A Comeback for the Military Watch
New York Times, September 2, 2014
NEW YORK — On the evening of March 19, 2003, Giovanni Feroce was a ground operations officer in the United States Army stationed at the Command Forward Headquarters in Qatar when he was called on to help kick off Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“The Navy’s launching Tomahawk missiles, the Army’s launching Shock and Awe — the timing of everything has to come together, down to the minute,” he recalled in a recent phone conversation.
Mr. Feroce retired in 2010 after 24 years of military service to enter the world of business — he served as chief executive of the jewelry brand Alex and Ani until March — but he still attributes his operational philosophy to the timekeeping habits he learned in the armed forces.
“I run business based on a military management system,” said Mr. Feroce. That includes using the phonetic alphabet adopted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO: “We’d use NLT — November Lima Tango — to mean you have to hit an objective ‘no later than’ such-and-such hours and such-and-such date,” he said.
On July 1, Mr. Feroce hit one timely objective when he acquired the license and trademarks for Benrus, an American watch brand best known for its military-issue timepieces. The company, founded in 1921, filed for bankruptcy in 1981; Mr. Feroce is in the midst of bringing it back to market. His goal is to transform Benrus into a lifestyle brand — selling things like backpacks, bomber jackets, even a men’s cologne called Benrus Black, a reference to “black ops” — with the watches taking center stage.
Mr. Feroce, who wore a Timex Expedition watch during his years of service, is hardly the first military man to appreciate the benefits of a reliable timepiece. In the opening pages of Tim O’Brien’s 1990 war classic “The Things They Carried,” the narrator takes inventory of the items his fellow infantrymen brought to battle.
“The things they carried were largely determined by necessity,” Mr. O’Brien wrote. “Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.”
The P-38 was a folding, pocket-sized tool introduced during World War II to open the canned combat meals known as C rations.
Technically, soldiers didn’t carry watches; they wore them — at least since the Boer Wars of the late 19th century, when cumbersome pocket watches began to give way to more practical styles that could be strapped to the wrist. The utilitarian wristwatch has been a staple of military action ever since.
Many watchmakers — cognizant of their connection to some of the past century’s most storied conflicts — have been in a noticeably nostalgic mood since the 70th anniversary of World War II’s D-Day Normandy landings on June 6 and the June 28 centennial of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria’s assassination, the event that triggered World War I.
Take the ubiquity of so-called “NATO straps,” the multicolored nylon straps that are now routinely seen on low-priced battery-powered models and up-market Rolex Submariners alike. Their first documented use appears to have been in 1973, when Britain’s Defense Ministry introduced them to military supply stores. Distinguished by a failsafe loop-through feature, the dependable straps were originally known as G10s, after the form that British soldiers had to fill out to acquire them, according to Shane Griffin, writing on GearPatrol.com.
“NATO now is kind of a generic term for a strap that pulls through,” said Stephen Pulvirent, associate editor of the watch blog Hodinkee. “It’s two pieces sewn together, and you thread it through the spring bars. Even if one part was to be cut or torn or one of the spring bars was broken, it still held.”
Other watch styling tropes developed for, or popularized by, military use have become so commonplace as to seem generic — classic round cases and black dials that glow with luminescent numerals for nighttime viewing, for example.
In the United States, the vogue for these watches is sometimes attributed to the large percentage of the population closely related to men and women in the armed forces. “We found that one out of every six Americans is directly connected to the military,” said Morris Chabbott, managing director of Moret Time, a division of the Moret Group, whose Wrist Armor brand is licensed to produce watches for the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy. “That’s not including neighbors, cousins and friends.”
Others, however, say the appeal is all about the watches’ rugged and aggressively retro styling. “You think of World War II and the look is pretty basic: not too cluttered, black dial, military green,” said Greg Simonian, president of Westime, a watch retailer in Los Angeles. “A lot of it has to do with the strap.”
Drew Boen can testify to that. Five years ago Mr. Boen, a private jet manager in the San Francisco Bay area, crafted his own strap from his father-in-law’s Vietnam-era military canvas bag. He posted photos on various watch forums and now has a three-month waiting list for his handmade canvas straps, which sell for $105. “It’s fashion — just like people wearing camouflage shorts or camouflage hats,” he said.
Statement of solidarity or merely a style statement, there’s no question that the trendiness of the military aesthetic rests on a complicated and fascinating history.
The Great War popularized the wristwatch, which, despite its appearance during the Boer Wars, was previously considered appropriate only for ladies’ timepieces. There was just one problem: “Wristwatches were still evolving out of pocket watches, and the dials were typically made of enamel,” said Michael L. Friedman, a historian for the Swiss brand Audemars Piguet. “They were fragile so you had to put on a shrapnel guard — a metal grill — to protect them.”
By the start of World War II, watchmakers in America, Switzerland and Japan were under strict orders to produce sturdier timepieces. Watches manufactured under the codified set of military specifications collectively known as “Mil-Spec” were known for their classic combination of robustness and legibility, both of which are essential to their enduring appeal.
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“In World War II, they immediately became functional, rugged watches that would survive the extremes: temperatures, waters, magnetism, shock and vibration,” said the horological historian David A. Christianson. “And of course that influenced the modern watch. Watches of today are almost always shock resistant and resistant to magnetism. And the nonreflective cases of World War II are pretty standard in the sport watch industry.”
Much of this product innovation took place in America, where homegrown brands such as Elgin, Hamilton and Waltham were among the most prolific producers of military watches.
