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Coming Soon: My Review of Donzé's Rolex Book

This month, Horolonomics celebrates its fifth birthday. It's gone by quickly. I'm proud of what I've achieved with this blog and it has been rewarding enough, in multiple ways, that I foresee continuing it for a good while. I will likely post a retrospective and prospective in the near future.

But this post isn't about that. Instead, it is about another forthcoming post which will be ready soon(ish).
AI generated image of a stack of books.
I've decided to write a review of Pierre-Yves Donzé's book on Rolex entitled La Fabrique De L'Excellence (translation: The Manufacture of Excellence). I want to explain why I've decided to do this and give some sense for what the review is likely to conclude, at least partly.

In my mind, Donzé's book has three strikes against it, even before I've read it (it is in French, but thanks to technology I can handle the translation without difficulty). The first strike is a claim made on the back cover of the book, which translates as follows: "As curious as it may seem, Rolex, the world's leading watch brand for more than fifty years, had never been the subject of a book based on independent historical research." The copyright on Donzé's book dates the first edition to March, 2024.

I published my book in July of 2022 (and began writing it well before that). You can check my publication date yourself on Amazon. I am independent. I am not employed by Rolex or any other watch brand. I conducted historical research. I published my book before Donzé.

The second strike is an apparent lack of independent creativity in the design of Donzé's book cover. I wasn't even aware of this book's existence until a watch journalist contacted me about it. I was initially struck by similarities between the book's jacket and my own book cover. I thought it was perhaps coincidental, and it may be. Green and a coronet emblem are very likely choices for any book covering Rolex. But when I showed the cover to family members, they were floored by the similarities.

Just to serve as a sanity check, I did a little reading about mathematical measures of image similarity.
Side-by-side of book covers: mine on left, Donze's on right.
With a little help of Google's cloud Python service, chatGPT and Gemini (two AIs), I computed the Structural Similarity Index Measure for the two book covers. The SSIM ranges between -1, indicating images that are opposite, to 1 which indicates identical images. A value of zero indicates images that are unrelated. Our book covers scored a .471, which suggests that the two are roughly halway to identical. So my family's suspicions weren't exactly contradicted by this exercise. I present the side-by-side of the covers here and you can judge for yourself.

I was aware of these "curiosities" about Donzé's book for a number of months but I decided to let them slide. I figured maybe there were some simple explanations, like Donzé was not aware of my book, there was something lost in translation, and / or the cover similitude really was an unlikely coincidence. But then I listened to a podcast interview with Donzé, which contained the third strike. In the interview, he said "Rolex stopped talking about the product but started to talk about the users of Rolex: the users of Rolex are exceptionals [sic] they are men of power, they are good entrepreneurs, famous Sportsmen, excellent people and it changed completely the narrative of the brand ... and what is important also is that it's not Wilsdorf himself who invented that with the American [sic] because it was developed in the mid 60s when Wilsdorf was already dead but it's his successor Andre Heiniger CEO of Rox between 64 and early 90s, that worked closely with GWT [sic] in New York to develop this concept of exceptionality."

There are a number of problems when it comes to this characterization of Rolex marketing. First is the claim that Wilsdorf did not initiate the "exceptional person" advertising tactic. He did. In particular, on November 24, 1927, Rolex placed a full-page advertisement on the front page of the Daily Mail newspaper touting the achievement of an "exceptional person": Mercedes Gleitze. She swam accross the English Channel while wearing a Rolex. Wilsdorf was very much alive when this advertisement was placed. Further, even before the Gleitze ad, Rolex promoted their product alongside a famous actress of the era: Evelyn Laye. In that ad, an "exceptional person" wears a Rolex while submerging it in a goldfish bowl.

There are even more problems when it comes to Donzé's statement. As I detail in my book, the "exceptional person" strategy, which carried the internal corporate nickname "Great Names," was managed out of J. Walter Thompson's (JWT) London office in 1965, not New York (eventually, some of this work would migrate to New York, though). Further, I detail a fact in my book which suggests that the "exceptional person" advertising theme may have been driven by legal risks rather than any astute reckoning of a new marketing tactic. A 1965 JWT internal memo by Hracia Paniguian (the man who directed the Rolex marketing account in the early 1960s), cautioned his team about technical watchmaking claims in advertising because those claims caused trouble for Rolex and JWT in the past. When I wrote my book, I did not know details about that trouble.

Thankfully, one of my readers contacted me and educated me on the lawsuit filed by British watchmaker John Harwood against Rolex.
The Rolex "apology" advert, photo credit Rolexmagazine.com
Harwood is the widely acknowledged inventor of the selfwinding watch movement but, at some point, Rolex advertising suggested otherwise. Harwood sued and won. Rolex published the following apology on June 10, 1956 in The Sunday Express London newspaper as a result: "Mr. John Harwood of Harrow, Middlesex, was the inventor of the first self-winding wrist watch and we apologize for any injury to his feelings which may have been caused by our advertisement of 4th December, 1955, when the word 'rotor' was omitted." Having been burned by ads about technical details of watch design, Rolex and JWT would have perceived safety in ads about Rolex wearers. Paniguian's memo indicates that this dynamic was, in fact, in play.

I do promise to offer Donzé's book a fair chance in my upcoming review, although the concerns I raise here will make that a difficult task. Academics generally hold each other to a high standard when it comes to these types of issues. Years ago, I worked at an institution which demoted a colleague on the faculty due to ethical concerns over his published work (similar issues are also at play in more recent circumstances). Nevertheless, I hope I do learn new and accurate details from Donzé's book, please stay tuned.
My book on the history of Rolex marketing is now available on Amazon! It debuted as the #1 New Release in its category. You can find it here.

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