Rolex And The Art Of Gem-Setting
From diamonds to colored stones, haute horology is seeing a resurgence in hot rocks.
Everything happens in cycles. In the post-World War II era, diamonds were a watch’s best friend, with returning GIs investing in diamond-studded timepieces and Cadillacs to signal they were climbing the social ladder. Even into the disco days, an iced-out watch was a sign that you’d made it.
At other times, in the North American market anyway, precious stone studded dials and bezels were seen as tacky and over the top. But bling is back, baby! One need only look at the waiting lists for Rolex’s Day-Date Rainbow or the more recent diamond-set Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 36s to prove it.
There are many brands with deep histories of stone setting and jewelry-making. But Rolex’s is interesting because while they don’t have the same gemological background, the brand does excel at creating gem-set watches that make collectors go crazy.
Here’s how they do it.
The history of bejeweled timepieces goes back to the very first wristwatch created by Abraham-Louis Breguet for the Queen of Naples in 1810 and was adorned with diamonds. It took over another century before wristwatches became the norm for men, and, under the influence of celebrities like the Rat Pack’s Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., guys sought out timepieces with diamond-studded indices and pavé dials.
In the disco era, watch designers like Andrew Grima added other precious and semi-precious stones such as rock crystal, moonstone, smoky quartz, rutilated quartz, aquamarine, citrine, peridot, and green and pink tourmaline. Tiger’s eye, malachite, and lapis lazuli were also used to make colorful dials.
While tastes change over time, the demand for gem-set watches has always existed in one market or another. When manufactures shied away from bedazzled timepieces in the 1980s, for example, hip-hop artists turned to jewelers to make after-market modifications to their beloved timepieces. Inspired by rappers, athletes sought out statement watches. Then Wall Street types sought out to emulate their sports heroes, and so on and so forth.
What’s new now is that watches set with colorful stones seem to be having a moment across the spectrum of watch enthusiasts. And a lot of this movement can be accredited to Rolex.
Gems, They’re Truly Outrageous
When it comes to high-end horology, there is a big difference between factory- and custom-set stones. Factory diamonds are placed in watches by their respective manufacturers during the production process. Custom-set diamonds are installed by a third party after the watch has been fully assembled and already left the factory.
Rolex is not the only maison making wrist candy. Nor is it the first. But as the watchmaker with the most brand recognition: When Rolex makes a move, the world notices.
That is because, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this or not, Rolex runs a very controlled ship. For buyers, this means a consistency of quality that not only reassures you that your watch will hold its value as a working instrument but also as an investment. And if you are going to take a sartorial risk on an “Eye of the Tiger” Daytona, you can also be comforted that you won’t get called out because it is a Daytona.
One small clarification: Even Rolexes don’t always retain their value, and aftermarket mods can lessen a watch’s resale price – especially if the jeweler doing the customization isn’t that skilled. Rolex knows this; that’s why it has in-house gem-setters in the first place. Rolex wants to protect its legacy.
This Is How They Do It
Rolex’s gem-setters don’t always get their due when it comes to the sheer awesomeness of their gem-setting skills, but there’s no denying the craft and quality of Rolex’s bejeweled watches. Just look at some of the most talked-about timepieces of the last five years: the Rainbow Cosmograph Daytona.
While Rolex produces a relatively small number of gem-set watches each year, the ones they make are executed expertly, using the finest natural gemstones available. I remember when I first held the Rainbow Cosmograph Daytona in my hands at Baselworld 2018 with its bezel set with a gradation of sapphires in rainbow hues. We were told that sourcing a sufficient number of color-matched stones was challenging enough. But to find the full rainbow spectrum of quality sapphires? That required next-level gemological expertise.
The case was further adorned with 56 brilliant-cut diamonds set into the lugs and crown guard, and the dial featured 11 baguette-cut sapphire hour markers, each of which matches the color of the corresponding point on the bezel.
Shine On You Crazy Diamond
Beyond matching color, there is also the matter of getting the balance right. Over its long history, Rolex has produced some eccentric case shapes, but in the modern era, the brand likes to stick to its signature silhouettes. Where it gets playful is with the placement and use of materials.
The gem-setter’s craft is (pardon the pun) multi-faceted. Before they begin embellishing any watch, designers in Rolex’s Creation Division discuss several options like: the cut (round and baguette are the most popular choices), the colors, and how to arrange the stones so that they don’t disrupt the case’s signature look. They also consult with the engineers to make sure they don’t mess with any technical requirements. Then the team must decide into what materials the stones will be set to determine the precise amount of metal required to hold them in place. It’s a labor-intensive process.
Each stone is then set individually in the optimal position to ensure maximum reflection. Considering that a snow-set dial can contain 3,000 tiny but individually sized diamonds, the work requires a lot of devotion.
Rolex has also mastered the art of the hardstone dial. In fact, two recent releases that broke the internet used semi-precious stones to fashion their faces: The 2021 Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 40 in 18K white gold with a meteorite and diamond-set dial, and the 2019 Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 36 in 18K yellow gold with a turquoise dial, diamond-set bezel, and diamond-set Roman numeral indices.
To cut these rocks to the thinness required for use as a dial, again, requires a level of skill acquired only after years of practice. And even then, every hole drilled to accommodate a hand, index, or aperture risks snapping that slice like a saltine cracker.
Several Rolex collections are available with diamonds, including the Datejust, Day-Date, Daytona, and Pearlmaster, along with certain Submariner and GMT-Master II references. While precious stones are most frequently featured on the dials and bezels of Rolex watches, they can also be found on crown guards, lugs, and bracelets.
But from the scarcity of high-quality natural stones to the delicacy of the gem-cutting and setting process, these glittering timepieces aren’t easy to come by. And that’s okay. It’s not the flash but the fineness of the craft that makes gem-set Rolexes timeless.
(Photography by Watchonista)