At Hamilton, timepieces designed for strategic use included elapsed time clocks for pilots, marine chronometers to plot sea battles and simple time-only watches for infantrymen, like the Hamilton Khaki, introduced in 1919 and still a core part of the brand’s collection.
“The war changed the whole company,” said Sylvain Dolla, chief executive of Hamilton. “In one year, the business model went from delivering consumer watches to supplying the army.”
American watchmakers’ patriotism, however, came at a steep price. “They used all their R.&D. for the military, and all their manufacturing capacity,” Mr. Christianson said. “As a result, when the war ended, they didn’t have any watches to sell. And the Swiss didn’t do that. They jumped right in and captured the U.S. market.”
The postwar demise of America’s domestic watch production found a parallel in the German watchmaking industry, which saw its factories either destroyed during World War II or coopted by the Soviets during the Cold War that followed.
In May 1945, after completing his service to the German Army, Walter Lange, a descendant of the family behind A. Lange & Söhne — a well-regarded maker of pocket watches founded in 1845 in Germany’s Saxony region — returned to his hometown of Glashütte.
“The first night he spent in his family home after a long time, a bomb hit the production factory and it was completely destroyed,” recalled Arnd Einhorn, the brand’s director of public relations, recently. “Everything that was left was handed over to the Russians. In 1948, the company was nationalized and expropriated.”
It was not until 1990, when Mr. Lange was retired, that the fall of the Berlin Wall opened the way for the rebirth of A. Lange & Söhne as a luxury brand.
The Swiss watch industry, on the other hand, largely avoided such a devastating fate. While the war certainly put a general damper on business in Switzerland, plenty of watchmakers exploited their country’s neutrality by playing both sides of the Axis-Allies divide.
IWC Schaffhausen, for example, supplied the W.W.W. (“Watch, Wrist, Waterproof”) — a.k.a. the Mark X — to the British Army in the late 1930s, earning a broad arrow logo designation from the British crown that is today a favored icon among collectors of vintage timepieces. Yet that did not prevent the Swiss-German watchmaker from also supplying pilot’s watches to the German Luftwaffe.
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Rival Swiss watchmakers — Breitling, Longines and Omega, to name a few — not to mention Panerai, a Florence, Italy-based maker of precision instruments for the Italian Navy’s elite frogmen, were equally invested in military production.
But if one brand dominates the subculture of military watch collecting today, it is surely Rolex. In the 1970s, the Geneva firm produced a series of Submariner dive watches with a handful of distinctive features — fixed solid spring bars, sword hands and a “T” in a circle on the dial representing tritium on the markers — for the British Ministry of Defense. Known as “MilSubs,” extant models in good condition are burning up the secondary market.
“Collecting these military issue Rolex Submariners from the 1970s has taken on mythic proportions,” said John Reardon, international co-head of Christie’s watch department. He cited a 1974 MilSub reference 5513 that sold in Geneva in May for $195,873, setting a new auction record for a MilSub.
Even more mythical are Rolex MilSubs made for the Iranian Special Forces in the mid 1970s, said Mr. Reardon, calling them “the holy grail of military watches.” Experts estimate there are only 10 or so in existence.
While Rolex remains a collectors’ darling in this category, other Swiss makers were also quick to capitalize on an increased demand for diving watches prompted by the Vietnam War, Mr. Friedman said.
Rolex’s sister brand, Tudor, for example, delivered watches to the French Navy, the Marine Nationale, starting in the 1960s. In 1969, when French divers asked the company to modify the shape of the hour and minute hands on its watches to make them more distinguishable underwater, Tudor responded by creating its iconic “snowflake hands,” said the brand’s head of marketing and product development, Davide Cerrato. Its contemporary Heritage collection, he said, bears the same hands, in homage to the brand’s military roots.
One watchmaker with a unique, and largely neglected, military history is Seiko. Once the chief supplier to the Japanese Army, the brand gained a following among American servicemen in Southeast Asia. “The watches didn’t really go worldwide until our soldiers in Vietnam discovered how well they ran in the humidity and heat of the jungles,” Mr. Christianson, the historian, said. “They were so impressed with them that when they came back to the U.S., they started demanding retailers carry them.”
As the 20th century drew to a close, the Swiss mechanical watch industry settled in for its own Cold War, as Seiko and its Japanese cohorts — now building mostly quartz-powered movements — began to dominate the market. (In 1983, Casio became a juggernaut in the business when it introduced its immensely popular G-Shock model, a favorite among today’s enlisted men.)
Still, the Swiss were reluctant to relinquish their ties to the military, and vice versa. Tudor, for example, made its watches available to Vietnam-era United States Navy SEALS at good discounts. A SEAL commander by the name of Larry Simmons purchased one for “about $50,” as he recalled it, and wore it on countless missions in Vietnam before the watch was “flooded out” in 1978. He sent it in for repair, but the cost of the fix was so much more than he had paid for the timepiece that he “just forgot about it,” Mr. Simmons, now an author in San Diego, said.
Early this summer, Tudor executives discovered Mr. Simmons’s watch in a safe in Geneva during an archival review. “They repaired it for me and sent it back a couple weeks ago,” he said.
Mr. Simmons has yet to wear his recovered Swiss timepiece. “I work overseas a lot,” he said, citing an upcoming trip to West Africa and recent trips to Afghanistan and Iraq. “I take only cheap watches. I got an Armitron for $20. It does everything I need it to do, and nobody would rip my arm off for it.”