In this special HODINKEE feature of Inside The Manufacture, I will recount a four day experience that completely changed my perspective on the world's most important watch maker – the time that I got to spend inside all four of Rolex's actual production facilities in Switzerland. I had many ideas of what I would see, and while some were accurate, others could not have been further from the truth. Below, you'll hear and see what it is like to go inside Rolex in a way that few have, or will ever get to experience. This is inside Rolex, like you've never seen it before. ... Rolex is one of the few watch manufactures that has two completely separate but totally equal strengths – an amazing history of innovation (truly – like, not one bought with naming rights), and world-class manufacturing capabilities today.
China may soon be the world’s biggest producer of wine. In his father’s hometown, a prominent architect — and unlikely winemaker — sees a new Napa. ... When Ma Qingyun visits Yushan, a rural town an hour outside of Xi’an, in China’s Shaanxi province, he travels in a chauffeured black Mercedes-Benz. His car speeds eastward along the newly paved roads ... “How about we chug the first glass?” Frank Fu, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist, suggests, holding up his full wineglass and looking around. Laughs ripple among Ma’s guests, unsure if the suggestion is serious. Ma nods and laughs. “Sure!” Fu clinks glasses with his neighbors before tilting his head back and downing the wine. A few of the other guests join in. ... Baijiu is still the most popular alcohol in China (and accounts for about 38 percent of worldwide alcohol consumption), but the past few decades have seen a rapid expansion of the country’s wine market. China is now the fifth-largest wine-producing nation in the world, and it nearly tripled its consumption of red wine between 2008 and 2013, becoming the world’s largest consumer of the beverage. But old drinking habits linger, and Ma has acquired a benevolent patience with potential buyers who swig his painstakingly crafted pinots as if they were baijiu.
I wondered whether a diamond grown in a lab could carry the same emotional weight as the real thing, without the guilt. And really, if it was identical to a natural diamond down to every last atom, as Roscheisen swore it was, what does it even mean to be the real thing? ... A carbon atom has four electrons in the shell around its nucleus—four little guys just looking to bond with electrons of other atoms. If four of those electrons form single bonds with, say, four hydrogen atoms, you’ll get CH4, methane. If the carbon atoms bond with more carbon atoms in a layered, chicken-wire pattern, you’ll have graphite—just one of many forms of pure carbon. ... So when you think about it, diamonds are a life force in its mightiest form: The densest, hardest, strongest expression of carbon, the element underlying all of life on earth. ... As scientific knowledge goes, our understanding of the conditions that cause carbon to bond this way, or exactly how long it takes, is limited. That’s because it occurs over 100 miles inside the planet, at extreme temperatures and pressures. Many of the world’s diamonds were formed billions of years ago, and scientists don’t know exactly how those carbon atoms got down there inside the mantle to begin with.
American Grown, which has exclusive rights to buy diamonds from several undisclosed labs in the US, started selling synthetics (a scientific term loathed by the lab-grown industry, but routinely used in the greater jewelry world) a little over three years ago and now wholesales stones to some 250 stores around the country. ... Though lab-growns have been around for a while, it was only recently that the science of creating colorless, nearly flawless diamonds was finally perfected. ... With technology advancing, and with younger shoppers drawn to synthetic options, the question of whether or not lab-grown diamonds will invade the market is now a matter of when, not if. ... the stones first gained commercial popularity in India, where diamond trading began as early as the 4th century BC. During the Middle Ages, caravans that unearthed diamonds in India's rivers traded them with Western Europe, where they became coveted by the upper class. The world's diamond capital moved from India to Brazil in the 1700s, and then to South Africa, when a giant diamond mine was discovered in the city of Kimberley in 1866. In 1888, British businessman Cecil Rhodes established his mining company, De Beers, in the country, and effectively founded the diamond industry as we now know it. ... A century before this, however, scientists began their quest to make diamonds in a lab. Ignited by Antoine Lavoisier's discovery that diamonds were merely a crystalline form of carbon, the result of pressure deep within the earth, in the late 1700s, little progress was made for nearly 200 years. ... Then came General Electric. Physical chemist H.Tracy Hall joined its "Project Superpressure," and in 1954, after nearly four years of synthetic diamond experimentation, Hall lead his team to a breakthrough. They were able to create small diamonds after heating carbon to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit and applying extreme pressure with a heavy hydraulic press — a method referred to as high pressure and temperature, or HPHT.
