Why Are Stainless Steel Rolex Watches Still Not Available?
Back in 2018, I wrote an article about why stainless steel Rolex watches are so hard to come by, in reaction to a reader’s question. Since then things have gotten worse. If anything the steel sports models from Rolex have become ever harder to come by. How come? In this article, I dive into the problem that many watch enthusiasts face, but also the problems that the Rolex brand faces.
We didn’t know the answer back in 2018 (you can read that article here) and made some assumptions (leading to a few heated discussions below the article) on fighting the grey market, etc. According to readers, it was about limiting supply to make them hold value (not sure exactly what Rolex stands to gain from this). It also enabled them to sell more bi-color and precious metal Rolex watches. Some argued that the brand gives more of its supply to China which means less to Europe and North America, etc. A lot of guesses, assumptions, and stories from (authorized) dealers. But, it is now 2021 and we still find ourselves in a situation where you can barely buy a Rolex. It is not limited anymore to steel (sports) models, but nearly to any models and any materials.
No Rolex Watches
In my 20+ years of collecting, the availability of Rolex watches always came in waves. When a new model came out (be it the Yacht-Master 16622 or the green crystal Milgauss), it was always somewhat difficult to get it right away. However, it was the Daytona that first received the “unobtanium” label from the late 1990s onwards. But still, even the Daytona could be had in certain times and periods, from a dealer, at retail price. A Rolex watch was the typical piece for someone who had something to celebrate, a business success, or just a specific milestone. Sure, it also was a status symbol. But certainly not to the extent that they are today. The increasing prices on new & pre-owned Rolex watches have become, to put it bluntly, ridiculous.
Now, you can say that the value of a watch is whatever someone is willing to pay for it. This may be true, but it ruined the fun in buying or collecting Rolex watches. It perhaps even ruined wearing them, as there are more and more people out there with less than good intentions. Just recently, one of our neighbors (who wears a Submariner Date) told me that she’s quite intimidated by all the staring at her watch when she walks in the city. “They used to look at me, now they are clearly just observing my wrist.” One of the negative side effects of the madness, which might have been common in other parts of the world for a long time, but sure didn’t use to be here where I reside.
This is not limited to Rolex (much like the availability topic), but brands like Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet also suffer from this.
No more waiting lists
For a very long time, the shortage of Rolex watches was limited (no pun intended) to sports models. Day-Dates, Datejusts, Oyster Perpetuals, and Air-Kings were all pretty much available. Some could even be purchased with a discount. Today, that’s unthinkable, and authorized dealers even stopped adding people to their waitlists. Understandable from their point of view, because the number of people marching in just asking for a Pepsi/Submariner/Daytona/etc. is just insane. Especially because many of these brand new watches ended up for sale at grey market dealers or in Facebook/WhatsApp groups. I’ve spoken to some of the grey market dealers about Rolex, and even for them, it is a problematic theme.
Rolex watches at grey market and authorized dealers, or is that the same these days?
Apparently, these grey market dealers get a lot of calls from private persons, who just put themselves on waitlists or had the chance to buy a new Rolex at a dealer for retail, and offer it to them with a huge premium. The grey market dealers were getting grey marketed, or something like that. In the past, as they told me, they were able to source their Rolex watches from authorized dealers directly. That has become quite difficult these days, not only because of the private persons doing some proper flipping work but also by the authorized dealers themselves. Authorized dealers began offering new Rolex watches with a proper mark-up to their best customers by using a different business registration. Often promoted as “our pre-owned business”, but in fact selling a week-old new watches with the stickers still on them.
Being the number one client on your own waitlist with your sister company in pre-owned watches, nice move… An authorized dealer should be a reliable and trustworthy source, not one that’s trying to trick the end customer. I can’t imagine a brand like Rolex is happy with that. But on the other hand, I can’t imagine they don’t know about this kind of shady dealings.
Driving business away?
It’s a pity, as Rolex does genuinely make undeniably good watches. And people who just want to buy a good watch, solely for that reason, find themselves in an awkward situation. Empty ADs and boutiques, with not a single watch available. Or, with watches, you can’t buy (for “display purposes” only). When I was flying out and decided to walk into the Rolex boutique at the airport, the salesperson behind the counter said out loud: “we have nothing here!” I was not even in with both feet yet. Other brands certainly get an advantage here, as not everyone will accept a recurring “no” or don’t want to cope with unpleasant behavior from sales staff. Brands like Grand Seiko, Breitling, Omega, Panerai, etc. might have gained some rebound business because of this lack of Rolex watches.
Increasing the production of Rolex watches
Now comes the interesting part. It already crossed my mind (and yours probably as well) that it shouldn’t be too difficult for Rolex to just add another manufacture. A matter of money, you’d say, and they must have plenty of that. We saw this scarcity coming for some time now (hence the article from 2018, where we thought it couldn’t get much worse), so Rolex must have as well. In fact, during a conversation I had with someone from the Rolex company recently, I mentioned exactly this. The response was twofold. First, adding another Rolex production facility is very well possible, the main issue to tackle here is the staffing. Rolex needs time to get the additional staffing required for a new production facility. Second, the problem Rolex has to tackle before increasing production is not so straightforward.
Rolex must answer the following question: is demand for Rolex watches mainly coming from those who just want to buy a good watch, or does the majority comes from speculators? I was told that they don’t have the answer yet (neither do I), but that it wouldn’t make sense to increase the production of Rolex watches when the demand comes mainly from speculators. Until they have the answer and increase production, this scarcity issue might be something we have to be dealing with for a few more years.
Until then, there are a number of things you can do. If a Rolex is what you’re after but not willing to pay double or even triple the amount of retail, try to get on a waitlist anyway with an authorized dealer. I’ve read some success stories on how people had a Rolex Submariner or Explorer II allocated to them with a reasonable period. The other thing is to see if there’s anything out there in the pre-owned Rolex market that is less hyped, but still something you will like. The discontinued Rolex Sea-Dweller 16600 is one of my all-time favorite models, and can still be found for a reasonable amount, for example.
Then, there are also other brands out there that have something nice to offer and don’t suffer this incredible demand. Sure, there’s a reason for that, but I can’t imagine there’s nothing out there that will please you as well. Or even more, once you dig into the story of certain watches, they can suddenly become even more attractive. You just need to be willing to have a bit of a wide horizon and the time the investigate. Last but not least, you can also decide to just wait. Wait until this craziness passes and speculators hop on to the next big thing.
What do you make of the Rolex situation? Have you had any experience with ADs? Was your experience positive or were you left waiting? Let us know in the comments below!