< Rolex >
Symbols of excellence, performance and prestige, the Rolex watches are produced in four sites in Switzerland. Mitrajit Bhattacharya pays a visit to the Manufactures of these flawless watches and realises why it’s loved by the World’s most loved tennis player
Doing 20,000 pieces of great watches is one thing; doing around ten lakh pieces is another altogether. And no, these numbers are never shared by Rolex. Industrialisation is the keyword when Rolex Manufactures are concerned. I was expecting a lot from my visit to the Rolex manufacturing units in Geneva last September, and I must admit that I was totally satisfied. Let me tell you, it’s a mammoth effort by each of their 6,000 employees across different units in Geneva and Bienne to create those flawless timepieces worn by Roger Federer and countless heads of states and corporate czars.
Crossing the threshold of Rolex to the other side of the distinctive glass facade that identifies the brand’s sites is to experience a world that few can claim to grasp in all its wealth and complexity.
Inspired by an unflagging passion for perfection, Rolex does not content itself with reaching the state-of-the-art in watchmaking. The brand is a rare example of a watch manufacturer that is capable of producing all the essential components of its watches in-house.
Only after visiting the manufacturing and assembly workshops and testing laboratories, you are likely to discover the unparalleled way of designing and producing watches. Rolex Oyster watches, all certified chronometers, are marked by a constant tension between creativity and watchmaking rigour. Such special Rolex alchemy produces watches that are renowned for their precision, robustness and reliability.
Switzerland is the crucible where Rolex designs, manufactures, assembles and tests its watches, thanks to the know-how and commitment of over 6,000 employees at the brand’s four sites: Acacias, Plan-les-Ouates and Chêne-ourg in the canton of Geneva, and Bienne in the canton of Berne. All the Rolex sites embody an environmental dimension and aim to reconcile optimisation of production with respect for the environment and the demand of sustainable development. This approach translates, in particular, into concrete initiatives for energy management. The glass facades allow for maximum natural light in the workshops and offices, for both, working comfort and energy considerations. Designed on the basis of a double-skin system, these facades create a high-performance thermal envelope for the buildings.
The Acacias site, located in Geneva, brings together all the management, administrative, commercial, communications, sponsoring and patronage activities. Inaugurated in 1965, then completely renovated between 2003 and 2004, the building features an emblematic green facade that distinguishes it from the Rolex production buildings.
The site has two imposing 10-floor production units, with four of the floors underground, where the final assembly of the watch components made on other sites and the final quality control of the finished watches take place, along with export and worldwide after-sales service activities. In the initial phase of a project, Rolex deploys extensive human and technical resources to ensure the reliability of the chosen technical solutions. During the development of its new products, the company resorts to exclusive technology for accelerated aging of the components. The assembly, one of the last stages in the production of Rolex watches, consists of assembling the case, the movement, the dial and the hands. Once assembled, and before the bracelet is fitted, Rolex watches undergo a series of tests grouped together under the name ‘Final Control’. These draconian tests – focussing on waterproofness, self-winding and accuracy – are performed using highly sophisticated, fully robotised equipment developed specifically by Rolex.
The foundry and metal forming is carried out at Plan-les-Ouates, the largest Rolex site, also located in the canton of Geneva. It brings together all the development and production activities for watch cases and bracelets. Behind the anthracite grey glass facades, which are characteristic of Rolex production buildings, Rolex creates the three 18ct gold alloys used for its watches — yellow gold, white gold and everose, an exclusive pink gold alloy developed by Rolex. The site houses metal forming which involves a series of laminating, drawing and annealing operations to shape the gold rods from the foundry, a determining factor in the final quality. Here, Rolex also carries out its own stamping activities (the first step in the production of watch cases), machining of the bracelet components, then polishing and assembly of these components.
The Chêne-Bourg site, also in Geneva, brings together all the development activities of the dial as well as those related to gem-setting. The faces of the Rolex watches take shape and come to life in this 160m-long (525 feet) building, inaugurated in 2000, thanks to a magical combination of high technology and command of traditional know-how. The manufacture of a Rolex dial requires a total of some 60 operations involving both, the dial itself — made of brass, gold, platinum, mother-of-pearl or meteorite — as well as the appliqués, all in 18ct yellow, white or pink gold. Some colouring operations using PVD (Physical Vapour Deposition) or lacquering are conducted in a clean room, a strictly |controlled, dust-free environment. Also, diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds are rigorously checked by the in-house gemmology department. Each of these stones meets Rolex’s own quality requirements in four fundamental areas — carat, clarity, colour and cut.
All of the components required for their production — from about 200 for each movement to nearly 400 for the most complex ones – are produced and assembled at the site in Bienne. Being at these units is almost as magical as the watches themselves.