Rolex Submariner vs Tudor Black Bay
The Rolex Submariner needs no introduction. It's the design people sketch if asked to draw a watch. It's made by the most valuable watch brand in the world. Today, a non-date Submariner retails at £5,450, not an inconsiderable amount. But there's something else that catches the eye, something very similar: the Tudor Heritage Black Bay. At £2,630, it's less than half the price of the Rolex. It also, since 2016, has a manufacturer movement. The question is: is it better than a Rolex Submariner?
Watch our video review of the Rolex Submariner 114060 vs Tudor Heritage Black Bay 79230N
There's a common misconception that Tudor is some kind of cut-price Rolex cover band. While the brand is substantially cheaper, its ties to Rolex are more than skin deep. It was founded in 1946 by Hans Wilsdorf, and that name may be familiar to you; that's because Hans Wilsdorf founded Rolex some 41 years earlier. With Rolex established as his flagship brand, Wilsdorf wanted to pitch something a little cheaper to cast a wider net. He experimented with brand names like Marconi, Royal and even his own name. His obsession with all things British helped him come to a conclusion.
And there was no sales spiel; this really was an affordable alternative, as pitched by Wilsdorf himself. In a 1952 full-page newspaper advert, he declared, 'I have been considering a watch that ... could sell at a more modest price than our Rolex watches...'
The one, the only, the classic: the Rolex Submariner
Tudor watches shared many parts with their Rolex brethren, including cases, crowns, hands, dials, bracelets and crystals—virtually everything. The money was typically saved in the movement, using cheaper, less accurate off-the-shelf workhorses made by ETA, and previously, Fleurier. This affordability combined with the dependability of a Rolex attracted many military customers, with Tudor furnishing the likes of the French, Canadian and US Navies.
As usual, these stories take a bit of a turn as the quartz crisis hits, and when it did, the slow decline of Tudor came about. The brand entered something of a hibernation period, pulling out of many countries and leaving Rolex to build on its growing popularity.
And, boy, did Rolex grow. Since the start of the new millennium, the price of the Submariner has doubled. The brand has moved onwards and upwards in its prestige, and clearly Rolex itself thinks so too, because in 2010 it gave Tudor something of a reboot.
Can sister company Tudor bring a cut-price rival to the almighty crown?
The Heritage line was the start of Tudor's grand revival, starting with the Heritage Chrono. 2012 was the big one, however, with the surprise announcement of the Heritage Black Bay and Pelagos dominating the Baselworld watch show. While the Pelagos brought something new to the table, the Heritage models—obviously—drew from the brand's past, crucially allowing more colour and flamboyancy than Rolex would allow for itself.
The Heritage line was a hit. Tudor was back. The collection expanded, with multiple colour options being added alongside the original burgundy red, including this black and gold version inspired by the vintage Tudor Submariner 7924. The designs were brighter and chunkier than the conservative offerings from the more subdued parent brand. Rolex ownership was opened up to a younger, thriftier audience.
Rolex impresses with white gold details, a ceramic bezel and intricate shapes
So, let's sit the Black Bay and the Submariner side by side and see what's what. Physically speaking, the Tudor is bigger, both in diameter—by a millimetre—and in height—by over two millimetres. Doesn't sound like much, but it makes a considerable difference on the wrist that some will like and some won't. And while the extra thickness is in part a necessity of the Tudor's construction, the taller case sides are most definitely a conscious design decision, sitting closer to the wrist than the Submariner's. Again, preference dictates.
The shared heritage is obvious, and the buttoned-down approach to the Submariner's design stands stark against the more laid back feel of the Tudor. I feel that the Submariner was worked on by stern men in lab coats, while the Tudor was mused about by a group of bearded, shoes-but-no-socks types. The reality is that it was probably the same stern men who designed both, but hey, you get the point. The Tudor is more fun, more relaxed, smothered in nostalgic details that Rolex would never dare attempt. The gilt dial, for example, in fetching rose gold; the splash of red in the bezel triangle; the big, proud crown; the riveted bracelet; and of course—contentiously—the faux 'aged' lume.
The Tudor can't quite match the Rolex for quality, but its vintage details add charm
But it's in looking closer that you see where the money's spent on the Rolex. The largest expense will of course be on the word 'Rolex' itself, however there's more to it than that. The hand stack on the Rolex is tighter, the hands themselves fashioned in white gold and shaped with a gentle curve, while the Tudor's are spaced further apart, flat and, well, not gold. The ridges on the Rolex's bezel are more complex and better finished, the ceramic bezel with platinum inlays richer and more lustrous than the Tudor's aluminium affair. On the Rolex, the crown is leagues ahead in intricacy, with the crown logo in relief far surpassing the Tudor Rose etched into the Black Bay's. The operation of the Rolex's Glidelock clasp makes the Tudor clasp—although still good—seem positively agricultural.
And the movements, let's get to those. Rolex has used the same movement base for a very long time, with the 3130 variant to be found in the non-date Submariner. While it's not the most lavish calibre ever made, it's actually beautifully constructed and decorated. There's the characteristic purple reversing wheels, the unusual balance bridge—most manufacturers stick with a simpler cantilevered balance cock—and the nanometre-perfect decoration in the bevelling, perlage and circular stripes. And if you take the movement apart you'll see that all the parts have been finished to the same standard, even though you don't get to see any of it!
By comparison, the Tudor in-house calibre MT5602—new for 2016, replacing the classic ETA—is far more industrial, with a simple blasted finish keeping things tidy. It's a solid movement, however, made with the same COSC-level precision as the Rolex, and boasts an additional day of power reserve to total a generous 70 hours.
The calibre 3130 has been in active duty for decades, with a very high level of finish
But to measure these two watches against each other by numbers is ridiculously utilitarian. These watches don't exist today because they fulfil some practical requirement—it's all about how they make us feel, how they connect with us emotionally. To that end, the Tudor really hits on those vintage notes with generous aplomb, exuding a casual ease that simply—works.
Yet, as every Lamborghini Huracán owner will one day pull up at the lights next to its bigger brother, the Aventador, the Tudor owner has to live in the knowledge that Rolex quite simply exists. It's the daddy, always will be. The Tudor could cost a pound and be made of unobtanium and yet it would still sit firmly in the Rolex's shadow.
While simpler than the 3130 in finish, Tudor's calibre ups power reserve to 70 hours
I wonder what Hans Wilsdorf would think about all this. In that 1952 advert, he also said, 'The instructions I gave—that [Tudor] must be the best possible watch that could be made to sell at a medium price—have been magnificently carried out.' Would he say the same today? If the Submariner is the benchmark, then the Tudor is a very solid alternative with a remarkable specification for its price. While, against the Rolex, it falls behind in the details, it has no solid rivals at its price point that surpass it, and realistically that's the very best it can hope to achieve. Perhaps Mr. Wilsdorf would have this to say of it, as he did of Tudor in the last century: 'I am proud to give it my personal endorsement.'
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