Rolex's new watches this year were expectedly reserved. But it's what Rolex didn't announce that's potentially one of the biggest moves from the brand in years, and it's been right under our noses for months: Quietly, the brand has placed a prototype of its first titanium watch ever on Olympic sailing champion Ben Ainslie, and even hawk-eyed Rolex fanatics only just noticed.
So, does Rolex make a titanium watch?
Specifically, Ainslie has been wearing a version of Rolex's 42mm Yacht Master in titanium since at least late 2020. It looks a lot like the Yacht Master 42 in white gold, but with some key differences: it's got a cleaner look, lacking a date window; it's fastened using a NATO-style velcro strap; and it's made from titanium with a matte finish. This is just a prototype watch — there's no guarantee that it'll be serially produced (or that any final model would have the same configuration), but it seems to suggest that Rolex is seriously considering a watch in titanium.
That would be a big move for the brand, but Rolex fans are also excited about the way such a watch is being "tested." It harkens back to the days when Rolex famously placed its dive watches on the wrists of COMEX divers, or on Jacques Piccard's submersible as it plumbed the Mariana Trench in 1960; or its Oyster case watch on Mercedes Gleitze's wrist as she swam across the English Channel in 1927. Those were the days when Rolex was all about tool watches meant for action.
The brand has since largely become so prestigious and swanky that many owners understandably avoid scratches. Currently available only in precious metals, the Yacht Master represents that image well — but it's interesting to imagine that a new version in matte titanium with a date-less, almost Mil-Sub look could represent a pivot. But why would Rolex want to produce a watch in titanium?
Why would Rolex produce a titanium watch?
Rolex certainly knows the merits of titanium as a watchmaking material, as so many brands and consumers do. We love it for its remarkable combination of strength and lightness that can make even a chunky tool watch significantly more comfortable on the wrist than if it were in stainless steel. It's not only tough and light but highly resistant to heat and magnetism, factors that are often harmful to mechanical timekeeping. (It's also known to be hypoallergenic.) And of course, sailing is a sport that requires perfect weight balances to maintain cutting edge speed.
Why wouldn't Rolex produce a titanium watch?
What you can be sure of is that if Rolex is going to do something like make a watch in titanium, it's going to do it carefully, do it right and do it better than everyone else. Despite that titanium is all-around a more premium material than steel, the brand is also certainly aware that some customers will equate weight with value and find titanium to not feel as "expensive," but if anyone can change that perception, it's Rolex. (Though this would be the brand's first time producing a full watch case in titanium, it's used the material for the Sea-Dweller's case back.)
Titanium can also be difficult to work with due to its hardness and because it doesn't quite take a shine like other metals. In recent years, however, watch brands have improved on techniques to finish and treat titanium to avoid oxidation that makes the material look dull and easily scratched. (It's actually the oxidized layer that's scratched rather than the underlying metal.) In fact, titanium that's been well finished and treated can have a unique and interesting luster all its own. It would be awesome to see how Rolex can improve on this.
Is this a production model?
For now, Rolex acknowledges that the prototype watch exists but isn't commenting any further. Sir Ben Ainslie says, “The team at Rolex has been incredibly thoughtful by giving me a titanium Yacht-Master 42. I’m extremely honoured to have it, plus, from a performance perspective, every little bit of weight that we can save, helps us to go faster with the boat.”