Collecting vintage military chronograph watches

Adam Wadsell of Tennants auctioneersThe market for vintage military chronograph watches is booming, writes Adam Wasdell from Tennants auctioneers, but there is still time to get in on the act.

With the increasing digitalisation of our lives comes a growing desire for the authentic – tangible craftsmanship combine with the reliability of a well-made mechanical device. Vintage watches fit the bill perfectly and the good news is the auction market for good examples is booming.

Vintage chronographs are one of the most popular types of men’s watch in both the retail and the secondary markets. They have the strong, clean design, rugged styling and technical functionality that make them highly desirable accessories for modern men. A chronograph watch is simply one that has the added feature of a stopwatch, operated by one or two extra buttons on the side, and featuring extra dials.

Vintage Boom in military chronographs

Rolex, Oyster Perpetual Submariner
A rare automatic centre seconds Royal Navy military issue diver’s wristwatch, signed Rolex, Oyster Perpetual Submariner, ref: 5513, made in 1972 and issued in 1975. Sold at Tennants in July 2015 for £48,000

However, in recent years it has been vintage military chronographs from the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s that have seen the biggest area of growth at auction, with both demand and prices booming. With advances in technology from the 1950s – particularly in the fields of aviation and space exploration – leading watch manufacturers were commissioned to equip specific branches of the military and even aerospace with technical watches vital to their work.

Certain watchmakers are now associated with different branches of the military and aerospace; for example Breitling are synonymous with watches made for the air force and Omega with watches made for the early days of NASA’s space exploration.

Unlike watches produced solely for a civilian market, military chronographs carry historic associations and often quite literally bear the scars of war – they provoke a connection with the past that greatly appeals to collectors of the genre.

Within the world of vintage military chronographs, collectors often specialise in niche categories, whether that be watches made for the navy or those commissioned by NASA for use on space missions. However, a perfect example of one of these sub-specialities is ‘the Dirty Dozen’.

The ‘Dirty Dozen’

 a stainless steel military wristwatch, signed Eterna
One of the dirty dozen – a stainless steel military wristwatch, signed Eterna, c. 1945, it sold at Tennants in October 2016 for £850

While, for most people this refers to a WWII film, in watch collecting circles ‘the dirty dozen’ is the name given to a group of 12 watches commissioned by the Ministry of Defence for use by soldiers during the same war.

The MoD ordered custom-built wristwatches from 12 Swiss watchmakers: Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex. Each company was given the specific brief of providing watches that were accurate, reliable and durable, with a black dial, Arabic numerals, luminous markers, a railroad minute track, shatterproof glass and a stainless-steel case. No matter the maker, these watches can be identified by the engraved ‘W.W.W.’ on the reverse, as well as the broad arrowhead mark on the dial, inner case, and reverse, and both military and civil serial numbers on the reverse.

Highly Prized chronographs

While the larger manufacturers produced up to 25,000 watches for the British Army, production from the smaller companies was likely to be less than 5,000.

Individually these watches may not be as desirable as other vintage chronographs but, to those who are collecting a whole set, they are highly prized. A complete set of the dirty dozen in good condition is very rare – and the rarest, and thus the most sought-after example, is the model made by Grana, of which it is thought that perhaps as few as 1,000 were made.

In comparison with other chronographs, the dirty dozen watches are relatively affordable and, while examples by the rarer and bigger name manufacturers will set you back around £1,500 and upwards, the less well-known brands such as Timor, Eterna or Buren can be picked up for £500-£1,000. However, prices are on the rise for these lesser brands as the market increases.

Sought After watches

In the wider market for vintage military chronographs, outside of the dirty dozen, there are particular makes, models and references (the number which denotes a particular version of a model) on which collectors focus their attention. As with all antiques it is the rare examples with a good name that are the most sought after. For those wishing to start a collection, a good entry level watch would be a 1960s’ Hamilton military wristwatch, which can be picked up at auction for around £500.

Or, moving up a bracket, a rare 1950s’ Lemania military chronograph wristwatch will set you back somewhere in the  region of £1,000-£2,000.

Omega Speedmaster
A rare ‘Ed White’ pre-moon stainless steel Chronograph wristwatch, signed Omega, model: Speedmaster, ref:105.003, 1964, it sold at Tennants in July 2017 for £7,500 (estimated at £3,000-£5,000)

Omega Speedmaster

Particularly rare and in-demand models with a good name start at £5,000 plus, such as the rare 1964 ‘Ed White’ pre-moon stainless steel Omega Speedmaster chronograph wristwatch which sold recently at Tennants for £7,500. The pre-moon Speedmaster, reference 105.003, is colloquially referred to as the ‘Ed White’ Speedmaster, as this model and reference was worn by NASA astronaut Edward Higgins White (1930-1967) who was the first American to walk in space in 1965. He died aged 37, during prelaunch testing for the first manned Apollo mission at Cape Canaveral in 1967. This particular reference was only in production for around three years, before being superseded by the Speedmaster ‘Professional’ version, which was famously worn by the astronauts on the first moon landing in 1969.

Top End Chronographs

At the very top end of the market for chronographs, there may only be small physical differences to the design or function between references of the same model of watch, but these differences on highly-prized models can dramatically affect prices at auction.

Rolex Submariner

This is perfectly illustrated when looking at one of the most iconic vintage chronographs – the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner. Nicknamed ‘milsubs’ by collectors, Rolex first designed these watches for Royal Navy divers and they are one of the most collectable divers’ chronograph watches on the market. A very rare 1972 Oyster Perpetual Submariner with the reference number 5513 sold recently at Tennants for £48,000. However, the same model with the reference number 5513/5517 is even rarer and would set you back more than £100,000 at auction.

Check Out

Look out for watches that are in good, original condition, that have not been cleaned up too much or that have had their cases refinished. Serious collectors prefer their watches to show their age a little, with a good patina to the dial and luminous markers, and watches with their original bracelet are preferred.

An original glass is not essential – being the most vulnerable part of the watch they have frequently been replaced. Occasionally repairs are required and again it is always best to seek advice from a specialist, who will be able to recommend a reputable company to help.

So, whether you are looking to start collecting this fascinating and diverse area of vintage watches, or are seeking the final piece in your collection, you never know what will be in the next auction – the perfect watch is out there.

Starting a Vintage Chronograph Collection

Whatever your budget or specialist subject, always buy from a trusted source or seek advice from a reputable auction specialist. If there is a flourishing market for something, there will always be someone over pricing, hiding damage and restoration, or even selling a fake.

But what should you look out for? Firstly, check the spelling on the dial and the back of the watch is correct. Secondly, check to see if the functions of the watch match what is stamped on the dial: for example a fake watch may state on the dial that it has a day/date function, but it may only have the date function.

Another line of investigation is to ensure that the reference number matches the model of the watch. Online catalogues from leading auction houses provide a vast archive of credible information against which to check. A practised eye will be able to spot poor quality detailing or stamping. More detailed research or specialist knowledge will also tell you if the movement calibre number is correct to the model and reference of the watch, and if the production serial number corresponds to the physical age of the watch.

Adam Wasdell (MBHI, Wostep) is Tennants Auctioneer’s specialist in clocks, watches and barometers. For details of upcoming watch sales visit www.tennants.co.uk

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