Friday, September 16, 2011

The Greatest Rolex That Never Was.

In April 2004, Antiquorum auctioned a strange watch. It was purported to be a Rolex prototype designed for the U.S. Military. Here is the catalog auction description:

This is the first watch known to be sold at auction, with dial marked "U.S.Marine". The case of this watch is perfectly engineered for heavy military use. Its large size ensures that the wrist will be completely covered, thereby preventing the injuries sometimes caused by violent impacts to smaller watches, the winding crown positioned at 4 o’clock, with its sloping crown guard, affords better protection than the standard configuration of crown and guard at 3. The rounded hoods covering the lugs reduce the possibility of the watch’s becoming caught in equipment and also act as locks for the bezel. The steel rotating 12-hour bezel effectively gives an hour and minute recorder which is invaluable in military exercises. Overall, this watch was designed for only one purpose, to tell time in some of the harshest environments and under the most extreme conditions, the types of activity that are synonymous with the U.S. Marine Corps. According to unofficial information from Rolex, two similar prototypes by Tudor were offered to the U.S. Navy. One of these Tudor prototypes was sold by Antiquorum NY in May 1998, lot 36. The present watch will be illustrated in the upcoming book on Rolex, soon to be published by Guido Mondani.

The sale of this watch caused a great deal of controversy. Some experts declared it an unequivocal fake. At first glance, it would seem to be a very fanciful creation. The citation to "unofficial information" and the laughable "U.S. Marine" (vs. U.S. Marines) inscription did not encourage much confidence either. Still, someone appears to have paid over $100,000 (114,000 Swiss francs) for this admittedly rare and unique object.

My own opinion is the same as what appears to be the consensus among advanced military watch collectors. Fake. Or is it? First, if this is a prototype U.S. Military watch, there would exist some documentation of a RFP or milspec that this watch would have been made to compete for. There is none. In addition, it would have been unprecedented that the Marines would have solicited a separate watch for their branch. Due to historical connections, the Dept. of the Navy's Bureau of Ships has always handled Marines procurement. In fact, the Tornek Rayville TR-900, although a Navy procurement, was ultimately issued to mostly (if not exclusively) Marine Recon personnel during the Vietnam war. We would be led to believe that this watch would have competed with the Benrus Type I. While the Benrus is well documented, no one has found a peep about any Rolex or Tudor competitor.

Finally, a well-regarded Hong Kong-based watch restorer took credit for this creation about four years ago. It was reported to be a fantasy piece put together with real Rolex parts and Vietnamese (some irony there) components, custom made for a wealthy Japanese collector to his specifications.

Real or not, the watch is a masterpiece of design. The Rolex Submariner is the most iconic watch design of the 20th Century. It has been knocked off and "homagde" to death. It is the watch design that has launched a thousand bastard children. Virtually none of these spawn have contributed anything new to this design idiom.

However, the best was yet to come. Enter Sato-san. "Ken" Sato invented the "homage" watch genre in the 1990's with his fanciful and parodic Rolex Submariner reinventions sold in Japan under the "Prolex" label, and then later, the "RXW" brand. (For a primer in Sato-san's work, see here .) These are not knock-offs or copies, and surely not "fakes." Ken Sato is an advanced collector of vintage Rolex watches who combines this with a deep love of the Rolex design vocabulary and a great eye for design.

After coming up with his uniquely Japanese take on the Milgauss, Comex, and Milsub, Ken Sato took on the design of the controversial U.S. Marine watch, calling his creation the "Subpromarine." I hope that he never believed that this U.S. Marine "prototype" was real. However, I am sure that he immediately recognized the beauty of the design. But, where the design of the Hong Kong fantasy piece was overblown, Ken Sato's take on it was subdued, and in so doing, achieved design perfection. To summarize, Ken Sato's watch was an homage to a fake, one that arguably surpassed the original. The ultimate irony was when Sato's Subpromarine began itself to be faked, and was being sold for 1/3 the price on Ebay. There was no comparison, however, the fake having a glass crystal, a cheap Chinese movement and a plastic retainer ring. A fake of a homage to a fake.

I have had my eye on this watch for some time. But when I saw that Ken Sato's Website showed that only a dozen were left in stock, at a clearance price, I couldn't resist.

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