Technological convergence is the phenomenon where two or more technologies are incorporated into a single device. This has occurred with the coming-of-age of the smart phone. No longer do we lug around bricks only capable of voice calls and sending text messages, instead we have sleek devices with more in common to a computer than a phone. The phone has become a Swiss army knife, entertaining us, connecting us socially, but also by fulfilling basic utilitarian purposes like providing the time. And in much the same way, the watch has evolved from the humble fob of the Victorian era to a James Bond-esque smart device capable of tracking your circadian rhythms and with all the basic functions of a smartphone. Science-fiction is reality.There hasn’t been much research done on watch ownership but one study found that only one in four people in the UK own a watch. The watch has changed from a tool for time keeping to a fashionable accessory of the wealthy. They found 27% of this owner base use their watch solely as a fashion accessory and 25% of this owner base use their watch to demonstrate status. Although smart watches are on the market, to many nothing comes close to the more traditionally crafted yet incredibly complex mechanism of a Swiss watch. Typified by Rolex, Swiss watches retain market share due to the brands’ perceived wealth and power.
Rolex is possibly the most well-known watch brand in the world and the story of its branding best exemplifies the transition of the watch from tool to accessory. Rolex began its life in London, UK, as Wildorf and Davis. Later, the company moved to Geneva, Switzerland in 1919. Ranked as the 64th most powerful brand in 2016 by Forbes , Rolex produces over 2000 watches daily.
Built on a history of technological innovation, Rolex as a brand didn’t have the image of wealth and extravagance as it has today. Rolex has been an innovative company since its inception and is responsible for the first waterproof watch, the first watch with an automatically changing date, the first watch to show two time-zones at once, amongst other innovations. With chronometric certification, Rolex gained a reputation for having both precision and the latest features amongst wrist watches. But how did a Rolex change from an accurate and innovative wrist watch to an accessory demonstrating wealth and power? These are timepieces paradoxically worn by both Chinese dictator Mao ZeDong and now many of the Hollywood elites and wealthy bankers of the USA.
The modern perception of Rolex is a result of the 1970s quartz crisis, when the Asian manufacturing powerhouses of Japan and Taiwan decimated the Swiss watch industry. Employment was halved in 10 years and exports dropped from 84 million units to 31 million in the same period. To survive the more competitive market, Rolex was forced to re-brand. Unable to compete on price, Rolex used its heritage and craftsmanship as a focal point of marketing to appeal to the conspicuous consumer. Conspicuous consumption, also known as aggressive ostentation, was defined by Thorstein Veblen as the ostentatious consumption of goods that is meant to provoke the envy of others. Conveniently for Rolex, this shift in marketing coincided with the liberalisation of the economies in both the UK and USA under leadership from Thatcher and Reagan. This resulted with the burgeoning original consumer generation: “The Yuppy”.
Rolex targeted this new consumer group through sponsoring the elite sports of yachting, golf, tennis and polo; boring sports often with exclusive events run in tandem.Rolex placed clocks in the glamourous locations of the time, like airports (believe it or not, airports were once glamourous). The Yuppies valued what Rolex’s brand identity could add to their ideal self; by owning a Rolex they had the opportunity to silently, albeit ostentatiously, express their wealth and power. The want for inclusion further perpetuated demand for the watch brand within this wealthy social group. Rolex worked hard to become archetypical luxury Swiss watch of the Yuppy zeitgeist. The brand has enjoyed that legacy to this day, no longer a timepiece, but functional jewellery for the elite and self-conscious, conspicuous consumer.