From his very first, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf wanted his watches to be the very best, and that could only be true if the very best professionals used them. How much more professional can you get than the armed forces?
The 1953 Turn-O-Graph ignited the growth of Rolex into what we know it as today, spinning off into the Submariner, GMT-Master and Explorer—watches built for professionals. These were not refined, attractive things; they were manufactured for a purpose, simple, solid and reliable. There were already plenty of far more established watchmakers making watches that were polished and elegant—but none that catered for industry.
This infiltration of the professional market was already being seeded long before the Turn-O-Graph however, specifically with the armed forces. Hans Wilsdorf may have been a German, but his love for England was strong enough to draw him to London to establish his watch company, Wilsdorf and Davis. Wartime taxes and growing animosity from the locals, however, drove Wilsdorf to Switzerland, but despite this, he continued to supply the British public with his watches—albeit under the name Rolex so as to remove the German connotations.
He even sent replacement watches to Allied soldiers held as prisoners of war who’d had theirs confiscated—on the basis that they’d pay him back on release of course. Wilsdorf was a businessman first after all. Still, he even went as far as supporting Allied forces in his advertising material, leaving no misunderstanding as to whose side he was on.
It got to the point that many British armed forces personnel, particularly RAF pilots, were ditching their military issue timepieces in favour of Wilsdorf’s stronger, clearer, more reliable watches, and by the time the Submariner came into existence, the British Ministry of Defence was extremely interested.
By 1957, the Submariner was well-established as a reliable dive watch, and it was to this model that the MoD turned its attention. First the 6538 got the military treatment, and then the 5513, which eventually became the military-only reference 5517. Modifications were extensive, with wide sword hands for additional visibility, a ‘T’ on the dial to indicate the presence of radioactive tritium, minute markers around the entire bezel for more precise readability, and fixed strap bars for use only with a fabric strap to prevent loss during service.
The watch, built and ready, was issued to military divers on active duty to the tune of less than 1,200 examples, many of which have since gone missing or had military-spec components replaced at service. Only 1,200 isn’t much of a business proposition though, and Wilsdorf was a businessman, so he also gave us this: the Tudor 7928.
Being market savvy, Hans Wilsdorf didn’t want to limit the potential of his Rolex brand, nor did he want to tarnish it, so in 1927 he created affordable sister company Tudor to retail watches that carried the Rolex guarantee of quality at a cheaper price. Wilsdorf was able to do this by swapping out the movements—where the bulk of the cost lay—with cheaper units, fitting them with the same cases and bracelets, with unique dials to delineate them.
Some of the earliest Tudors, however, before the introduction of details like the ‘snowflake’ hands and blue colouration, were externally almost indistinguishable from their Rolex cousins, sharing just about everything bar the engine and the name on the dial. This was very good news to the armed forces outside of the UK, as the MoD had sole rights to Rolex’s Submariner; equally positive for Wilsdorf, who got to sell more watches.
There was no such limitation on the sale of Tudors, and so Wilsdorf wasted no time at all manufacturing a Tudor Submariner, producing the first barely a year after the Rolex version launched. The military versions came not long afterwards, but with one key difference to the Rolex equivalents—they were not modified in any way at all.
Aside from case back markings, Tudor’s military Submariner was quite simply picked straight from the catalogue. And it wasn’t just one Navy that accepted it as it came—you had the French Navy, the US Navy, the Canadian Navy, the South African Navy, the Jamaican Navy, the Argentinian Navy and even the Israeli Navy. No favouritism from Tudor there.
And, really, even the modifications required of the Rolex were minor, demonstrating how capable both watches were out of the box. In fact, the MoD chose the 5513 over the chronometer certified 5512, satisfied with Rolex’s quality control enough not to require the additional certification. These weren’t custom-built, expensive prototypes, these were off-the-shelf items. Wilsdorf set out to make watches for the very best professionals—and he very much achieved that.
Eventually, budgets tightened, technology changed, and Rolex was no longer required to provide watches for military use, but the history remains, and each watch has its own story to tell. And I’d tell you, but that information? It’s classified …
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