Wednesday, 6 July 2011

My visit to the Rolex Factories Part II

24 Hours with Jack Bauer.
Or unbuilding a mystery;
inside the Rolex factories.
Part II

James Dowling

Churchill once described the Soviet Union as a riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma and that is many peoples’ perception of Rolex. They are a very private company (in every sense of the word) and rarely make any comment, preferring to let their products speak for themselves. This vacuum has resulted in many people creating not only myths around the company, but also ascribing Machiavellian intents to perfectly normal actions. I have to confess that sometimes these theories even cross MY mind. So it was, one morning last summer when the vehicle taking me to visit one of the company’s new factories stopped briefly at a traffic light on the way out of Geneva. Right next to the traffic light was a Victorian building, now obviously empty; there was nothing out of the ordinary about it, other than the rather temporary looking white cardboard sign above the door, it proclaimed that the ex residents to have been ‘Rolex SA’.
The building used to house Beyeler, a dial manufacturer who had been in business for over a hundred years and who were purchased by Rolex in 1997 and who finally moved out of this building recently to the new factory at Chéne-Bourg
It was this purchase and consolidation of many different smaller suppliers into three giant manufacturing complexes that Rolex wanted to display to the press and, as such, was the reason for my invitation.
Buying their suppliers was not something new for Rolex, over the years they had bought many companies, ranging from case makers to makers of artificial sapphire, but most of them remained in their original locations using their original machinery, in some cases this machinery was older than Rolex, a company celebrating its centenary this year. This old machinery and locations inhibited innovation and made it difficult to change, so it was decided around a dozen years ago to start from a ‘clean sheet’ and build brand new manufacturing facilities that would not only be capable of containing the planned developments but would also have the ability to accommodate any future expansion.
The new factories were located in four locations, three sites around Geneva, two ‘green field’ sites and also on the current Rue Dassaud corporate headquarters site, which also underwent massive expansion. Beyeler’s previous dial operation and all jewel setting for cases, bracelets and dials is undertaken at Chéne-Bourg; whilst assembly and casing of movements and production of the 41XX movements takes place at Rue Dassaud. All other movements were still made in Bienne in another new factory, which replaced the old Aegler factory, this factory (in fact) predated the formation of Rolex by several decades. The purchase of the Aegler/Borer family’s majority shares in Bienne was the latest, largest and most important supplier purchase that Rolex have ever done.
The remaining and largest of the three sites was in the Geneva suburb of Plain les Ouates, also currently home to Patek Philippe, Vacheron et Constantin, Piaget, and half a dozen other manufacturers; this concentration of so many watchmakers in such a small area has produced the local nickname of ‘Plan les Watches’ for the locale. It was this site that was the first I visited, and one is immediately overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Rolex building, it is essentially a ‘T’ shaped structure, seemingly rising 6 stories from the old cornfields. In fact, this is an eleven-storey building with 5 of the floors underground, forming a ginormous subterranean vault with over 60,000 storage compartments. The compartments are accessed via a computerised retrieval system with robotised 12 meter (almost 40ft) frames which whiz along the length of the building, from which retractable arms shoot out, clamp on the required compartment and send it to the correct department, all without any visible human intervention. I was able to see all this action through a double thick reinforced glass wall, which is the nearest anyone gets to these vital components, access to this viewing area is through a massive safe door, which can only be opened by one of a small number of employees whose retinal scan is held in the system. Not even Danny Ocean’s team could get in here.
This level of security is needed when you realise that held within this vault are cases and bracelets in various stages of completion, many of them made of gold or platinum (to say nothing of the movements).  The value of these holdings can only be envisaged, but two simple facts should give you an idea. Rolex is the largest non-governmental user of gold in the world, when I asked Jaques Baur (head of R&D at Rolex) if he knew how much gold Rolex used annually, he smiled conspiratorially and replied ‘Yes, I do’ and changed the subject. The simple facts are that Rolex is the only company in Switzerland who make all of their own precious metal case alloys. Everyone else buys finished materials, either already made into cases or ready to be made into cases. Rolex take in shipments of pure gold, copper, platinum and silver; smelt them in their own furnaces to their own formulae and then make the cases from scratch.
This allows Rolex to have alloys of gold quite different to everyone else’s with quite specific properties; for example the white gold used in Rolex watches is not rhodium plated, it retains its colour without this additional treatment, this is due to the fact that Rolex add a high proportion of palladium to their alloy. Most other companies would not go to this expense, but Rolex justify it as it allows cases to be refinished at their service centres on the same machinery as the other watches without having to be sent off for replating after the polishing is complete. Similarly, the story of their red gold ‘Everose’ is now well known; the copper in ordinary red gold will leach out with prolonged exposure to chlorine, through the process of electrolysis.  This turns the red gold to yellow gold over time, although it would take a considerable amount of immersion in a swimming pool before the effects would be visible. But this was not good enough for Rolex, if people are paying a premium for red gold, then they should be able to expect it to remain red in all circumstances, including a daily swim. So, a new formula was developed where the copper content is ‘fixed’ in the alloy by the addition of 2% platinum.
