Featured: The Watch Makes The Man: James Bond and His Rolex

The Watch Makes The Man: James Bond and His Rolex

By Petrolicious Productions
February 6, 2015
20 comments

Story by Jason Heaton, a HODINKEE contributor; photos courtesy of HQMilton.com

“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.

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Faris Alfiê
Faris Alfiê
7 years ago

Bond wears seamaster

James Thompson
James Thompson
7 years ago

I’m a car guy and a watch collector. The history and technological advances of both genres fascinate me. I’ve owned several Rolex watches and they’re not my favorite for a number of reasons but I can appreciate them. I appreciate their timeless design; few companies make aesthetically unchanged products that are relevant over a 50 year period. This helps them retain their value. Most people wouldn’t know if your submariner is from 1995 or 2015. I appreciate their movements. Most watch companies outsource the majority of their movements to companies like ETA, Rolex doesn’t. They maintain the highest accuracy standards.
So can Rolex be a status symbol? Sure, just like a Ferrari. You won’t take your Sea Dweller 2,000 ft under water and you probably won’t drive your Enzo around the ring in under 8 minutes but you appreciate that it could. So a Timex is practical and so is a Prius.
All that being said, I think they’re over priced and I’d rather have an IWC, Jaeger or Vacheron. But if I ever get an itch for a Rolex again, I’ll opt for a more affordable Tudor.

Ralph Derango
Ralph Derango
7 years ago
Reply to  James Thompson

If I am not mistaken, modern Tudors use an ETA, not Rolex movement, in a Rolex Oyster case.

Nick
Nick
7 years ago

As a big Bond fan, one must also remember that Bond (Roger Moore) wore a Digital Seiko in Spy Who Loved Me & Moonraker! what were the producers thinking…..Bit similar to Bond driving BMW’s in the Brosnan films….ghastly.

alex lazeanu
alex lazeanu
7 years ago
Reply to  Nick

wow

Paul Steel
Paul Steel
7 years ago

The watch didnt make the Bond character, but Bond helped define and elevate the brand, be it Rolex or Omega, Aston Martin or Bentley, they have become well known aspirational luxury brands for people that can’t afford it, a status symbol for those who can, and an object of derision for the well off, watch snob and style brigade.

Tanner Bond
Tanner Bond
7 years ago

I’m seeing a lot of bashing going back and forth here. Regardless of whether you are pro/con Rolex, Omega, Swatch, Timex, etc, we all have our likes and dislikes for every brand for our own various reasons. I’ve known people that swear by the Rolex brand and I know others that swear at the Rolex name. I’m sure the same can be said of any brand. If you like it for whatever the reason, go with that. Regardless, this was a great article referring to what makes a man. A good watch is something that you stand behind because it stands behind you. I work in an industry that would eat any and all expensive watches for lunch. Hence a Casio G-Shock does the job and if its ripped off my wrist, I won’t cry at its loss. My go to time piece is an Omega Seamaster when I’m off the clock. Not because I think its better than a Rolex, I just like the style and if its in the cards one day, a Rolex Submariner or GMT Master could find its way to my wrist. When I hear people point out every single flaw of a watchmaker while claiming their favorite as best, I chuckle because its like saying a single car model is the absolute best vehicle ever made for every type of driving situation. There is no absolute when it comes to cars, watches, suits or cocktails. Each one serves its purpose and excels at something that others do not. The question is, which one will you choose when you need it for the task at hand?

Tanner Bond
Tanner Bond
7 years ago

I’m seeing a lot of bashing going back and forth here. Regardless of whether you are pro/con Rolex, Omega, Swatch, Timex, etc, we all have our likes and dislikes for every brand for our own various reasons. I’ve known people that swear by the Rolex brand and I know others that swear at the Rolex name. I’m sure the same can be said of any brand. If you like it for whatever the reason, go with that. Regardless, this was a great article referring to what makes a man. A good watch is something that you stand behind because it stands behind you. I work in an industry that would eat any and all expensive watches for lunch. Hence a Casio G-Shock does the job and if its ripped off my wrist, I won’t cry at its loss. My go to time piece is an Omega Seamaster when I’m off the clock. Not because I think its better than a Rolex, I just like the style and if its in the cards one day, a Rolex Submariner or GMT Master could find its way to my wrist. When I hear people point out every single flaw of a watchmaker while claiming their favorite as best, I chuckle because its like saying a single car model is the absolute best vehicle ever made for every type of driving situation. There is no absolute when it comes to cars, watches, suits or cocktails. Each one serves its purpose and excels at something that others do not. The question is, which one will you choose when you need it for the task at hand?

