Cortina Watch launches the first Rolex Exhibition in Southeast Asia.

At first glance, Cortina Watch’s latest Rolex boutique at Marina Square may look like any of its other boutiques, though it is perhaps more spacious and refined. Venture in farther, however, and one spots the inconspicuous doorway that leads into its exclusive Rolex Exhibition space beyond the retail front.

The first of its kind in Southeast Asia, the permanent showcase is only the second in the world, following The Rolex Experience on The Bund in Shanghai. Cortina’s chief operating officer Jeremy Lim was inspired to create a similar exhibition in Singapore after a visit to the Shanghai space a few years ago.

The opportunity arose when the Singapore- based chain of luxury watch distributors was offered a 513 sq ft space in the bay area, off the Esplanade and near Marina Bay Sands, the Singapore Flyer and the Merlion. “It is a totally different kind of experience from what you would have in a boutique.

It is not just about the watches, but what is behind them. I can always say ‘I am the leading Swiss watchmaker’ but, with this space, I don’t need to tell you that. I can just invite you to experience the exhibition,” says Lim during a chat at the official launch of the permanent exhibition.

Loosely divided into three parts, the first thing that captures the attention is the grouping of TV screens that takes up the centre of the exhibition space. Called The World of Rolex, it showcases the watchmaker’s involvement in the arts and sports arena, as well as the biennial Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. The brand’s “Testimonees” also appear on the screens, including renowned athletes such as tennis legend Roger Federer and skier Lindsey Vonn. Also shown are scenes from the Rolex Deepsea Challenge expedition with filmmaker James Cameron, who made a solo descent to the bottom of the Mariana Trench with a Rolex watch attached to his deep-diving submersible.

On each side of the room are displays that highlight Rolex’s close ties with marine exploration; and behind the digital area lies The Rolex Way section. The corridor display showcases six unique components that make up Rolex’s timepieces, giving a rare glimpse into some of its watchmaking processes.

The components are the latest Calibre 3255 Perpetual Movement, the steel case, the President bracelet, Cerachrom bezel, the patented Parachrom hairspring and the new Chronergy escapement. Each speaks of the many firsts Rolex has achieved since its inception in 1905, also giving an insight into what makes a Rolex watch unique.

For almost two years, Cortina worked closely with Rolex Geneva and its Singapore team to curate the exhibition. “What we’re offering is an interactive experience and brand education, in a way,” says Lim.

“Today, we see how everyone is on the internet and into social media. Many traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses say it’s killing them. For luxury watches, the internet has helped us to a certain extent because it provides a lot more information to our customers. But we are not going to just wait for customers to come in, ask for a watch and pay. They may know the product but they may not know the Rolex experience. That is how we are trying to change things with this exhibition. You don’t get this on the internet; we’ve simplified it for you in one location.”

Acknowledging that the luxury watch industry faces challenging times ahead, Lim says it is, nevertheless, an opportunity to relook at the future. He believes the way forward is to offer more than just a product and to cultivate a new generation of Rolex buyers. “To do that, we need to engage. Whether they ultimately buy or not, we don’t know. But we want to tell them that it is not just about the Daytona or Submariner, Datejust or Perpetual, Deepsea or Oyster. There is a tradition and history we want to reinforce,” he says.

A solid partnership between the brands certainly helps growth. The relationship between Cortina and Rolex began in 2003, when Cortina approached the Swiss watchmaker to come on board with its boutique in Starhill Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. Lim says, today, the company has 10 points of sale with Rolex in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

The second-generation watch retailer shares that his first encounter with a Rolex was when his father returned home with the Rolex Explorer I. “I asked whether it was for me, and he said, ‘Okay, you can wear it first.’ We weren’t even selling Rolex watches then,” says Lim with a smile.

He is less decisive when it comes to his current favourite, which is between the new Cosmograph Daytona, the Air-King, and the Oyster Perpetual with the blue and black Cerachrome bezel. “Everyone loves them. To have a Rolex is a crowning glory,” he says. “But just because you buy a Rolex, it doesn’t mean you know Rolex. I’ve retailed Rolex watches for the past 13 years, but I got to know the brand so much better this past 1½ years through the exhibition,” says Lim.

Mae Chan is a writer with the Options desk at The Edge Malaysia.

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 757 (Dec 5) of The Edge Singapore.