To mark 40 years in his job, Barry Finch decided to buy himself his first-ever Rolex. The price of the Rolex Oyster Perpetual he wanted was £4,700 – expensive, but not astronomically so, and Finch had the money ready and waiting in his account.
“I walked into a high-end jewellers assuming I’d walk out with the watch, which now seems naive,” says Finch. “They were very polite and let me try one on, but when I tried to actually buy it they said no and explained I would need to create a relationship with them first.”
Finch asked how exactly they expected him to woo them, and the answer was eyebrow-raising. He needed to spend £100,000 on other models; only after that would he be considered.
“I felt really disappointed,” says Finch. “I’m 57 and I’ve worked hard for a long time and I wanted to be able to buy this one thing for myself. I’m apparently on a few waiting lists but nobody has ever contacted me and the whole experience has made me feel like it’s them versus us. Rolex clearly doesn’t want normal people to buy their products.”
The brand is a byword for luxury and fame (celebrities like Brad Pitt, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone and Jennifer Aniston like to accidentally-on-purpose reveal a chunky Rolex on their arms) but around the world, Rolex display cabinets are now empty. Demand has outstripped supply and the result has been skyrocketing prices on resale prices, record-breaking auctions and interminable waiting lists for people like Finch.
Reading this, you are probably thinking that there is something faintly ridiculous about begging a brand to let you purchase their very expensive product. And yet anyone who has woken up at dawn to nab tickets to a concert or to buy a must-have piece from a high street collaboration understands the powerful relationship between scarcity and desirability. And for the luxury industry in particular, the best way of creating exclusivity has always been by placing limits on who can buy what.
How much of this Rolex drought has been engineered by the brand, and how much of it is due to factors beyond their control is something you can’t help wondering. The answer seems to be a bit of both. “I honestly don’t think Rolex is trying to increase scarcity, but equally they aren’t making any strenuous efforts to stop the scarcity,” says James Gurney, the editor of watch magazine QP. “As a prospective buyer you’ve certainly got a fairly strange experience. Walk into the biggest Rolex store in the country, yes, and the chances of you walking out with a watch is low. That’s because they have to allocate. A store might get three particular models in and their phones will go mad because there will be about 70 people clamouring for each one.”
Industry sources say that companies like Rolex will have to choose who to sell them to, and that’s when they decide if you’re “the right type of person”, which usually comes down to whether you’re already spending money on their less desirable models.
The most obvious question to ask at this point is why Rolex doesn’t just produce more of the products people want to buy. The official answer seems to be that they already make about a million models a year and don’t have the capacity, but it’s not quite as simple as that.
Rolex didn’t respond to The Telegraph’s request for a comment on this story, but when Yahoo Finance covered the shortage, the brand replied saying all Rolex watches are assembled by hand at one of four locations in Switzerland, a process that "naturally restricts our production capacities." It also takes months for all the various components of a Rolex to be made so changing direction quickly to produce more of one model and less of another is akin to moving a steamliner out of the way of an approaching iceberg (i.e. very difficult).
Rolex has also been caught out by the recent surge in popularity for their products. Instagram is where people go to show off - and this has made certain users far more interested in buying easy-to-identify status symbols. Add to that the fact that the watch industry did particularly well out of the pandemic when people had nowhere else to spend their money.
Equally, some people like Adam Golden of Menta Watches believe Rolex is far from blameless. He told Business Insider that, "Rolex seems to have structured their business in such a way that they're controlling distribution and who gets what, at a retail level." Later he was quoted as saying: "Rolex would like to perpetuate the image that there's a shortage and that there's such high demand that they can't produce enough to satisfy the demand, but I think in reality it's just a very controlled release in order to keep that demand super high."
Whether they engineered it or not, Rolex is probably enjoying the increased status that comes from having an impossible-to-source product. Distribution control has been around for decades – and was perhaps most illuminatingly shown in Sex & the City in the late 1990s. In the series, Samantha Jones was desperate to get her hands on an Hermes Birkin and resorted to impersonating Lucy Liu to bump herself up the waiting list. Unsurprisingly, the charade didn’t work, and by the end of the episode Jones lost a client and a very expensive handbag.
Twenty-five years on, and Hermes still has a year-long Birkin waiting list in some markets, showing just how successful the policy has been in creating long-term demand. Last year, Chanel followed suit and decreed that shoppers could only buy one of each type of handbag per year, and raised prices at the same time.
“Very desirable luxury brands can largely do what they want,” says Anita Balchandani, the head of luxury analysis at McKinsey. “If they want to increase prices, they can, unlike mid-market or even mass luxury brands. In many ways, it is good for business, as it ensures that the market will never be overwhelmed by one particular product, which would then become ubiquitous and no longer exclusive.”
Not that this helps the people desperate to get hold of their dream watch. Wimbledon starts next week and, with Rolex as the official sponsor, its billboards will soon be advertising products that are all but impossible to buy. If temptation proves too much, there is always the resale market where you can buy a product and have it a week later, but beware: watches cost three or even four times their original value. Or you can join a waiting list for a new model but it could take up to four years.
Or, just buy something else. “If you want a good watch and Rolex can’t help, there are plenty of really amazing alternatives out there,” says Gurney. “Honestly, if your friends are only impressed by a Rolex and nothing else then you probably need to get new friends.”