Time to conquer Asia

The watch that has a crown for its logo enters a new, big market with a bang.

IT was a show meant to awe. And, indeed, it was awesome.

Rolex, the biggest name in watches and steeped in history, left its secret world in Switzerland and stepped out into Asia with an exhibition in Beijing, a place where history lives.

And what a show it was. A spanking new conference centre was stripped down and redesigned to look like the Rolex headquarters in Geneva. The walls sparkled with Rolex wallpaper.

And as you stepped out of the lobby into what was grandly called the Realm of Rolex, you had to stop for a moment and take a deep breath because straddling the entire width of the centre was a crown with the five prongs, each leading into a hall – a crowning achievement for any interior designer.

You knew that no expense had been spared in staging this exhibition. The Rolex folk would not say how much was spent except that they’d brought 90 tons of material in to re-design the centre. And it was all for just one week, from Oct 28 to Nov 3. The day after that, it all came off and the conference centre was a stark, concrete building again.

The first prong of the crown was called The Heritage. And as the name suggests, it led into a room that showcased the rich history of the watchmakers. Visitors were told how Hans Wilsdorf dreamed up the name Rolex and how it has grown with the times.

Wilsdorf had been on a milk wagon (the brand name was, wait for it – Nestle) when he got the inspiration. Apparently, an angel had whispered in his ear. It was a name that could be easily recognised and pronounced in any country, from Wilsdorf’s native Bavaria to France, Switzerland or England.

The heritage also told of how Wilsdorf gambled it all on the now ever-so-common wristwatch. It was a time when everyone had pocket watches, and wristwatches were not the in-thing. But gamble he did and he had a winner.

The second prong, called The Performance, led to a show of how the watches are made, from the red and yellow gold that Rolex uses to build its watches to how a 30cm bar of metal is stretched so thin that it becomes a 30km ribbon. That ribbon then becomes the hairspring in the watch. Minute parts are tooled and then put together by masters to become a watch that should last generations.

Today, the metal used for the hairspring is parachrom, an alloy that’s both strong, keeps precision in the hairspring and is insensitive to magnetic fields, thus ensuring the watch ticks perfectly all the time.

Again, there had been a gamble. While the automatic – you know, where the watch starts ticking with the movement of your hand – was already in existence, it was Rolex that decided to move that technology into a wristwatch.

The third prong of the hall led to the Oyster room. It told of how an inspirational watchmaker had gained inspiration from the oyster, which guards so jealously the pearl inside.

The housing of the watches are made with the same aim in mind – to keep dust and water out at all costs. The hermetically sealed case acts like a miniature safe, keeping the inner works of the watch going with precision under all conditions.

The oyster shape, journalists were told, has changed over time but the basic form remains and the quality remains unquestioned.

The fourth prong was the million-dollar Gallery, where the Rolex range of watches were on display, a breathtaking sight in lighted glass canisters.

The Explorer, the Submariner, the Daytona, The Deep Sea, The Yacht Master, The DayDate, the Datejust ... they were all there in full splendour, red, yellow and white gold sparkling in the light.

And like clockwork, a girl stepped up to say it was time to go to the last prong, The Partnerships. These days, people call them endorsements.

Gary Player came on screen as did Roger Federer, telling how they had been faithful to the watch brand for a long time. It’s a brand not easily endorsed; the watchmakers, it seems, would not even give a free watch to the makers of the James Bond movie, Dr No, for the hero to wear.

So, producer Cubby Broccoli lent Sean Connery his own watch for the movie. However, they did give the watches for the subsequent Bond films.

And it wasn’t just the western sports stars who spoke so highly of the brand. There was Chinese pianist Yundi Li and several others, all part of Rolex’ Testimonee campaign.

And China, the growing giant, is waking up to Rolex. A huge, new outlet has been opened near Tiananmen square. While another brand, Omega, was big in China during the Olympic Games last year, the big boys of Switzerland believe they have what it takes to woo China and a soon-to-boom Asia.

And the perfect place to bring precision clockwork to is Beijing where, across the road from Tiananmen Square, the emperor kept time with a sundial and a water clock in the Forbidden City some 600 years ago.

Today, touts spring up beside you outside the Forbidden City, calling, “You want buy Rolex?”

Those are fake ones. The Swiss makers are hoping the real thing catches on, too.

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