The Watch Makes The Man: James Bond and His Rolex
“Bond surveyed his weapons. They were only his hands and feet, his Gillette razor and his wrist-watch, a heavy Rolex Oyster Perpetual on an expanding metal bracelet. Used properly, these could be turned into most effective knuckledusters.” – Ian Fleming, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1963
Trapped in a mountaintop fortress, his cover blown and the only way out a daring midnight descent on stolen skis, agent 007 has to first get past a burly guard. For all the fantastic Q Branch gadgets that pervade two dozen Bond films for the next fifty years, in Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, James Bond turns to a decidedly ordinary one—his watch—to facilitate his bold escape. They say you can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps or car he drives. But the same can be said about the watch he wears.
Although there is scarce mention of Bond’s watch in any of Fleming’s novels, the few lines from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service have provided enough clues to identify it. While the first Bond films put a Submariner dive watch on his wrist, according to historian Dell Deaton, it was actually an Oyster Perpetual Explorer, reference 1016, that Fleming intended, inspired by the author’s own 1960 version. Fleming was a former Navy intelligence officer and much of his own experiences found their way into his novels. So it’s not a stretch to postulate that when outfitting Bond for his 1963 novel, he glanced at his own wrist while typing.
The Explorer of that era was the most elemental of Rolexes, lacking even a date. With a screw-in crown, Oyster case and steel bracelet, it looks as utilitarian as a hammer. Or a Walther PPK pistol. It was built to tell time accurately, even in adverse conditions, all the while staying unobtrusive on the wrist befitting the clandestine work a spy must do. The Rolex of the mid-20th century was a company building tough watches designed for specific purposes, not the baubles of the nouveau riche many think of today. Pan Am pilots, Royal Navy divers, nuclear scientists, and mountaineers all wore these watches not for the name on the dial but because they worked well in harsh conditions. Indubitably, this was the reason behind Fleming’s choice for his tough hero. A Rolex conveyed a no-nonsense virility and functionality. It was the best tool for the job, even if that job meant destroying the watch.
“Bond’s right flashed out and the face of the Rolex disintegrated against the man’s jaw.”
Even more than his clothes or his car, both of which changed depending on his assignment, Bond would obviously wear his watch constantly. But make no mistake, unlike those of us who get attached to our watches, in the spy game there’s no room for sentimentality, and attachment could bring dangerous compromise. For Bond it was a tool, nothing more.
“Bond lifted his left wrist. Remembered that he no longer had a watch… He would get another one as soon as the shops opened after Boxing Day. Another Rolex? Probably. They were on the heavy side, but they worked. And at least you could see the time in the dark with those big phosphorus numerals.”
We never do find out which Rolex Bond buys after Boxing Day. Perhaps he decides to change things up and buy that Submariner with the big crown and rotating bezel. As a diver, it could be useful. Fleming leaves us hanging near the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and a Rolex never appears in a Fleming/Bond novel again. The next time we see one on 007’s wrist is in the first movie, Dr. No where Sean Connery dons his iconic reference 6538 Submariner. Fleming was on set for some of the filming of that movie and perhaps had some influence on the clothing and accessories of his hero. He would have certainly approved of Bond’s choice of the Submariner–a former naval officer and man of action wearing what would soon become the 20th century’s definitive sports watch.