Walk around any major city and you’ll see an entirely new and utterly baffling phenomenon: the person, usually male but occasionally on the distaff side, wearing a FitBit or other heart-rate tracker on one arm and a watch on the other. Why would anybody bother to do this? After all, virtually every fitness tracker you can buy has a perfectly accurate, maintenance-free digital watch built in — and don’t forget that the average Westerner in 2017 spends half their life looking at their phone, which has a satellite-synchronized clock built right into it. Why are people carrying around three watches when surely they only need one?
The answer is simple even if it’s a bit embarrassing. If you grew up in the WASP tradition or any social circle remotely affiliated with it, you know that there are only two acceptable items of jewelry that a man can wear. The first is his wedding ring. The second is a wristwatch. That’s it, period, point blank. The H1-B crowd at my job all wear a gold necklace with some kind of gold charm on it, my old mentor used to wear gold rings and ropes to match his velour tracksuits, and the Eurotrash-Brit types I just did a couple of features with over in Europe all wear multiple precious-metal and corded bracelets like high school girls who got a $500 gift certificate to the local Pandora at their sweet sixteen party, but the people who have the United States Of America don’t get to wear that stuff. They get a ring and a watch. Period.
Once Hans Wilsdorf created the marketing miracle known as Rolex, the eighteen-karat yellow-gold Datejust or Day-Date became a universally-recognized symbol of success. In no time at all, the world learned a new kind of value language. A stainless-steel Rolex was the equivalent of driving a Buick; it meant that you had enough money to spend on luxuries. The gold Rolex was a Cadillac-like statement of fiscal exuberance. After the excess of the Eighties died down, many people put their gold watches away because they didn’t like the way other people interpreted that particular social signal. It didn’t help that the stainless-steel Daytona became an absolute icon both of motorsport and of sporting watches after Paul Newman was spotted wearing one. For many years, the gold Rolex was more of a punchline or a stereotype than anything else, associated with oil money, crime money, and new money.
Our modern Gilded Age hasn’t yet done much to change that. It’s still not really acceptable for a WASP to wear a gold watch. To accommodate the need of our imperial plutocracy to spend more money, Rolex now offers some of their watches in white gold and/or platinum. (The new white-gold GMT-Master II is the hottest thing out there for people who can put the cash equivalent of an Accord V6 Coupe into a watch.) Yet the company has nontrivial economic reasons to get people interested in gold watches once more. There’s about 2.5 ounces of gold in a gold Rolex, roughly $3,200 in today’s money, but the markup between a stainless steel GMT-Master and an 18k yellow gold GMT-Master is a staggering $15,200. With twelve grand here and twelve grand there in a company that can easily make, and sell, a million watches per year — well, pretty soon that’s real money.
As a consequence, there’s an odd new marketing program at Rolex which might lead to a chance for you, the average watch-wearing typa dude, to make money on your next watch instead of losing it.
Rolex has offered two-tone (steel and yellow 18k gold) variants of its core watch line since the early Fifties. The earliest watches used hollow links and relatively small bezels for maybe half an ounce total, where some of the larger modern watches supposedly contain up an ounce and a half. Still, we’re talking under $2,000 worth of gold at today’s prices. The retail price of a two-tone GMT-Master II is $13,000 against the $8,950 of a stainless steel model, so that’s well over $2k worth of additional profit.
Rolex, like Ferrari, has seen its dealers snapping up profit that it would like to keep for itself, most notably in the case of stainless-steel Daytonas which can command a five-thousand-dollar markup. There are all sorts of ways to deal with this markup problem, from increasing supply to just flat-out raising the retail price to account for it, but Rolex has chosen to dip into its history books and come up with a truly unique solution.
This year’s Daytona winners, including our AER teammate Jesse Lazare, got a two-tone Daytona. This breaks the link between the race win and the “plain” stainless-steel Daytona. If you want a watch like the one Jesse has, it will cost you $16,900 against the $12,400 of the stainless steel model. That’s no coincidence, as pre-owned stainless Daytonas are currently commanding around $17k. So Rolex has done a very tricky thing here. For the same price as a pre-owned stainless model, you can get the new race-winner model. All the retail prices stay the same. But the net effect will be to increase Rolex profit at the expense of the speculators, hoarders, and resellers.
What makes this a big deal? Well, two-tone watches have long had a lousy reputation in the Rolex resale market. They’re seen as a halfway point between the unmistakable luxury message of a solid gold Rolex and the everyday/WASPy/sporting message of a steel watch. To put it not so kindly, a gold Rolex says that you can afford a gold Rolex, and a steel Rolex says that maybe you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a gold watch, but a two-tone Rolex suggests that you really want the tacky-ass gold one but you can’t quite afford it. You’re trashy and poor.
Generally speaking, used two-tone Rolexes are cheaper than their steel equivalents. That’s a shame for a couple of reasons. The first is that the watches are nice-looking if you can get around the sociological implications. The second reason is that any gold you see on a Rolex is always real gold, not gold plate or gold fill. In fact, Rolexes have gold in places you don’t even suspect, including the hands which are always white or yellow gold even on a steel watch. So there’s nothing fake or unnecessary about a gold Rolex, even a two-tone gold Rolex.
It remains to be seen if the market will accept this push back to two-tone in core Rolex models like the Daytona, Submariner, and GMT-Master. But if the following is any indication, I think it’s going to work:
Those of you who follow my Instagram know that I bought myself a Tudor Black Bay Bronze while I was overseas. I’ve been interested in the watch for a while and trust me, Europe is a better place to buy them than here. (Amazingly, the customs inspector in New York didn’t tax me for it even though I declared it and showed it to him. Something to think about next time you’re considering not declaring an overseas purchase.) The Black Bay is the perfect “Rolex” for me; I’m a little diffident about wearing a Rolex-branded watch in public and there’s no bronze Submariner to be had anyway. If people see it and think it’s a fake Sub, I don’t care. (If there is anybody who has gotten this far in the article without knowing what relationship Tudor and Rolex have, well, it’s like Cadillac and Chevrolet.)
Anyway, Tudor now has the Black Bay S&G, for “stainless and gold”. It’s remarkably attractive and the markup is minimal — about $1,000 over the stainless Black Bay. In this case, however, the gold isn’t solid gold — it’s a capped layer on the stainless. It probably won’t matter; this is likely to be a hugely popular watch.
So what does all that mean for the casual watch collector? Only this: if you’ve ever wanted a two-tone Rolex, now is the time to buy. I suspect that if you buy right now, you’ll be able to get your money back in two or three years when two-tone is all the rage on Wall Street and everywhere else. You might even be in the enviable position currently held by “Kermit” Submariner owners, who have been able to sell their watches for above purchase price for nearly half a decade now in a fad that shows no signs of slowing down. Take it from me: two-tone is the future. Even if you don’t like it. After all, if you can only wear two pieces of jewelry, and you can really only do something interesting with one of those two pieces, why not add a little bling?