Why do Watch Geeks Love Military Timepieces?
Why do watch fans have a fascination with military watches?
What is it about seeing a broad arrow symbol on the dial or caseback that sends collectors into heat? Why can an extra number engraved on the case increase the price of a watch by a several zeroes? I think the answer is a combination of collectible paraphernalia, technical superiority, rarity and a connection to danger.
When complete, military watches come with far more collectible minutia than a standard civilian watch. For example, let's look at the vintage Tudor Submariner Ref. 7016. In 1974, the French Navy (Marine Nationale) ordered a batch of Tudor Subs for their military divers. These watches were engraved 'M.N. XX' on the back and were entered into a ledger that listed their serial and reference numbers and which unit/ship was receiving the watch. After years of service these watches, like their owners, were served with decommissioning papers. In comparison, the civilian equivalent of the Ref. 7016, the Ref. 9410/0, did not get an an additional engraving and the only ledger it was in that of a shopkeeper.
These extra pieces of paper and markings are trivial to a non-collector, but they are Holy relics to those seeking authenticity. You must remember that watch collectors are nothing if not sadists! Whilst more paperwork means more chances for it to go missing, it also means a bigger feeling of accomplishment when you find a complete set. Combine these papers with an original owner consigning the watch at auction along with period photographs, personal memoirs, then you'll have collectors salivating from across the room.
Another lure of military watches is the fact they 'don't make them how they used to'. This is also why vintage dive and tool watches are so popular. In World War II, an artillery strike would be engaged with a combination of charts, maps, conversation tables, a mechanical watch and a bit of luck. Now all the calculations and targeting are done by a computer. It's unlikely that any active military personnel are wearing a mechanical watch, and even less likely that it would be one from a luxury Swiss brand. Now you're more likely to see Casio and G-Shocks than Omegas and IWCs. I should point out that there are still military units that provide their service members with mechanical watches. The British Special Boat Service provides its members with Omega Seamaster Planet Oceans and the British Special Air Service used to provide its members with Omega Seamaster Professional 300s.
This "don't make them how they used too" mentality also extends to the quality of the watch itself. Tudor might have offered civilians identical models to those supplied to the military yet the majority of military watches were changed in some way to suit the battlefield. Even the very existence of the wristwatch itself is linked with battle. Soldiers in World War I were quick to realize that a pocket watch was a cumbersome tool in trench warfare, so they soldered wire lugs to the case and mounted it on their wrist with a strip of leather. The trench watch was born and it was the grandfather of all military watches. Anti-magnetic and water-resistant cases, fixed lugs, NATO and nylon straps and many other pieces of horological history came from war.
Take the Gallet Flying/Flight Officer. In the 1930s, Senator Harry S. Truman commissioned the production of a special chronograph for pilots and engineers of the USAAF. As a former artillery officer, Truman knew that a tachymeter scale could be used aboard a bomber to time flight speeds and munitions blasts. The time zone indicator on the dial allowed the wearer to know what the time was around the globe allowing for more accurate bombing runs. The Gallet Flight Officer was the pinnacle of technology at the time and it was a military watch. This is not to say that all advancements in watch technology are associated with the military, for example the Rolex GMT-Master was created by Pan-Am for its civilian pilots, but the vast majority of advancements were.
A benefit of being issued to a military unit is that these watches are incredibly practical. There is a reason that the pilot's style of watches is still being used today by civilians, it's a wonderful design for a watch!
There is one other aspect to the desirability of military watches that I haven't mentioned. It's the desire to have had their watch see action and have been worn during the consequences of action. It's a morbid thought, but it's a very human one. It combines our desires for knowledge and for vicariously experiencing the extreme.
Just like we want our Doxas and Subas to have worn by Jacque Cousteau and his contemporaries, we want our military watches have seen combat. We want our Benrus A-11s to have been on the wrist of an American pilot as his F-101 shot down planes over Don Muang. We want our Rolex 5513s MilSub to have been submerged with our MoD divers as they scuttled enemy ships in harbor. It's the same reason people for centuries have collected medals, weapons or uniforms. On a physical level it gives a potential explanation for all those scratches and dings, but on an emotional level it gives us some connection to a battlefield we hope we never visit ourselves.
Yet even these thoughts don't fair well against statistics. Only 20% of military roles are combat orientated so odds are that your MilSub saw more 'action' in a military office than out in the field. But humanity has a tenacious ability of ignoring the numbers for the sake of a good story so I'm sure there are many collectors who convinced themselves that their watch was part of the 20%. "That ding on the side of the case? That didn't happen when a soldier tripped over their bunk at night, it happened when they swatted away a grenade in the heat of battle!"
This desire for watches that saw action is a path that unfortunately can lead to the quagmire of watches manufactured by or for our enemies.
If the cloud of war destroys human life then its silver lining is the advancement of technology. Without World War II we could be decades behind in the development of radar, jet propulsion, nuclear energy and computers. These technological benefits also exist in watches worn by our adversaries. Panerai pioneered the development of diving watches yet the men who wore them, the Italian Navy's Frogmen, fought for a Fascist Government. IWC produced watches for both sides of the watch, the Mark X for the British Army and many pilot's watches for the German Luftwaffe. The original A. Lange & Sohne firm not only produced Flieger watches for the Luftwaffe but also produced fuses for artillery rounds and torpedoes.
There is an article deep in the folds of my brain that delves further into German watches made for the Wehrmacht. The aim would be to de-exoticise these watches and to provide understanding to the genuine pieces and post-war fakes. It's an incredibly difficult subject to write about. Is it possible to seperate the mechanical achievements of German pilot's watches from the atrocities that their Government committed? To ask an even greater and more complex question, should the benefits of Switzerland's neutrality against fascism be lauded?
On Monday I spoke about my concerns about Alpina's reissue of the K.M-710, a watch originally issued to members of the Kriegsmarine, the Germany Navy created by Adolf Hitler. The reissue of course is a modern watch that was made as a luxury item, not as a tool but the use of K.M. on the dial was problematic to me. On Friday I'll be posting my review of the watch but as I've spoken about my issues with the name, it will focus purely on the technical merits of the piece.
So whilst the days of soldiers wearing mechanical watches is mostly gone, the fascination with watches of war will remain for a very long time time to come.