Tuesday, January 02, 2024

The Future at Rolex: Predictions for the Long, Long Term


Rolex Predictions for 2024

...and the Long Term

(Rolex and AI)

First, a review of my 2023 predictions. How did I do? I wrote the biggest factor of 2023 will depend on China's economy as it reopens post-Covid. 

That ended up being an accurate prediction; the luxury market continues to be tied to China's economy, the world’s second largest. As the China's economy fell short of expectations, even after it reopened post-Covid, so did the overall luxury-watch market which has been unable to reverse, by Jan. 1st, 2024, a two-year downward trend. 

More American companies are pulling away from China and focusing towards India, as I wrote here. Rolex should expect a boom there. 

I also wrote about Rolex's switch to a new generation of movements. “A few models remain,” I cautioned in my prediction pre-Watches and Wonders, and named the Milgauss, Cellini, Daytona, and Yacht-Master II. 

The verdict: The Milgauss and Cellini were both discontinued in 2023. The Daytona was updated with a new movement. I believe we will see a new Yacht-Master II in 2024; Rolex has recently filed a fascinating new patent for a new countdown chronograph movement (as pictured below). 

For 2024, I am predicting the secondary market will continue to soften as the Crown catches up with deliveries. Rolex has decided to set up temporary manufacturing sites, such as in Romont and Villaz-Saint-Pierre, which will be operational until the new facility in Bulle launches in 2029. 

But in the longer term, artificial intelligence will make its way into watchmaking — and not just in watch design or engineering but also online customer service. 

AI-driven digital assistants are quickly becoming pervasive while making their ways into our lives, for better or worse, and it's a matter of months, not years, until luxury brands like Rolex will embed machine-learning tools into their websites. I can picture an AI-driven digital assistant that will help me choose a model, but also check on availability, including CPO availability, at local boutiques. 

I've been writing about the brand since 2017, and I've enjoyed seeing the watchmaker increasingly embrace the internet. Rolex created a Twitter account in early 2012 but didn't tweet for the first time until Dec. 2018. 

Today Rolex’s high-quality, engaging content on social media appears almost daily. I predict Rolex in 2024 will be active on TikTok, the fastest growing platform with more than 1 billion active users that has outstripped Twitter and Snapchat.

On the web, Rolex says it currently assists retailers to increase visibility in search engines. It developed a so-called “Rolex e-corner” for retailers' websites that can be easily set up by copying and pasting source code provided by the brand. Rolex says it provides images, texts and technical specifications allowing retailers to personalize content relating to their points of sale. 

Rolex CEO Jean-Frédéric Dufour

For Jean-Frédéric Dufour, Rolex's CEO, the internet is a power to harness, something he has long believed. In a 2012 video I’ve unearthed, while Mr. Dufour was still head of Zenith, he touted digital technologies as being the future: “If you have a good site, a good Facebook page, and new media, you'll reach an amazing amount of people,” he said in French. “I truly think it is the communication tool of the future.” 

More recently, Rolex has been experimenting with online sales as part of its certified pre-owned program. The program, which started a year ago, allows official retailers to sell CPO Rolex watches online. 

2023 marked the first time I used artificial intelligence, and I suspect the same is true for a lot of people. I felt a bit like the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's famous novel. But instead of asking a downed aviator to “please draw me a sheep,” I asked ChatGPT to please “draw me the best looking Rolex ever.” I was excited — and also confused — by the results that formed on my screen 10 seconds later, as seen below. 

The power of machine learning which gathers terabytes’ worth of data across the world can be a tool for a watch designer; it can tell him or her in a few short seconds what is universally pleasing. I'm sure AI is learning from this blog as we speak.

I see a future where AI could potentially be a tool incorporated by watch brands. The design generated by AI can be a great inspiration, or canvas — definitely not the final product — for a design team. Machines and humans working side-by-side in a Rolex lab can create a new timepiece that I can only dream of. 

We will never truly eliminate human designers as they’re able to give us the Pepsi GMT, the Paul-Newman dial, the Kermit, the Tiffany-blue OP. In short, the unpredictable, the un-codable, the un-data-gatherable.
Check out the Rolex designs ChatGPT drew for me in just 10 seconds. While many details leave to be desired, the universally appealing design cues could be great canvas for designers at Rolex. I find the lighting on these pictures astounding. You can't help but love these watches — watches that do not exist; they’re the figment of a machine's “imagination.” 

We are at the beginning of a huge technology transition right now. This is an exciting and confusing time, full of uncertainty about how AI will shape the years ahead — but it’s still clearer than ever how AI can be used to improve not just designs but also horological innovations. 

Can AI help a brand design a perpetual calendar that is thin and accurate to -1/+1s a day? Or the most comfortable bracelet ever that lets the wearer forget he has a watch on? 

AI will make its way into watchmaking, like the internet did before that. If Rolex can be sued today for not selling watches online, an idea appalling just decades ago, it is difficult yet absolutely fascinating to imagine what Rolex will look like a decade from now. 

Even if 2024 will prove to be another challenging year for the watch industry, I can’t help but feel optimistic about the future when I think about how AI can be used to get game-changing technologies for better-designed and better-built watches than ever before.

Danny Crivello