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Why Is It Hard To Buy A Rolex?

Buying a Rolex is often easier said than done – here's why.


Ripley Sellers

October 17, 2022


5 min read

Rolex is easily the most ubiquitous name in luxury watches, but actually being able to buy one has become a surprisingly difficult task. No matter where you are in the world, every single one of the brand’s own authorized retailers and boutiques seems to be perpetually sold out of nearly every model, and the dreaded “waitlist” for Rolex’s most popular watches can often be multiple years long — and that’s assuming you even get the opportunity to buy the model you want before it ultimately ends up getting discontinued.

Having said all that, you’re probably asking yourself why you still frequently see Rolexes on people’s wrists and the brand’s stores all over the place (even if they don’t actually have anything available to sell to you). Or why you hear the unofficial estimates that Rolex likely produces approximately a million watches per year, and yet somehow you still can’t seem to find a single stainless steel sports model available for sale at a retail level. So, why exactly are Rolex watches so hard to buy?

The World's Most Famous Watch Brand

A Concise Catalog of Iconic Models

A Relatively Fixed Supply of Watches

A Perpetually Thriving Secondary Market

Transcended watchmaking to become a fixture of pop culture, the Rolex coronet is universally recognized as a mark of quality and precision.

The World’s Most Famous Watch Brand 

Simply put, Rolex is the single most famous watch brand in the entire world. Even outside the watch industry, it still ranks among the most well-known, and holds a level of global recognition similar to companies like Google, Apple, or McDonald’s. Regardless of whether or not someone is a watch enthusiast, if you ask them to name three watch brands, Rolex is almost guaranteed to be among them every single time.

Not only does this make Rolex the de facto choice for the average person who is interested in buying themselves a finely crafted luxury watch, it also means that a Rolex is ultimately far more of a universally recognized status symbol than many luxury watches occupying significantly higher price points. Your neighbor may have never heard of some of the industry greats like Roger W. Smith or Philippe Dufour, and they may mistake a Richard Mille for a G-Shock, but they’re virtually guaranteed to recognize something like a Rolex President or a Submariner. No other luxury timepiece manufacturer lets you flex harder for the price, and this makes Rolex incredibly desirable to those whose primary objective is to wear a highly recognizable luxury watch. 

Rolex's most celebrated models have remained fixtures of the catalog since their introduction.

A Concise Catalog of Iconic Models 

The fact that Rolex is the world’s most famous luxury timepiece manufacturer is only one part of the reason why the brand’s watches have become virtually impossible to buy at a retail level. Compared to many other big-name luxury watch manufacturers with lineups spanning hundreds of different models, Rolex has a fairly concise catalog that’s packed full of iconic watches, which ultimately means that the overwhelming number of buyers interested in a Rolex are all more or less trying to purchase the exact same handful of models. 

For example, everyone wants the classic all-black stainless steel Rolex Submariner. The watch is a true icon from the world of horology, and was even worn by James Bond in many of the original films. But Rolex only makes the Submariner in a single size, and while you do have the option of whether or not you want a date display, this legendary staple of Rolex’s catalog only exists as two models. Similarly, the stainless steel Daytona is another favorite, as the Rolex of choice for legendary Hollywood actor and race car driver Paul Newman. But within the brand’s current catalog, the stainless steel Rolex Daytona exists only as a single reference number, and while the model is offered with the option of either a black or white dial, all prospective buyers are essentially trying to buy the exact same watch. On top of that, Rolex doesn’t just have one or two popular models — a significant portion of its fairly concise catalog consists entirely of internationally recognizable horology icons, which creates an overwhelming demand for watches that reverberates throughout the rest of the brand’s catalog.

A rare look inside Rolex's movement production facility in Bienne, Switzerland.

A Relatively Fixed Supply of Watches

Unlike manufacturers of other types of products that can readily ramp up production in order to have the supply meet increases in demand, the nature of Rolex’s vertically integrated production system and the brand’s commitment to doing nearly everything in-house means that production simply cannot be rapidly increased without compromising quality. Rolex has an incredible amount of resources at its disposal and can easily purchase more machines or raw materials, but well-trained humans are also an inherent part of the brand’s overall production process, and assembling the expert staff necessary to significantly increase production simply takes time.

To be fair, Rolex actually is ramping up its overall output. Each year, the brand manufactures more watches than the previous one. However, the increases in production are virtually negligible compared to the colossal increase in demand that’s occurred over the course of the last decade. On top of that, while total output is increasing, the brand’s entire catalog is growing proportionally, meaning the actual number of additional new stainless steel Daytona watches produced each year will be fairly minimal, given that the model is just one reference number within the greater Daytona collection, which itself spans multiple different metal options, dial colors, bezel materials, and bracelet configurations.

A testament to the strength of Rolex's secondary market, the stainless steel Daytona has traded above retail for decades.

A Perpetually Thriving Secondary Market 

The final piece of the puzzle that explains why it's so hard to buy a Rolex at retail actually has nothing to do with retail supply or availability at all — it’s entirely due to a vibrant and thriving secondary market. Luxury watches can often be seen as commodities, and the shortage of Rolex watches at a retail level has ultimately resulted in their open market prices increasing to the point where they can sometimes be worth multiple times their original brand-new retail prices. It’s not uncommon for a model that Rolex sells for around $10k to fetch nearly twice that price (or more) on the open market, and when there is that much money to be made by simply buying a watch and turning around and selling it, the demand for Rolex only increases further, as people who aren’t even interested in watches now want to buy one, simply because they know there’s serious money to be made by purchasing it at the right price and selling it for a profit.

Lastly, largely due to the huge global demand for Rolex watches, virtually all of the brand’s models enjoy a level of liquidity on the secondary market that is completely unrivaled within the industry. Outside of the investment side of things and the people who buy Rolex watches as financial assets, many watch collectors and enthusiasts see buying a Rolex as a fairly safe purchase simply because they can almost always sell it relatively easily if their tastes ever change, regardless of whether or not they end up making or losing a little bit of money in the process. With demand far exceeding supply, there was always guaranteed to be some degree of a retail shortage, and when you factor in a thriving secondary market adding fuel to the fire, it's easy to see how the world’s single most famous luxury watch brand suddenly becomes near-impossible to buy at a retail level.

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