Several times a day the furnace in the foundry smelts a new batch of gold (white/red/yellow) in batches of 2 litres at a time; that may not sound like much, but remember that gold is very dense (which is why it is so heavy) and 2 litres of gold weighs 35kg (around 80lbs). This furnace is currently working almost at full capacity; so a new furnace, more than twice the present volume, will soon be installed in addition to the current one; meaning that Rolex will be able to triple their alloy production.
The alloys are then formed into shapes that can be used in case and bracelet making, these are18mm tubes for the bracelets and rectangular bars for the cases. The tubes are fed through extrusion machines multiple times, under a pressure of 250 tons, until their profile is the desired one, then they are subjected to a heat treatment to harden them and then they are cut to the correct size for each link. The amazing thing is that the mirror like surface on the links is the result of the perfect finish on the extrusion die; they are not polished at all after coming out of the machine. It was this fact I found the most amazing, this (to me) is like taking several raw planks of wood, French polishing their surfaces and then building a cabinet from them.
The bracelet clasps are extruded, not stamped and this is why the new bracelets are of much higher quality than in previous days. The new machinery is capable of much higher precision than the old ones, if you think that the bracelets fitted to the Daytona and the new GMT Master II are good; wait until you see the one fitted to the new Sea Dweller Deep Sea. It reminds me of the retractable hard top fitted to the Mercedes-Benz SL & SLK, in the way the boot/trunk opens from either the front or the rear, depending on whether you are lowering the roof or accessing your luggage. In the same way, the bracelet adjusts from both ends depending on whether you want to lengthen it or to access the wet suit links.  The simple truth is that Gay Fréres (who under both private and then Rolex ownership had previously made all the bracelets) would never have been capable of such precision engineering.
The completed bracelets are subjected to random testing; a sample is taken from a batch, fitted to a watch head weighted to the exact weight of a movement and then the completed ‘watch’ is attached to the arm of a six axis robot over 2m tall. These very expensive machines are normally seen in heavy industries, such as car making, where they perform dirty repetitive tasks such as spot welding or door hanging 24hrs a day. Here the robot is used to simulate a year of wear in only two days, it spins the ‘watch’ through any possible position under high acceleration (much higher than a human would ever do) whilst occasionally slamming the ‘watch’ into a rubber cushioned bench (cushioned to protect the robot, not the watch). The robot can be programmed to perform any kind of contortion desired and due to the noise created by the constant impacts and the velocity at which the arm moves, the whole thing is encased within a giant glass booth.
It is often claimed by the company’s critics that Rolex is too staid and unadventurous in its products; yet I think a closer examination would show the opposite. They employ 250+ people in their R&D department, 30 of whom hold doctorates and they register 5 to 8 patents a year for completely new innovations. You may not like the look of the Yachmaster II, but you cannot criticise the technology involved in that movement. Whilst others may decry the lack of ‘finishing’ on their movements, but they were the first company ever to standardise the balance bridge on all their movements, replacing the centuries old balance cock and thereby almost completely eliminating the problems of endshake whilst massively increasing the resistance of the watch to shocks. The truth is that Rolex is a very innovative company; it is just that its innovations are mostly invisible and designed to improve the product gradually. They are not the same old ‘me too’ innovations seen by other companies, such as a new tourbillon or a different way of displaying the time; in other words, Rolex only changes a product when it feels that the change is an improvement, not just a change for change’s sake.
As is now well known, the steel used for cases and bracelets is not the 316L used by 99% of the watch industry. Starting in the late 1980s, Rolex switched over to 904L. Bought from a supplier in Austria, the rest of whose production goes to the petrochemical industry, 904L has a much higher resistance to corrosion than 316L. We have all seen 40-year-old steel watches with case backs and threads pitted from the corrosive mixture of dirt, human perspiration and high humidity. Rolex don’t claim that 904L will never suffer a similar fate, but the formulation of the steel means that it is much less likely during the normal lifetime of a watch.
The new machinery has also meant that the age old method of making an Oyster case has also changed; if you have seen lot 51 in Antiquorum’s recent Revolution sale, you will know the system. A slice is cut through a rectangular bar; this is then formed into a lozenge shape and by several other subsequent processes becomes the Oyster case we know & love. Then a circular disc undergoes similar processes and becomes the caseback. No longer; in a single press the rectangular slice is pushed through a tool & comes out in a rough shape of the case, the circular slug of steel that was previously in the centre of the case is now used to make the case back, meaning that not only are fewer processes needed to make a case, but also less steel is needed, further adding to the company’s ‘Green’ credentials.


