Ed’s note: “Classic and Iconic” will be a weekly series on you guessed it, classic and iconic watches which will never go out of style. This week, we start with the king of the hill- infamously the most copied watch in the world, famously the first unintentional movie product placement (Dr. No) to capture our imagination, ladies and gents, the Rolex Submariner.
Since the first Submariner was introduced over 50 years ago, the basic case-dial-bracelet design has remained ever so unchanged. You don’t mess with perfection, you probably might have noticed that over the 57 years that the Submariner has been offered as a line, each update has been an incrementally small step in terms of aesthetics- The latest update in 2012 was the inclusion of a Rolex inscribed chapter ring while the visual DNA of the Submariner remained essentially the same.
The Rolex-Bond Years
Offering probably the sharpest marketing copy ever to grace the world of horology, Rolex has the tone for years to come for the way timepieces were to be placed in movies and print advertisements. Being the first mover also meant that Rolex had years to burn the quintessential good-looking tough-kicking timepiece into both cultural and luxury zeitgeist.
Ursula Andress’s bikini might have “sent sales of two-piece swimwear skyrocketing” and caused the biggest impact on the history of the bikini but it was James Bond’s watch (it wasn’t Sean Connery’s as it was loaned to him by Producer Cubby Broccoli) that set the tone for the watches that men of mystery and action heroes wore for years to come.
1953 The First Submariner
The first watch with a guaranteed water resistance of up to 330 feet (100 metres for those of you living in former Commonwealth states) and rated to take pressure of up to 1000 feet (300 metres), through savvy advertising and smart placement, the diver’s watch as a genre entered the lexicon of millions of watch wearers who have never been swimming much less diving, to consider ownership of a diver’s watch as an integral part of their collections.
It might be a little Freudian to believe that sex sells but Rolex understood and managed the implications of the crassness that could follow and thus taint the brand by using overt sexuality. But through intelligent (and subtle) use feminine wiles to capture the minds, hearts and pockets of their target audience, they pull of a marketing coup that other manufactures would follow in the years to come- A manicured hand reaches out for a furtive brush on a man’s cuff linked, blazer-ed , Submariner wearing wrist, daring viewers to ask that question “why is it seen so much where the wettest thing around is a dry Martini? Who knows? Maybe she knows.”
Indeed for land or in the sea, the Rolex Submariner became the perfect partner for men who ruled the world. Naturally, their penchant for witty and snappy ad copy that conveyed the primacy of Rolex in a single sentence would continue on to the present, in use today, “Rolex. A crown for every achievement.” The allusion to the crown logo and the association with men of achievement is a master stroke that continues to solidify the Rolex Submariner as a classic and iconic timepiece.
Quality and aesthetics that withstand the tests of time
When Jacques-Yves Cousteau first wrote The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery & Adventure in 1953, it would seem to be an act of horological destiny that the ultimate dive adventure would cross paths with the ultimate diving watch. Captain Cousteau would wear the prototype 100 metre Submariner Ref. 6204 while he stood on the bridge of the Calypso, a decommissioned WW2 Minesweeper ship built for the British Navy.
A personal friend of Rene-Paul Jeanerrete, Director of Rolex Geneva, Rolex would eventually unveil the Rolex Submariner a year later at the 1954 Basel Fair. Henri-Germain Delauze, a diver for Cousteau would later go on to found COMEX, the french diving company. By virtue of this association, Rolex would also begin the genre of the “tool watch” – watches which you could wear for work or play, take a beating and still keep ticking.
One might think that finding an even bigger ‘man of achievement’ than legendary Jacques-Yves Cousteau would have been nigh impossible but If ever there was to be a walking viagra pill, Chuck Yeager would be it.
The first human to break Mach 1 in an experimental Bell X-1, he broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947. Charles Elwood Yeager had flying in his blood and more than likely steel in his unmentionables, serving as a flight mechanic during the height of WW2 and then becoming a P51 Flight Officer after he signed on, his 60 year laudatory career would see him commanding fighter squadrons in almost every modern conflict till 1969 when they finally put him behind the desk rather than a cockpit when he became Brigadier General and the vice-commander of the Seventeenth Air Force. Yes, he too, wore a Rolex and at 45,000 feet, his Submariner was as far away from the ocean as it could get (while still remaining within Earth’s atmosphere of course).
Just before the Bond-Rolex years, the idea and genre of a diving watch was further cemented by a young actor and diver by the name of Lloyd Bridges. Performing his own diving stunts, Bridges gained wide recognition as Mike Nelson in the television series Sea Hunt, setting the path for another fictional ex-Naval diver and now agent in his Majesty’s Secret Service to forever burn the idea and iconography of the simple steel, black dial and black bezel affair as de-rigeur timepiece for sophisticated yet macho men.
That said, Bond is still a figment of imagination while Terence Stephen “Steve” McQueen was machismo personified. Nicknamed “The King of Cool.”, Hollywood’s anti-hero prime starred in films include The Magnificent Seven, The Blob, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Getaway, Papillon, and The Towering Inferno. More importantly, he was performing his own stunts even before Jackie Chan made it popular to perform your own movie stunts. An avid racer of both two and four wheels, his Rolex Submariner and Daytona were equal passions with race car driving and motorcycle riding.
Today, one would be hard pressed to find a new Hollywood action movie without endorsement of the titular hero’s timepiece. The Rolex Submariner is as iconic as the lightsabre when it comes to celluloid iconography. The allure of the diver’s watch has been completely ingrained in our minds as the ‘IT’ watch thanks to a multi-pronged approach from a technical (amazing movement and the waterproof ‘oyster’ concept), advertising and cinematic angle; out of all the watches in the world, there are only a handful which look similar to when they were first conceived, in terms of investment and style (close to over 50% of street shots at Pitti showed Rolexes or Rolex facsimiles), you can do no wrong with a Rolex Submariner and with it, one of the most globally recognised (and acknowledged) watch faces in the history of horology.