are still in business, they are now seen as a relic of the early Internet era.
After Tony Mandarich left football behind, he started a photography career which later expanded into a multi-media corporation. I’d like to think that the experiences Tony had, his fall from grace in the football world, and his battles with addiction left him a humbler man. Perhaps that is why he turned to photography as it was something he enjoyed outside of football. Just because you’re great at something one day doesn’t mean you can’t pivot and become great at something else. Hell, you may find that’s what you were meant to do all along. Hopefully we will see Rolex make that pivot soon and bring us something truly groundbreaking.
Until then, I hope Rolex remembers the people who first bought their watches and why. Their legacy was built on the backs of people who would spend a month’s salary on one of their watches. Today, that door is closed to those same people.