Last year was a big one for Tudor, rocking up to Baselworld with armfuls of new and updated models, including their very first GMT watch, which managed to steal a few headlines from a certain Pepsi-bezel favorite from you-know-who. The new Tudor watches marked a continuation of the progress the brand has made in recent years, towards stepping out of the shadows of its illustrious parent company. What’s more, it has reignited the age-old Rolex vs. Tudor question that has existed for decades.
While the Tudor Black Bay GMT received the bulk of the attention, the Black Bay Fifty-Eight was another watch that generated a lot of excitement from consumers.
Rolex vs. Tudor: Which is Better?
Back in the day, there was an easy answer. Tudor was listed as a trade name by Hans Wilsdorf in 1926, as he attempted to set up a more affordable alternative to the premium arm of his watchmaking empire. The Rolex founder had been trying to start a viable sub-brand for years, establishing and quickly abandoning names such as Falcon, Genex, Lexis, Marconi, and Unicorn.
Tudor succeeded where the others failed for one reason – Wilsdorf allowed them to be promoted as an actual Rolex product, while he had stubbornly kept the previous brands as separate entities. This meant that the lower priced watches could be sold by Rolex’s network of authorized dealers, but the idea behind them all was the same; a Rolex watch for less than money than a Rolex. Or, as the delightfully condescending advertising of the time put it, they were made for ‘the man whose purse may be modest, yet whose aspirations are high.’
By 1946, Wilsdorf decided to cut Tudor free to operate on its own, registering the company as Montres Tudor S.A, a joint stock business with all the shares owned by Rolex. The sanctioned use of Rolex’s patented Oyster case was the signal for Tudor to flourish, and the brand created more accessible versions of Rolex’s product lines such as the Oyster and Prince series’ and, of course, the Tudor Submariner ref. 7922, released just one year after Rolex’s first Submariner.
The red line of text on the dial of the reference 126600 Sea-Dweller is about as close to “vintage-inspired” as you will get with Rolex.
The biggest difference until very recently, and the main reason for the gulf in price between the two brands, has always been Tudor’s use of third-party movements. Buying calibers, largely from Swiss ébauche manufactures ETA or Valjoux, is cheaper than developing and building all your engines in-house as Rolex has long strived to do.
It is no secret that Rolex makes some of the finest mechanical movements of any manufacturer, and that prowess is reflected in the cost of its products. By comparison, Tudor’s calibers – being supplied from outside – has always lost the brand something in terms of bragging rights, keeping it out of the very top tier among collectors.
What’s more, it is the actual price of Rolex watches that have made them more desirable. Wearing a Rolex says that you can afford one, and with the name being synonymous with expensive luxury, you are tacitly displaying a hint at your net worth on your wrist. For some, the lower cost of a Tudor states that you really wanted a Rolex but couldn’t quite stretch to it – much in the same way that Porsche Boxster drivers probably actually wanted the 911.
However, since Tudor’s reappearance in the industry following their mauling by the quartz crisis, that perception has started to dissipate in a big way. They returned in 2010 with their nostalgia-heavy Heritage line, kicking off with the Chrono and expanding into the Pelagos and Black Bay collections.
Constructed from titanium, the Tudor Pelagos is a thoroughly modern watch that draws design inspiration from Tudor’s past.
Now, rather than being seen as the poor man’s Rolex, Tudor has forged its own identity, as a manufacturer not afraid to experiment with its designs and radical color schemes. Additionally, many of Tudor’s contemporary offerings are vintage-inspired “Heritage” pieces, while Rolex’s watch designs only move forward, and the company makes a point of rarely drawing any inspiration from its past. Tudor is suddenly the bold, refreshing choice against the staid conservatism of its big brother.
Furthermore, that old argument of the company having to be supplied with mechanisms from elsewhere no longer stands up. In 2015, two years after the firm returned to U.S. shores, Tudor launched their first ever in-house movement, the Cal. MT5621, inside the debut North Flag range, and they haven’t stopped there. That original homemade caliber has been repurposed across the portfolio, replacing many of the outsourced movements in other lines; and they have even created their own dedicated chronograph – not, as you might expect by building on Rolex’s Cal. 4130 from the Daytona, but instead by adopting Breitling’s impressive B01 from their Chronomat and Navitimer collections.
Ironically, Tudor has become what many purists wish Rolex still was: a manufacturer of fine tool watches, without any status symbol posturing, diamond accents, or precious metal finery.
The age-old question of Rolex vs. Tudor has existed for over half a century.
So…Tudor is Better Than Rolex?
No. Rolex was, and will most likely remain for the foreseeable future, the most important watch brand in the world. Without their countless innovations, the wristwatch as we know it probably wouldn’t exist, and they are still pioneering many of the developments that are shaping the industry today. Their catalog is bursting with iconic models that even those with no horological interest whatsoever can recognize at a glance, and their name is internationally associated with the best of the best.
But there is no doubt the gap between Rolex and Tudor is smaller than it has ever been. The once second-fiddle manufacturer is now one of the very few watchmakers who can realistically compete with the granddaddy of them all, as evidenced by how much Tudor has tried to distance themselves from their parent company. In the past, the brand played heavily on their connection to Rolex(understandable considering their global renown); however these days, they are no longer content with their ‘almost as good as’ reputation, and are working at being taken just as seriously.
Creating their own movements was the obvious final piece of the jigsaw, shrinking the divide even further. The build quality, engineering prowess, and craftsmanship that goes into a Tudor watch is practically identical to that which goes into a Rolex, the only disparity being Rolex’s use of 904L stainless steel, as opposed to the 316L steel that is used by Tudor (and pretty much everyone else).
Massive waitlists for certain Rolex models (like the Pepsi GMT) have added a twist to the classic question of Rolex vs. Tudor.
It is a bit too early to say whether or not their contemporary range will be able to hold their value equally well on the pre-owned market. Realistically, it is unlikely; however that being said, vintage Tudors have seen excellent growth within the last few years. Certain models, like the early Submariners we mentioned above, are getting close to their Rolex counterparts in price, and there is sometimes an added exclusivity factor with the Tudor examples.
In the end, the two brands manufacture some of the very best watches on the market in their respective price brackets. Rolex has an irreproachable history and a legacy that few other brands can touch. Tudor is the more adventurous, the more avant-garde, and their value for money is exceptional.
When it comes to Rolex vs. Tudor, as with many other comparisons in the watch collecting world, there is no definitive ‘best’ – but rather the one you prefer, based on personal preferences and budget. Whichever you decide to go for, you will be taking ownership of mechanical watchmaking at its finest.
So, Rolex vs. Tudor: which would you choose?