The Most Unfair Comparison Ever: Urwerk Vs. Rolex
This article was supposed to start off as a like-for-like comparison piece between the the unlikely foes, Urwerk and Rolex. Rob tasked me with going to town and making a crazy comparison between two totally different brands, occupying two totally different market sectors. I am always up for a challenge (unless it involves running — I hate running), but I hit a blank as I sat down to write this.
I mean, sure, I could compare the market spaces that Urwerk and Rolex occupy, the construction materials, their respective histories, or maybe even the mass production versus the small batch production. There is technically plenty that could be said, but it just didn’t feel right. I’m sure I’ll get some haters here as Rolex has their loyal (cult-like?) fans, and some believe that “Rolex can do no wrong!” Heck, we even have one member of our community who thinks no watch can match up to the powerhouse that is Rolex and comments as such on EVERY SINGLE ARTICLE — I do not doubt we will see him in the comments here shortly. But, in essence, this is not a fair fight.
Not a fair fight
Rolex does Rolex very well. The brand’s sales figures and worldwide reputation say what words cannot. But this is like pitting the likes of Barcelona F.C. against the Fratello Staff XI. It’s just a massacre. It shouldn’t be allowed to happen!
They make great watches…
In my opinion, much of Rolex’s modern-day success hinges a lot on its brand name and reputation. Read that as “marketing team/budget.” They make great watches, but if you took away the sales that are purely customers buying for the brand name and leave behind the customers who are purchasing for horological reasons…well, that’d be interesting to see. The brand also does nothing new and contributes nothing to the advancement of horology, at least in my opinion. Sure, there was the rather clever Skydweller back in 2012, but in the 11 years since, what has Rolex done? Released the same watches every year in slightly different color/material combinations. Last year, there was a case diameter change by 1mm! Oh my!
In the mid-1900s Rolex did contribute a lot to the field of dive and tool watches, and without the brand, the tool/dive watch landscape may have been a very different beast than it is today. But in the last couple of decades, the brand has been more than happy to rest on its laurels and play a market that is all aboard the Rolex hype-train.
I’m not a Rolex hater — I promise!
Don’t get me wrong, I do like Rolex. I may sound like I don’t, but I am, of course, exaggerating things a little here, within the realms of artistic license. I would happily strap a GMT-Master II to my scrawny little wrists. I’d probably also take a plethora of photographs and splash them all over my Instagram profile. I am only human, after all. But as a non-Rolex owner, I feel that I may be in a position to take a less-biased view on the Swiss powerhouse.
What do you think Rolex is contributing towards the advancement of watchmaking?
It’s a brand that positively benefits the watch community and industry without a doubt. It is perhaps what I could call a gateway luxury brand. The watches are excellent and offer a lot of value for money (when you can get them at list price), but these products (and they are truly products at almost one million pieces per year) can never compete with the likes of Urwerk. And I’m not just saying this based on the price or the mass production versus Haute horology. While Rolex does produce watches with prices in similar brackets to some Urwerk watches due to stone settings and precious metals, Rolex is not contributing towards the advancement of watchmaking.
In one of his videos, friend of Fratello and founder of Revolution and The Rake, Wei Koh, once said, “I often say that if you don’t own a watch, or more aptly, a kinetic time-telling work of sculptural poetry known as an Urwerk, it’s hard for me to think of you as a real watch collector.” Now those are some big words, and when I first heard them, it took me by surprise. Initially, I scoffed, but upon listening further, Wei didn’t mean that quite as literally as it may have sounded.
I’d happily have a Dufour…
Now, as a convert, I agree with him to some degree. He points out that most of the complications we see today are actually extrapolations of complications and aesthetics found in 18th- and 19th-century pocket watches. Indeed most of the celebrated independent watchmakers wear their historic inspirations visibly on their sleeves. How many can you say, with a hand on heart, are doing anything truly new?
Urwerk will tell you that the inspiration came from a clock created for Pope Innocent XI by the Campanus Brothers in 1682. Still, I have to agree with Wei when he said that “[the brand’s] signature rotating three-dimensional satellites have forged what I consider to be the most unique and all-new time-telling language in modern horology.”
As a caveat, and as I have said regarding Rolex, I am not for a second saying I do not appreciate the incredible work being done by today’s watchmakers. I mean, I would sell my own brother (sorry, Chris!) to be able to call a Voutilainen or a Dufour my own, as I am sure every single one of you reading this would too.
The time on Mars?
With this in mind, when I think of genuinely modern interpretations of watchmaking, very few names come to mind. Konstantin Chaykin, perhaps? His impressive Mars Conquerer allows the wearer to track time on Mars and Earth simultaneously. If you’ve not read about this watch, it’s worth taking a quick look to read more about the Mars Conqueror as it is a very cool projects.
Maybe you might consider the work of Greubel Forsey. I consider myself lucky to have spent time hands-on with one of it’s Quadruple Tourbillon GMT watches and it’s probably one of the most impressive watches I have ever, or will ever see. Even so, in my opinion, neither of these brands are a scratch on the mighty Urwerk.
Because Stone Cold says so!
I am confident there will be some readers who look at images of Urwerk watches with a look of bewilderment upon their faces. Indeed, I was one of those bewildered souls only a year or so ago. I think that Urwerk is a brand you have to allow yourself to appreciate. My very first reaction to their unorthodox designs and method of presenting the time was nonchalant at best. I did not care for such modernism or extravagance. One of the things I saw and balked at was the price alone. That may have been one of the factors that led me to not appreciate the brand from the start.
…a Stone Cold Stunner was mere moments away.
Sometimes you need an “in” to new things. In my case, it was The UR-100. Prior to discovering the UR-100, I was firmly in that bewildered camp, and probably closer to Rolex than I was to Urwerk, but then I had my “Stone Cold Steve Austin moment.” For fans of the Attitude Era WWE/WWF wrestling, you will remember that Stone Cold Steve Austin’s ring entrance featured the sound of glass smashing. You’d see the sudden realization on the faces of his adversaries that a Stone Cold Stunner was mere moments away.
Well, the UR-100 smashed the glass and made me realize just how vital that Urwerk is to watchmaking in the 21st Century. It opened my eyes to what Urwerk was about and why the brand deserved my attention and appreciation. After so long as just not “getting it”, I suddenly did. Granted, it may be unlikely that I’ll be in a position to own one in my lifetime, but that’s OK. Sometimes it’s nice to appreciate things from afar too. The UR-100 remains firmly at the top of my grail list though!
Looking to the future of Urwerk
If we were to fast forward 60 years and Urwerk is still doing the same things as today and no longer pushing the boundaries of modern-day watchmaking, then I think we would be having a different conversation than the one today. However, I do not see that being the case. I can not see Urwerk resting on its laurels and being content with doing the same thing over and over and happy to rake in the money. I may not have had the pleasure of meeting or speaking to Martin Frei or Felix Baumgartner in person, but I have a feeling that’s just not who they are.
Have your say in the comments — I want to hear your thoughts!
With this article I am hoping we get to generate some healthy discussion. This is the joy of our community, not just at Fratello, but the watch enthusiast industry as a whole. We are very passionate about our opinions, but we are also happy to discuss and learn. With this in mind, how do you see this topic? Where do you see brands like Rolex et al. in the market? Can you really compare them? I’m also keen to see what the Fratelli think brands like Urwerk. I’ll happily admit I am a Urwerk fanboy, and I appreciate the hypocrisy! So, have your say and let’s talk!