January 26, 2023
by David Bredan
The Rolex Yacht-Master 40 watch reference 126679SABR is one of the more exotic modern Rolex watches that the company rarely feels inclined to communicate about. These all get sold, anyway, and it could be argued that watches like this might very well confuse the image that at least some in the target demographic have of Rolex — even if there’s no doubt these gem-set, limited-production pieces are proper Rolex watches through and through.
It’s probably best that we kick things off by addressing the elephant in the room. Priced at just around $80,000 USD, this Rolex Yacht-Master 126679SABR is over $50,000 more expensive than a run-of-the-mill solid-gold Yacht-Master 40 presented on the same Oysterflex rubber strap with the same “intense black” dial and the same 70-hour power reserve Rolex Calibre 3235 self-winding movement. That’s $50,000 for a gem-set bezel, four diamond-set lugs, and two diamond-set crown guards. I’m sure we could all put together a long list of epic watches that offered more horological wow factor for those 50, let alone 80 large ones. From a solid-gold Lange Zeitwerk to a Ulysse Nardin Moonstruck to another one of my all-time personal favorites, the Breguet Tradition Chronograph Indépendant 7077 (hands-on here), it boggles the mind how much unfiltered watchmaking greatness one can attain for $80,000.
And yet, the ultimate question remains: What entertains more? The calculated accuracy with which tiny wheels mesh to power complicated displays or a tiny row of blatantly superfluous little stones that so clearly serve no other purpose than to amaze, impress, and communicate one’s wealth and status? One thing is for sure: Only a small minority of watch enthusiasts tend to claim they got into watches because of such haute joaillerie watches, and that puts these high-jewelry pieces at a disadvantage when it comes to garnering their appeal and approval.
Maybe among the reasons why these gem-set watches are under-appreciated by so many is that watchmakers rarely dedicate effort to show the watch enthusiast community what makes these pieces so difficult to make. Or maybe it’s that lavishly gem-set pieces tend to get less attention in watch media because they are hard to come by and are rarely met with the same enthusiasm as similarly priced mechanically complicated watches.
That is a shame, really, because to prepare, assemble, and finish such a bezel and case takes no less expertise, dexterity, patience, and mastery of one’s craft than it takes to finish the beveled edges on a bridge and assemble a relatively complex mechanical movement. Just as the gears and pinions have to be carefully adjusted for them all to mesh and sit flush between the plate and the bridge inside a caliber, the room for error when fitting the stones in these bezels and cases is just as punishingly small.
Whereas mechanical movements are judged by the refinement of their finish — such as their hand-applied, polished, beveled edges called anglage — and the accuracy and poise with which the movement and its displays operate, gem-set watches have their own set of criteria by which the best can be differentiated from the mediocre. One such defining characteristic is the quality of the setting, more specifically that all stones — 40 trapeze-cut sapphires and diamonds, and a triangle-cut diamond as the zero marker on the 126679SABR— are perfectly flush and level. In practice, this means that as one is looking down at the watch and is gently moving it around, the top facet (also known as the “table”) of each component lights up in a flat, white reflection in perfect succession. If any one of the stones were set at an angle ever-so-slightly off, it would forever be visible under every lighting condition.
Whereas the myth of diamond scarcity is more or less busted, manufacturers can still claim that the high-quality colored stones such as sapphires and emeralds used in these watches remain challenging to source and work with. You see, each stone only shows its true color after it’s been pre-cut, and so only gems pre-cut and pre-selected for their particular hue can then be cut to the exact specification. It takes a large batch and a great deal of effort to sort these stones by color, and then high levels of dexterity to carefully set them without damaging any one of the pre-selected stones. Rolex has its own in-house gemmology department where it checks and works with all the precious and semi-precious stones used in its watches and compares the stones against certified master stones. Rolex admits to using “specialist tools, including some that are specially designed by the brand” to insure the quality and uniformity of its stones.
Once the stones have been selected, each needs to be cut within tolerances barely larger than those used for the fabrication of movement parts — we are talking about two-hundredths of a millimeter here, which is around a quarter of the diameter of a human hair. That’s the wiggle room when cutting each stone by hand. This goes in tandem with the precision of the bezel and its cavity milled to accommodate the stones. Why such precision? Because without it a bezel like this couldn’t be completed as the last stone to be set simply wouldn’t fit. What you see here is referred to as channel setting, more rarely as “baguette setting,” where the stones are held in between two metal rails from above and below and are stacked side-by-side up against each other. As is so often the case with some of the most challenging tasks, the end result looks deceivingly simple, easy, and straightforward.
The work begins with a hollowed-out bezel in 18k gold, and the first stone in a row of 41 is set. The stone is gently placed in the groove and its flushness against the top and bottom rail is checked. If it is too high — which is the only thing it can be, to give room for fine adjustment — the gem-setter will adjust the cavity with a graver. Rolex claims this set-remove-adjust process is repeated three times, on average, with each stone, until the table of the gem is perfectly aligned with the bezel. Then the rest of the stones are set, removed, adjusted, and set again, to align the level and the angle of their table with the stone that has come before them. The same basic truth applies here as does with case finishing: Material that’s once been removed cannot be put back, therefore the process of this fine adjustment is a one-way street on which one is to proceed with utmost caution.
Admittedly, there is an abundance of poorly made gem-set watches out there that have certainly affected the reputation of high-end, beautifully made OEM products. Thankfully, we are yet to see poorly applied aftermarket anglage on luxury watch movements. Likewise, it’s difficult to withdraw from the equation the fact that such lavishly decorated luxury wristwatches are often viewed as something that was purchased not for the merits of their craftsmanship but rather for their uncompromised ability to promote one’s status and do so from a mile away.
All this and, again, a lack of frequent and in-depth communication by the brands, have created a strong headwind for gem-set watches and it is understandable why some choose to stay away from this category of fine watches in an attempt not to be associated with the blatant flaunting of the nouveau riche. However, underneath it all lies a watch that has taken some highly qualified craftspeople a very long time to make and to make consistently well. Nothing indicates that said headwind will die down anytime soon, but, to close on a positive note, that probably won’t suffice to make these fun-to-wear and admirable exercises in watchmaking go away.
Rolex has chosen to take the highly manual crafts of gemology and gem-setting and try to integrate them within the Rolex universe of standardized quality across high production volumes. That is an extremely rare, if not singular exercise in modern watchmaking that resulted in a host of challenges and spectacular, albeit mighty expensive timepieces. Price for the Rolex Yacht-Master 40 126679SABR is 76,600 Swiss Francs, or around $82,000 USD. You can learn more at the brand’s website.