Rolex has a nearly century-long relationship with military forces. During that time, they’ve created timepieces for a wide range of military organisations. One of their most well-known collaborations was with the British Ministry of Defense, for whom they developed the MilSub. In the United States, there is the legendary Turn-O-Graph for the United States Air Force Demonstration Squadron known as the Thunderbirds. Aside from these more well-known collaborations, there are numerous others that are less well-known. For example, they created a Daytona variant for the Peruvian Air Force. The UAE Ministry of Defense ordered a GMT Master, while the Saudi Ministry of Defense ordered an Air-King. In this section, we will look at Rolex’s military history and how they continue to play a role in military forces today.
Military Partnerships at the Crossroads
The Oyster case was a key development that aided the Rolex brand’s recognition among military forces. It was a watershed moment in horological history when the brand first introduced the patented design in 1926. However, it was not just the Oyster case that inspired Rolex’s first military venture. It was also an important collaboration with one of the brand’s industry counterparts.
Panerai’s collaboration with the Royal Italian Navy expanded in the 1930s. They were tasked with creating a model that was robust enough to serve the Navy’s Frogmen, who guided Slow Moving Torpedoes to their designated targets during covert night missions. Since the early 1900s, the company has focused its efforts on experimenting with luminous materials, filing the Radiomir patent in 1916. They did, however, need to improve their water-resistance technology. They naturally looked to Rolex and the Oyster. They collaborated to create the Reference 3646, which became the first official Radiomir model. It was an unqualified success. As a result, Rolex and Panerai collaborated on watches for the Italian military for more than two decades.
Second World War
During WWII, nearly every watchmaker in the world switched production from civilian to military models. The Swiss, who were neutral in the war under the Treaty of Paris, manufactured watches for both the Allied and Axis forces. Rolex, on the other hand, decided to take a stand. Hans Wilsdorf, the brand’s founder, was German, but he was vehemently opposed to Hitler’s regime. As a result, Rolex produced watches solely for the Allied Powers. The Reference 3525 “Monoblocco,” a precursor to the chronograph, was one of the models that emerged during this time period.
The most famous models to emerge from Rolex’s work during WWII, however, are the Air series. Rolex created these watches specifically for members of the British Royal Air Force who served in the Battle of Britain. It was rumoured early on that RAF pilots threw away their standard-issue watches. Instead, they bought their own Oyster Perpetuals, which were far more suitable for their dangerous missions. When word got to Wilsdorf, he decided to create a collection of watches specifically for these heroes. The Air series included several models such as the Air-Lion, Air-Tiger, Air-Giant, and Air-King. The Air-King is the only model in the collection that is still in production today.
The Second Decade of the Twentieth Century
Following the war, another Rolex innovation drew the attention of military forces. The Turn-O-Graph, a new variation of the popular Datejust, was introduced in 1953. Rolex made several firsts with this model. It was the first official tool watch from the brand. It was the first model to be available in two-tone gold and stainless steel. It would eventually become their first certified military watch. The most notable feature, however, was the one-of-a-kind, rotating, 60-unit bezel. This is where the model got her name. The Turn-O-Graph bezel can track two types of measurements: elapsed time and a specific interval. Best of all, it was extremely simple to use. This made it ideal for military navigational calculations, such as those required by the United States Air Force’s aerobatic regiment. It quickly became their official timepiece, earning them the moniker “Thunderbird.”
Rolex got their big break among military forces a year later. The brand’s most well-known military partnership was with the British Ministry of Defense in 1954. They made the iconic Submariner the Royal Navy’s official watch, and it became the MilSub. Rolex only needed to make two major changes to the existing Submariner to make it suitable for military use. They gave it a larger, easier-to-operate bezel and a NATO strap. The Reference 6538 Big Crown, and later the Reference A/6538 and 5512, were early examples.
Rolex only made a small number of these early models. The Ref. 6538, for example, was limited to around 50 units. Needless to say, they are still highly valued and command high prices in the used market today. In 1967, the Ministry of Defense briefly switched to the OMEGA Seamaster.
They returned to Rolex only a few years later, in 1971. This era’s models, such as the Reference 5513 and 5517, are the MilSubs that most people think of. They have sword-shaped hands as well as a fully graduated bezel. Furthermore, Rolex manufactured them in much larger quantities. Nonetheless, the Submariner gained popularity among the general public, and prices began to rise. They eventually outstripped what the Ministry of Defense was willing to pay. They had ended their relationship with Rolex by the 1980s. Instead, they turned to the Cabot Watch Company, a small British company.
The Legacy That Is Still Alive Today
Rolex’s involvement with military forces appears to have declined in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, their projects have become more specialised in some ways. Today, they frequently collaborate with specific regiments or to commemorate specific military events. In the early 2000s, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment of the British Armed Forces, for example, ordered special editions of the Submariner and Explorer II.