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Apple's Watch just beat Rolex to become the most popular on Earth — here's why that makes sense

Apple Watch
Apple Watch

(The Apple Watch has hit a major milestone.Apple)

Apple has finally achieved a major milestone with its Apple Watch.

The company's CEO Tim Cook told attendees that the tech giant now sells the number one watch in the world, leapfrogging Rolex in the process. Cook also said the Watch saw stunning 50% year over year sales growth in August.

Apple didn't share any hard sales numbers, but that's not surprising — Rolex remains similarly tight-lipped. According to an estimate by Canalys, Apple sold 11.9 million watches in 2016.

When Tim Cook announced last year that Apple was the number two watchmaker in the world, we said that made sense: Rolex is the giant in the watch world, and passing it would be some type of feat. But Apple has done just that.

At that time, Apple just announced its Watch Series 2 which had capabilities like water resistance and an on-board GPS. It's clear that these improvements have increased sales, and made the Apple Watch more attractive.

Apple also pivoted from a fashion focus, where it was competing directly with brands like Rolex, to instead talk up the fitness capabilities of the watch and positioned it more like a highly capable wearable.

This pivot started when the Series 2 was announced. That was on display in the latest Apple keynote on September 12, where there was a lot of focus on new heart rate monitoring capabilities, and only a passing mention to its Hermés collaboration. Apple still compares itself to watch companies even though it is not positioning its watch for fitness, like wearable makers do. In a comparison of wearable makers, it comes in at number three according to IDC analyst estimates as of fourth quarter of 2016, behind Fitbit and Xiaomi — both of which sell products at much cheaper prices than Apple.

It's safe to say in 2017, there's more consumers buying wearables for their fitness capability than buying mechanical watches for their style.

Rolex has been suffering along with the entire Swiss watch industry, with poor sales nearly worldwide. If Apple's stats are from 2016 — which is our bet — that would make even more sense.

Watch exports from Switzerland fell 10% in 2016. It's tough to say exactly how much that affected Rolex specifically. Early reports say 2017 might be looking better for the Swiss watch industry, but it's too early to say for sure.

So, yes iPhone sales are up — markedly so. But Rolex's sales are likely down, which has helped Apple edge out the Swiss giant.

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