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.