At this year’s Baselworld, Rolex was all about yachting. If you will excuse the pun, the brand’s flagship model for 2019 is the Yacht-Master 42 (£21,400) – a handsome white-gold watch that, as the name suggests, features a 42mm-diameter case, black ceramic bezel and what looks like a rubber bracelet, but which is made from flexible metal blades overmoulded with elastomer that is called “Oysterflex” in Rolexese.
Described as a useful, reliable nautical instrument, the Yacht-Master 42 was made in response to requests from sailors for a slightly larger watch with slightly larger luminous indices (a yacht battling squally seas on the Fastnet or the Sydney Hobart is not the place for a small, penny-thin dress watch). It features the latest calibre 3235, the new-generation 70-hour power-reserve movement making its debut in a Yacht-Master. The bi-directional 60-minute bezel can be used to enable calculation of sailing time between navigation marks, as well as timing how long it takes to perform such tasks as reefing or changing sails. The launch of the Yacht-Master 42 inspired the nautical theme of the brand’s annual Baselworld party, and it provided an occasion to become reacquainted with Rolex’s maritime past: Francis Chichester’s Rolex was among the treasures on display.
What makes the Yacht-Master significant is that it is one of very few ranges launched by Rolex after the death of founder Hans Wilsdorf in 1960: Daytona in 1963, Sky-Dweller in 2012 and Yacht-Master in 1992. When it appeared almost 30 years ago it made the benchmark marine watch, Rolex’s Submariner, look its age. Launched in 18ct gold and featuring an etched solid bezel, it was, like the best yachts, sleek and plutocratic. The range majored on precious metals and even the “bi-colour” was exotic. One of my favourites was the 1999 Yacht-Master in steel and platinum – known in Rolex speak as “Rolesium”.
All the same, a cynic might question the excitement surrounding a watch that offered a different colour of gold and enlarged the case by 2mm compared to the rose-gold Yacht-Master 40 (a favourite of the ever-elegant Tim Jefferies). It certainly left the headline writers struggling, with one website gamely doing its best with the highly sensational “Rolex’s Yacht-Master is 2mm Bigger, and It’s a Big Difference”.
The thing is, in the world of Rolex, 2mm and a change in metal add up to a big difference. Take the relaunch last year of the steel GMT “Pepsi” on a Jubilee bracelet. With its red and blue bezel, it is recognisable as the watch it was in 1955, and the Jubilee bracelet is essentially the same as on its introduction in 1945. But for a few years the red and blue bezel had only been available on the white-gold watch, so its return in steel and on a different bracelet sparked the sort of hysteria more usually associated with young teenage fans mobbing a boy band. The result is that the new Pepsi GMT (£7,150) is trading for twice its retail price on the secondary market.
Now, I do not expect quite the same frenzy to accompany the arrival of the Yacht-Master 42, but it is sure to be an It-watch this summer. The genuine passion these watches arouse helps one understand Rolex, and the more one understands Rolex, the more one realises what there is to understand. Those additional 2mm on a watch case’s diameter are the tea-moistened madeleine crumbs on the palate of the narrator in Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, a tiny detail that summons up an entire world of human endeavour.
While the watches themselves are defined by developments and changes that are largely forensic, the impact of Rolex when it takes up a sport is seismic. Whether tennis grand slams or golf majors, Rolex takes it upon itself to “own” as much as possible of the top end of the sport, both players and tournaments. As in golf and tennis, so in sailing: Rolex is the chief sponsor of the Sydney-Hobart, the Fastnet and 13 other major races and regattas around the world. Wherever there is a stretch of open sea, chances are there is a Rolex sailing competition nearby, be it between Hong Kong and Manila or around Sicily. Even on land there is no escaping Rolex’s sailing links – it is partner of a dozen yacht clubs: as prestigious as the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes and as ritzy as the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda. Moreover, its first official link to yachting was with the New York Yacht Club in 1958.
And so, in this the year of the Yacht-Master 42, Rolex also announced that it would be the official timepiece of SailGP, a brand new series of races taking place in Sydney, San Francisco, New York, Cowes and Marseille. SailGP is intended to exploit the excitement of the relatively recently developed technique of foiling, where the hull or hulls lift out of the water to increase speed.
Am I especially interested in “foiling”? No.
Can I tell a mainbrace from mainsheet? Need you ask?
Would I wear the Yacht-Master 42? In a heartbeat. And there are plenty who share my enthusiasm, but actually have the means to afford one. It is a genuinely elegant sports watch and I have already had enquiries from friends, none of them to my knowledge a keen sailor, but all keen to strap the Yacht-Master 42 to their wrists this summer. You don’t have to be a yachtsman to recognise the cut of the jib of a good watch when you see one.