Collecting with Jeff
By Jeff Figler
When I was in China a few years ago, there was a gentleman in my traveling group that owned a print shop in the Phoenix area. From an outside vendor he negotiated to buy 50 Rolex watches, one for each of his employees for about a dollar a piece. He wanted to be able to say that he was giving a Rolex to each of his workers as a bonus. Of course, it was even evident to him that the wristwatches that he purchased were not authentic Rolexes, and probably had parts that would only function for a minimal amount of time.
However, putting aside the fact that the Rolexes that friend bought were probably fake, he wanted to purchase his workers a wristwatch. The wristwatch, at one time called wristlets for ladies, has become a much-admired fashion status symbol. They have been seen virtually everywhere, even on the Moon. In our fast-paced society, people need to know what time it is, even though the cell phone has somewhat captured that necessity.
But the wristwatch is a relatively new phenomena. Many people think that a U.S. inventor devised the wristwatch. Not so fast. It was actually the Brits.
In the 19th century, soldiers discovered that their pocket watches were too clumsy and difficult to effectively operate while in combat. They needed a watch to be worn on their wrist, which would free their hands during battle. Although it is believed that the Germans may have used them during war as early as the 1880s, it was the Brits who popularized the wristwatch in their victory in the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa from 1899-1902.
In 1906, the flexible bracelet, or wristband, was devised, and metal covers were introduced soon afterwards. Wristwatches then became a wartime necessity in England, and several companies were trying to keep up with the demand. The biggest producer at this time was Wilsdorf & Davis. The company, founded in 1905, was renamed The Rolex Watch Company in 1915. The leading proponent was Hans Wilsdorf. After the Great War (World War I), many soldiers returned home with their new souvenir trench watch. They were named that because there were commonly used in trench warfare. At home, they were looked upon as being fashionable for men.
A major advance was the truly waterproof wristwatch, which was first introduced as Rolex’s Oyster, in 1926. Metal dials were introduced as well, along with a synthetic plastic to replace the fragile glass crystals.
By the mid-1930s, wristwatches accounted for about 65% of all watches exported by Switzerland. In 1931 Rolex devised the perpetually self-winding wristwatch with its Auto Rotor.
Over the years, dozens of companies have tried to compete with Rolex, including Omega, Vacheron Constantin, and Patek Philipe. However, when most people think of a nice-looking, high-functioning wristwatch these days, they think of Rolex.
Of course, auction prices are frequently inflated when the watches were owned by celebrities. For example, in a 2010 auction, the wristwatch that John Kennedy wore in his 1960 Presidential campaign, in which he defeated Richard Nixon, was sold for nearly $24000. Likewise, the Rolex given to the 1964 New York Yankees Tony Kubek, for being on the American League Championship team, was auctioned for nearly $24,000. However, the Rolex rare “James Bond” Submariner, issued in around 1958, was auctioned for over $107,000. The 1928 wristwatch of New York Yankees player Lou Gehrig was sold for over $155,000. And finally, the “Michael Delaney” TAG Heuer watch worn by actor Steve McQueen in the movie Le Mans sold for an astounding $650,000. McQueen’s own Rolex Submariner was auctioned for $234,000.
So the next time you’re in China, ask the street vendor selling Rolexes if the watches were worn by Steve McQueen or any other actor.