These days Rolex is one of the most prestigious brands on Earth, but it wasn't always that way. We examine the remarkable shift that has allowed this Swiss giant to be the watchmaker of choice for everyone from communist revolutionaries to investment bankers.

There’s something oddly paradoxical about Rolex. Despite being a globally recognized status symbol, the Swiss watchmaker is seemingly both luxuriously exclusive and accessible to pretty much anyone (anyone with enough cash, that is). Despite their indulgent price tag, owning a Rolex seems distantly attainable in a way that owning a Ferrari isn’t, and the brand’s iconic timepieces have appeared on the wrists of everyone from republican presidents to grime MCs over the decades.

Somehow, the Rolex brand has become both a byword for prestige and a name inherently tied to gaudy “new money." Like almost no other product on the market, its prestige and shimmer is broad enough to entice fans from across the most colossal of ideological divides. After all, how many Forbes 100 Brands can claim to be the material guilty pleasures of holy men like Pope John Paul II to communist tyrants like Mao Zedong?

Legend has it that the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, owns a collection of 15 Rolexes. That might seem a bit off for a self-proclaimed marxist and the spiritual leader of a religion fundamentally at odds with worldly materialism (not to mention that Tibetan Buddhism believes in reincarnation and the cyclical nature of life and death, thus rendering the whole notion of time slightly less meaningful). However, in actual fact his holyness’ first timepiece was a gift from former U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, which apparently makes it okay.

Roosevelt gave the Dalai Lama a gold Rolex in 1942 as a symbol of secure relations between the U.S. and Tibet. Being the popular, charismatic, and PR-savvy individual that he is (it’s hard not to suspect that Buddhism’s contemporary trendiness has something to do with Gyatso’s courting of celebrities), it’s probably safe to assume that his other 14 timepieces were gifts as well, blunting any potential accusations of hypocrisy. In fact, the way the Dalai Lama wears his Rolexes suggests exactly the opposite: in most photos, you’ll see that his holiness wears them reversed, with the face turned inwards on his wrist so as to not appear ostentatious. It’s a world away from pointing to your iced-out wrist a la Rick Ross.

The Dalai Lama isn’t the only avowed marxist with a penchant for Rolexes, though. Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China and instigator of the largest ongoing wave of communist rule in the world right now, owned two golden Datejust watches with custom Chinese character date displays. Meanwhile, the superstar socialist tag team of the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, were both fans as well, often seen sporting the brand’s watches — namely the Submariner and the GMT Master — in photographs at important meetings.

In fact, Fidel was such a fan that he even wore two at the same time, paving the way for rappers like Tyga to do the same decades later. That said, Castro’s intentions had nothing to do with a bling obsession; rather, it was to keep track of both Havana and Moscow time simultaneously. Che, on the other hand, was more restrained, with photos suggesting that he preferred to stick to a single watch (either that or he had several very similar variants of the same one). This timepiece would eventually fall into the possession of CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, who led the operation that eventually apprehended Guevara in Bolivia. After being captured and eventually executed, his hands were chopped off so he could be fingerprinted and identified, leaving Rodriguez little trouble in sliding the bloodied trophy off his amputated wrist…

This penchant for luxury timepieces might seem ill at ease with both figures’ die-hard anti-capitalist principles. However, while the Swiss watchmaker has always been at the forefront of technological innovation, back in the ’60s it wasn’t nearly the sort of status symbol that it is today…

Rolex’s 1926 Oyster model was the first with a water and dust-proof case — an innovation they put to the test by giving one to Mercedes Gleitze, who swam across the English channel with it on her wrist a year later. In 1931 they developed and patented the very first self-winding mechanism with a perpetual rotor, giving the world its first automatic watch. Sir Edmund Hillary was equipped with an Oyster Perpetual when he became the first human being to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, while the Submariner (initially launched that same year) was the first watch with a waterproof depth of 330 feet and a winding bezel that allowed divers to measure their immersion time. As you can see, the brand’s prestige is built first and foremost on innovation, precision and functionality. For much of its history, a Rolex has been a functional tool rather than a decorative accessory, lending it a certain “working man’s quality” that’s perhaps better suited to Bolsheviks than bankers.

This was also a time when Rolexes weren’t as repressively expensive as they are today. While a stainless steel Submariner Date would’ve cost you $180 in 1957 (which works out around $1,500 when adjusted for inflation), these days it’ll set you back upwards of $5,500. In fact, the brand’s current market standing is actually nothing to do with its heritage, but largely a result of the quartz crisis of the 1970s. During this time the proliferation of cheap and effective Asian quartz watches decimated the Swiss watch industry, cutting employment in half in just 10 years between 1970 and 1980 and reducing annual exports from 84 million units in 1974 to a mere 31 million units produced in 1985.

Accepting that they could never compete with Asian watchmakers like Casio and Seiko in terms of price, what Swiss brands like Rolex decided they could offer is heritage and craftsmanship — something that quickly became the focal point of their marketing strategy. Throughout the ’80s Rolex invested heavily in building the prestigious brand image they have today, placing branded Rolex clocks in global airport terminals (back in a time when air travel was still a broadly glamorous activity) and signing sponsorship deals with posh, blue-blooded pursuits like tennis and golf, equestrianism, yachting and the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra.

As fate would have it (although perhaps to be expected from a timekeeper as accurate as Rolex) they were in perfect synch with the zeitgeist. The neo-liberalization process led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan on both sides of the Atlantic in the ’80s gave rise to the young, aspirational and materialistic yuppie class who claimed it as their own, accessorizing their Submariners with shiny new Porsche 911s and Brooks Brothers pinstripe suits. This helped embed Rolex as the de-facto watch brand in our collective psyche and effectively created the luxury watch market as we know it today.

And how much is all that luxury really worth? Well, considering that Switzerland only produces 2% of the world’s watches yet the country’s watchmakers pocket 50% of global revenue, the answer is: quite a bit. One imagines Comrade Che is doing backflips in his grave…

Words by Aleks Eror for

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