“I’m a working class lad from Lancashire,” Michael Bisping said in a recent interview. “I’ve got a solid gold Rolex but I never wear it, because I feel like an absolute wanker.” Right there, with the concussive force of one of his left hooks, the former MMA fighter nails that vague sense of unease that every owner of a gold Rolex must navigate. That’s because no other watch can trigger such a flood of polarising emotions that range from searing envy to sanctimonious disdain. A gold Rolex isn’t just a watch, it’s a divisive psychodrama with more baggage than a luggage carousel.
We don’t know which specific watch Bisping was referring to here. Was it the classic Day-Date with its fluted bezel perched aloft that distinctive president bracelet? The Datejust with the honeyed sheen of its champagne dial? The Cosmograph Daytona with its bejewelled rainbow bezel? To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever Rolex he owns, Bisping has earned it.
The British fighter certainly did the hard yards to become a UFC Hall of Famer. Before his career in the Octagon took off, Bisping was forced to graft away in a series of low paid jobs that included stints working in factories and slaughterhouses. At times, things got so desperate that he was forced to sleep in his car. The trajectory of Bispin’s career was no smooth ascent. He suffered some devastating losses including being knocked viciously unconscious in front of 1.6 million people at UFC 100 and even losing his right eye after suffering a detached retina in another defeat. Nevertheless, Bisping kept coming back and eventually clinched the UFC middleweight championship.
I’m labouring this point to show that Bisping is unlikely to suffer from imposter syndrome. If a gold Rolex is the ultimate symbol of success then Bisping fully deserves one. So why does he violently recoil from wearing his watch?
Presumably, it’s because a gold Rolex on a bracelet remains the single most conspicuous watch that it’s possible to wear. In horological terms it’s the equivalent of driving a bright red Ferrari convertible. Both are exquisitely made triumphs of technical engineering. But they’re also loud, proud and unapologetically flashy. There’s no hidden sub-text to decode here – you don’t have to be “in the know” to clock one at 10 yards. A gold Rolex is a brazen emblem of wealth and status communicated in a universal language. It’s not just a timepiece, it’s a wrist-bound power move.
And it can look utterly fantastic. In Sons of Anarchy, for example, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlmann) the president of the biker gang wears a Rolex Day-Date with his scuffed leathers and greasy jeans. This decision feels pitch-perfect – the gold watch underlining Clay’s position as the silverback gorilla and all-round shot-caller. In The Sopranos, Tony (James Gandolfini) is invariably spotted wearing a Day-Date, too. As Rolex acknowledges on its website: “The Rolex Day-Date has been worn by more presidents, leaders and visionaries than any other watch.” That apparently goes for TV mob bosses, too.
But you’ve got to be able to pull it off. If a gold Rolex is worn with the merest flicker of self-doubt then this is a watch that will overshadow you and make you look like a fraud. This scenario was cultivated in Gangs of London, which we explored here. In the TV drama, Sean Wallace (Joe Cole) is the son of a murdered gangland leader who is expected to take over the family firm. Unfortunately, he’s ill-suited for the role, lacking the calculating head and lethal poise. When he suddenly starts wearing a Rolex Dayjust, it feels like he’s trying to overcompensate for his glaring lack of authority and is grasping for the trappings of power in a desperate attempt to “fake it til you make it”. Bottom line: you’ve got to have some serious chutzpah to wear a gold Rolex if you’re under 40 years old.
But this surely isn’t Bisbing’s problem. This after all, is a gnarled warrior of a man with the self-belief and balls to conquer the Octagon. You’d assume he had the self-assurance to wear his Rolex with his customary swagger. Why then does wearing this watch make him feel like an “absolute wanker”?
To unpack that it’s worth considering the watch’s broader audience. There is no denying that a gold Rolex is an aggressive status symbol and, for many people, that is the heart of its appeal. Indeed, on the screen, the watch is often used as cinematic shorthand to imply that a character is shallow, money-hungry and vain.
In Rain Man (1988), Tom Cruise plays Charlie Babbitt, a selfish wheeler-dealer whose job involves importing grey market Lamborghinis. He wears a yellow gold Rolex Day-Date.
In Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Alec Baldwin is the despicable emissary sent from head office who berates a room full of salesmen with the line: “You see this watch? That watch cost more than your car.” The watch in question is, of course, a Rolex Day Date.
In American Psycho (2000), the pathologically materialistic serial-killer Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) wears a Rolex Datejust 16013 with a tapestry dial on a jubilee bracelet as we explored here. In Bret Easton Ellis’ original book, Rolex is mentioned 26 times.
Inevitably, there is a cultural residue from such horological cameos, a negative association that clings to these watches. This has nothing to do with Rolex itself, a justly revered brand with an extraordinary track record for quality, innovation and reliability. It should also be noted that a gold Rolex is such a ubiquitous choice of the rich and famous that many admirable men wear them, too. Donald Trump may have worn a Day Date, but it’s also the preferred watch of the Dalai Lama.
Nevertheless, for people who don’t “talk watch” (AKA the world at large), a gold Rolex is largely interpreted as a deliberate sign of social one-upmanship that’s designed to broadcast the size of your wallet. Understandably, not everyone will be comfortable with such an association and prefer something a little more discreet. At any rate, that’s why I suspect that Bisping never dons his gold Rolex. He may be able to afford such an expensive watch, but the personal cost of wearing it is simply too high.