How to buy a Rolex, according experts

The simple guide to getting your hands on the ultimate grail watch
How to buy a Rolex according experts

Anyone keen on buying a Rolex who has stepped into a retailer lately believing they might be able to walk out with a brand new watch is likely to have discovered that they might as well have asked for a dodo egg.

The watches on display are almost invariably marked ‘for exhibition only,’ and instead of being able to hand over your cash and leave with your dream timepiece – as you might well have been able to do as little as five years ago – you’ll probably just be marked down as another person showing ‘an expression of interest’. So, armed raid aside, how do you go about actually getting your hands on a Rolex? Allow us to help.

The legendary Rolex waiting list

‘An expression of interest' is Rolex-speak for being put on a waiting list. And by the time your name gets somewhere near the top (if it ever does) you’ll probably be a good deal older than you are now. But while the situation has been frustrating for anyone coveting a brand-new Rolex, it has provided a turbo boost to sellers of pre-owned and vintage models.

David Silver, whose father John founded London’s Vintage Watch Company more than 25 years ago, has observed first-hand how some buyers have simply resigned themselves to the idea that they won’t be able to buy new and have instead decided to take their cash to him.

The Burlington Arcade boutique maintains a stock of around 2,000 Rolex watches – any one of which is available to buy on the spot. “The ‘expression of interest’ situation at Rolex has certainly helped our business,” he says.

“Many people feel it is never-never list in as much as they will never reach the top, and Rolex does seem to have adopted a profile-based process similar to that operated by other luxury brands such as Hermès and Chanel.

“In other words, you're very unlikely to get much unless you have already spent heavily with the retailer in question, be that on other watches or on jewellery.”

Silver says one of the ‘charms’ of Rolex used to be its combination of quality and accessibility – but due to increased demand, the latter is now hard to honour.

Marking a big occasion

“There was always a bit of a wait for the status pieces such as steel Daytonas and so on, but if you wanted anything from the regular range you used to be able to get hold of it pretty easily.

“Now that has changed, we have adapted our vintage offerings from being 30-plus years old to 20-plus," Silver adds. "A lot of customers are also coming to us looking for birth year watches to give their sons or daughters as 18th or 21st birthday gifts."

Silver says the recent move to smaller watches has also helped the business, with men once again being happy with the 36mm cases of many Rolex Oyster models of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

Pre-owned is the way forward

The entry-level price for a men’s Rolex at the Vintage Watch Company is between £5,000 and £6,000, which will get you a steel Oyster Perpetual with a silver, black or blue-grey dial.

Another long-established dealer, Charles Fish – whose eponymous firm operates three boutiques in Essex – concurs with Silver both about the difficulty of buying a Rolex brand new and the fact that it has been good news for pre-owned retailers.

“If you have an existing relationship with an authorised Rolex retailer, great – but the average Joe walking into a Rolex store off the street to buy a dream watch doesn’t have much chance,” says Fish. Although the situation has bumped-up demand for pre-owned and vintage Rolex models across the board, he believes there are still some that are under-valued.

“The Reference 116600 Sea-Dweller had probably the shortest production run of any modern Rolex – only three years – and is currently obtainable for £14,000-£15,000,” says Fish.

“But when more people realise how good it is, I think the price will start to fly.”

He also recommends the reference 16570 Explorer-II from the final years of production when it was fitted with the Calibre 3186 movement.

“If you look at its GMT-Master cousin, which has the same movement, you’ll see pieces are around the £14,000-£15,000 mark. A good Explorer-II 16570 can be bought for £8,500-£9,000.”

Find yourself a dealer

Rolex watches sold through reputable dealers such as Silver and Fish will usually cost more than equivalent models available at auction – but the often relatively small amount extra you’ll end up paying will be well worth it for the peace of mind that comes in return. You’ll be getting a genuine Rolex in full working order and, very likely, with a host of paperwork and a warranty.

If you want to chance your arm at auction, however, you won’t find another watch brand that crosses the block more often than Rolex – and, provided you take the time to trawl through the online catalogues of some of the smaller, regional houses (such as Fellows, Watches of Knightsbridge, Noonans, Dreweatts or Gardiner Houlgate) there are bargains to be had.

Remember, though, that it’s a case of ‘caveat emptor’. At any auction, the onus is on the buyer to satisfy him or herself with what they are bidding on, and there’s little scope for comebacks. But at least if you do stick up your hand to ‘express an interest’ you should only have to wait a matter of minutes until it’s clipping on the Rolex of your dreams.