Frank Anigbo
Frank Anigbo
7 years ago

Good history on Bond’s choice of watch. Let’s remember that the Rolex of that time is not the Rolex of today. In Flemming’s time, Rolex (according to this article) was utilitarian and reliable when compared to other watches. Today, watches like these are, for most people, jewelry that happens to also tell time. If you want a just a watch, you can spend a whole lot less money or just get rid of the watch and use your mobile phone. Think of a car like Ferrari’s LaFerrari. Is it a car or art that happens to have the attributes of what we agree a basic automobile must have. You can spend a lot less if you wanted just wanted a car. When you look at a Rolex in the same way that a LaFerrari buyer sees his car then you must accept that a Rolex represents to its wearer the things that has made humans to adorn themselves with jewelry since the beginning of civilization. I think it has less to do with utility and everything to do with style, fashion, emotion.

To Mr. James, the Rolex is not the most over-hyped thing out there, I think that honor may belong to the diamond as they are not nearly as rare as we are collectively led to believe. But to deny your beloved the diamond ring of their desire because you think it’s a sham is to miss the point of what it represents. Like diamonds, the watch can make the man, just like as our relatively unreliable old cars define who we are, not because of what it is worth but because of the style, fashion and emotional property they bestow on us.

Frank Wulfers
Frank Wulfers
7 years ago

Not much into status products for the wealthy but… what’s the relation of watches to classic cars? Or is this a petrol-powered watch?

David Allison
David Allison
7 years ago
Reply to  Frank Wulfers

Status products for the wealthy? Yes, but what a boring world it would be without all these cool devices!

Chris Jeffs
Chris Jeffs
7 years ago

A lot of emotive critique here which I actually find surprising.

Felt Martin may be on to something until he started ranting on about his quartz being better than an automatic… look we get it, we really do but you’re missing the point. The wisdom? Unnecessary.

Cade again delved into the tiers of mechanical brilliance but came up short when he believed an Audemars would not hit the same flawed criticism as a Rolex.

And Shawn, referring to a sound system company? Sorry, what?

This is a really neat little article which touches on lots of points which could prompt further investigation. I’d like to see the comments stick to [i]why[/i] would Bond have worn it rather than why you may choose to or not to wear it. After all some people are going to hate on Rolex, some are going to hate on Omega… pff debate it with the Pros over at PuristS.

Martin James
Martin James
7 years ago

Rolex . Perhaps the single most over hyped brand of the 20th and 21st century . All pretense , A lot of hype , and a cadre of marketing expertise able to convince the buying public that a Rolex is in fact even the equal … never mind better than any other quality Swiss watch ever manufactured . H*** …. my Swatch knock around watch keeps better time .. break down less , needing 1/100th of the service required just to keep a Rolex running … despite the fact that the Swatch has been crashed [ M/C , Skiing & bicycling ] and drowned more times than I care to mention .

Put Rolex right up there with Rolls Royce in my opinion . Over priced myth designed to feed into the egos of those desperate for attention summing it up quite nicely

And by the way . Here’s a little wisdom . The watch [ or anything else ] never makes the man . Either the man is the man he is regardless of what he has on his wrist … or he just ain’t much of a man despite what he may or may not be wearing . Character makes the man . Everything else is just window dressing created to separate a fool from his/her money

Cade Johnson
Cade Johnson
7 years ago
Reply to  Martin James

I mostly agree with you. I wouldn’t buy most Rolex watches, but if I had all the car parts I could ever want, I could see myself toying with the notion of aquiring a new (to me) Patek Phillipe.

A Timex is a watch. An Audemars Piguet is mechanical art. A Rolex is a bedazzled codpiece.

Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange
7 years ago
Reply to  Cade Johnson

I’m certainly not a fan of the blinged up diamond encrusted gold Rolexes, but I do love my plain stainless steel Explorer II that I’ve worn almost everyday for the last 21 years, and plan to continue doing until the day I move onto the next life.

I tend to forget that Bond was originally associated with Rolex as more recent iterations seem to have him wearing an Omega.

Shawn Baden
Shawn Baden
7 years ago
Reply to  Martin James

I feel like Bose runs rings around Rolex and Rolls-Royce. They have a much lower quality-per-dollar in my opinion. They are masters of marketing.

WJR
WJR
7 years ago
Reply to  Martin James

a reverse snob….with a little wisdom. I suppose everyone with a rolex is pretentious and those with a swatch real men. what a joke.

David P
David P
7 years ago
Reply to  Martin James

Well that’s quite an opinion and you’re welcome to it.

What a shame to miss out out on all the history, the design, the innovation and the ability to be able to appreciate a product that you don’t have or want.
I find that narrow mindedness quite surprising on a website designed to appeal to those who are a little more discerning than your average punter.

Incidentally, I’m not really a fan of any modern Rolexes(save a few stainless Datejusts) or any other makes to be honest, but if you can’t grasp the enduring appeal of an old Sub, Explorer or Airking, you’re a bit mental mate.