Steinway, one of the world’s most prestigious musical instrument brands, is looking to China to breathe new life into lackluster sales. To succeed, the company will need more than smart marketing. It will need to fine-tune a cultural mind-set in a country that once dismissed pianos as bourgeois luxuries. ... Steinway dealers have to convince their wealthier clientele that the instruments make good investments, avoiding the overly aggressive sales tactics that tripped up some early efforts. They have to educate parents about the potential payoff of buying a piano that can cost as much as an apartment. And they need to woo music students who are increasingly turning to lower-cost keyboards and so-called smart pianos, which use lights, iPads and other technical tools to teach basic skills. ... The company, known for its painstaking craftsmanship, has grudgingly entered the digital game. ... Founded in 1853 in a Manhattan loft by a German immigrant, Steinway flourished for generations by selling high-end pianos, each crafted by hand from materials like Sitka spruce and cast iron, in the United States and Europe. But the company has suffered as piano playing wanes in the West. Music schools and concert halls have cut back on orders. Piano stores have closed. ... By some estimates, the country has as many as 40 million piano students, compared with six million in the United States. ... As it pushes to remake the country into a cultural superpower, the Chinese government has encouraged students to take up the piano by building concert halls and investing in music education. Among the country’s wealthiest families, the arts have become a source of spiritual fulfillment and a status symbol. In rich coastal cities, real estate scions and technology executives are buying Steinway pianos — some outfitted with diamonds and wood from Africa and India — to complement collections of Porsches and Picassos.
One of the biggest players in the fine wine market, Premier Cru had $20 million in annual revenue in the mid-to-late 2000s. ... wines were being offered on “pre-arrival,” defined on the company’s website as “wines we have purchased (typically abroad) that have not yet arrived. Depending on the particular wine, the arrival time is typically 6+ months to over two years.” ... This practice isn’t that unusual. Pre-arrival is a way for collectors to lock in allocations of highly sought-after bottles that might sell out—and often on favorable terms. To many clients, this arrangement had another advantage. Premier Cru sold mostly young wines; rather than having to age them in their own cellars, buyers were happy to let Premier Cru hold on to them. Better yet, its owner, John Fox, never charged for storage. ... Fox promised clients access to these nuanced beauties through a gray market. This means buying from brokers and other secondary merchants, mainly in Europe, as opposed to working with official importers. Although it’s legal in California, the gray market has its share of shady operators. Poor storage and handling is a common problem. The discounted bottles that Fox obtained, though, were always pristine, according to the four clients interviewed for this story. The trade-off was that Premier Cru was slower to deliver. Other gray-market retailers usually kept customers waiting no more than four to six months; with Premier Cru, the waits ran to years. ... Fox, it would be revealed, easily bilked wealthy bankers, experts who’d amassed fortunes reading the market, of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He led less wealthy oenophiles into deluding themselves they’d found a too-good-to-be-true source. And Fox, now 66, managed a remarkable juggling act for more than 20 years, all while fitting into his complex financial contortions a series of twentysomething girlfriends he found and paid online. In the end, he owed former clients $45 million.
For eight days each year, Basel becomes the centre of the watch universe. The fair’s organisers claimed 150,000 paying visitors and 1,800 brands spread over 141,000 square metres of exhibition space. Admission cost 60 Swiss francs a day (almost £50) ... The show was a celebration of our mastery of timekeeping, and of the refinement and years of training that go into making objects of beauty and accuracy. But it was also a celebration of excess and superfluousness, of watches that exist merely because they can, like animal acts at a circus. ... These days, no one requires a Swiss watch to tell the time – or a watch from any country. The time displayed on our mobile phones and other digital devices will always be more accurate than the time displayed on even the most skilfully engineered mechanical watch, yet the industry has a visual presence in our lives like few others. The storefronts of the world’s big-money boulevards glow with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and magazines appear to be kept in business largely by watch adverts; airports would be empty shells without them. The export value of the Swiss watch trade fell by 3.3% last year, due primarily to a downfall in demand from the east Asia. But it is up 62.9% compared with six years ago. In 2015 the world bought 28.1m Swiss watches valued at 21.5 billion Swiss francs. ... the most complicated limited-edition watches sell for £1m or more. These watches have a waiting list, as the world only contains so many squinting master craftsmen who can make them, and even they haven’t found a way to extend the day beyond 24 hours. ... Exclusivity is a key to desirability. ... In 2014, the Swiss exported 29m watches. This was only 1.7% of all watches bought globally, but 58% of their value. ... To classify as Swiss Made, a watch must a) have a Swiss movement (that is, the basic mechanism consisting of cogs and springs that make the watch tick) b) have this movement incorporated in a case that is made within Switzerland and c) be checked and certified in Switzerland.