We probably never think of the environmental cost of watchmaking, but I truly think that the new Rolex factory at Plain les Ouates can safely claim to be the greenest watchmaking plant in the world. All the flat roofs of the building are fully functioning gardens; lavender, rosemary and grass cover them entirely. Not only are the herbs used in the staff restaurants, but also much of the water used in the factory is recycled through these gardens; which, in fact, are quite sophisticated water treatment facilities.

What impressed me most about Plan les Ouates was the almost cathedral like scale and cathedral like silence, although there are 1,500 people and 1,700 machines there, the place is quiet, operating theatre clean and you hardly see a soul as you walk down the corridors wide enough to take two large trucks side by side. When I asked why the corridors were so wide when they make such small products at the factory, I was told the factory was designed to allow the simple removal and replacement of any of the machines or tools used. Including such items as furnaces or stamping presses. It is this planning for any possible future inherent in the building design that makes it unlikely that Rolex will have to go through similar upheavals in our lifetimes.
The simple truth is that Rolex are now probably the most vertically integrated watchmaker in the world (I say ‘probably’ because doing a full comparison to the only other possible contender, Seiko, would require both firms to release information that they choose to withhold) and the benefits and advances we have seen in the last few years have only been possible through this total control of every step of production. I genuinely do not believe that if Rolex was still spread out in dozens of small factories all over Geneva that we would ever have seen the new bracelets, Parachrome hairsprings, the Goldust dials or the development of the 4160 movement.
It was said of Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in the 1920s that ships would dock at one end of the plant and disgorge their cargoes of iron ore, sand, tree trunks or raw rubber and finished Model As would drive out the other end, with every one of their parts having been made in the factory, right down to a paper mill & print shop which produced the owners' manuals from those tree trunks. Rolex is now a comparable operation and I hope that this small glimpse into their normally closed world has proved informative and has unwrapped some of the mystery and I apologise to Jaques Baur, head of R & D at Rolex who was one of my two guides for anglicizing his name in the title of this piece.


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