Rolex has extended its guarantee on new watches from 2 to 5 years and, more controversially, massively increased its recommended service interval from 3 to 10 years.
Does this really speak of Rolex’s superior confidence in their products? And why now suddenly so confident, their quality is well established and isn’t something that’s suddenly improved?
The announcement seems to refer to all Rolexes, but I wonder if this is only Oysters, and not Cellinis (non-divers’ models).
It raises the question as to why all quality, well-sealed watches don’t already have a warranty period of 4 or years, Rolex have surely fired the starting gun on something. Technically this is feasible .. See more below, but currently the recommended interval between servicing is 4-5 years, and has been for the past 50 years. This is made possible by the quality of modern cleaning and lubrication methods, and aided by the protection a modern watch case provides the movement. Some cheaper watches are unable to prevent moisture, possibly dust too, entering the case and these will need maintenance more regularly. For a quality undamaged 5+Atm (50m) water-resistance case this problem is unlikely to occur .. unless you leave the crown open!
The 10 Year Service Interval
Here is the controversy, and I speak not only as a watchmaker, but as one Rolex trained and certified .. Maybe I have missed something, has the watch oil formulation been recently changed to overcome the problems of aging?
This is the same problem as keeping cooking, or vegetable, oil for a long time (olive oil suffers less), it goes rancid (acidic) and thickens. These are not good qualities for a lubricant! Consequently we tend to use mineral oils as lubricants in engineering, and they are often manufactured and altered to suit the job in hand.
Now imagine this: the amount of oil used to lubricate a watch is in the order of single drop off the end of a needle – it’s not much. Where that spot of oil goes is critical too, not too much, or too little, and it must stay where you put it.
Working such small quantities you really want it to stay stable. The layer protecting the moving parts may only be a couple of molecules thick, meaning the oil has a large surface area in contact with metal, dust and the air, accelerating oil thickening and degrading. Whilst not much of a risk in Britain, a watch out in the sun can reach 40C or more and during some winters fall to -40C.
This is where the 5 year service interval comes in – current chemistry is able to limit oxidation of the oil for about 5 years, after this it degrades and its performance as a lubricate falls. Fine watches are expected to keep time within seconds per month: variations on timekeeping, especially when combined with temperature changes, are a clear sign the lubricant is degrading, or possibly dried up completely.
Rolex, and other fine watches, have well made, protective cases that prevent moisture and dust from entering. In effect, the movement is in a sealed cocoon, protected from the outside, at manufacture and at each service.
Have Rolex solved this? I dont know for sure, though frankly, I doubt it – everyone else would be saying the same. Lets however look at the business practice of, say Cartier (of old): “your watch has a lifetime guarantee, there is only maintenance to pay for“. Clever, but parts wear out, this is natural. The cost of the service factors in the few parts that will need replacing, or at a push, replacement of the whole movement. Watches with cheaper movements can also opt for movement replacement over repair, it’s not so unusual.
Perhaps Rolex is doing some or all of these things, we shall see. I am sure it’s all fine, though I am not sure if the time-keeping will suffer as you approach the ten years. Will customers even remember that 8 or 10 years have passed since the last service?
Part of the problem stems from the unclear ‘marketing speak’ of the announcement, english being such an awkwardly subtle and pedantic language .. Further research has provided this nugget, apparently from Rolex. This suggests a significant advance in chemistry:
“The efficiency of the gear-train has been optimized. Rolex has also developed and synthesizes in-house exclusive high-performance lubricants with a considerably longer useful life and greater stability over time. Rolex is the only independent manufacturer that has developed and synthesized its own lubricants.”
One last concern – its not just the lubricant that breaks down, so do silicon rubber seals and the silicon grease needed to prevent the ingress of moisture. If you are a diver or swimmer, I would still recommend regular check-ups.