Rolex’s history with military forces spans nearly a century. In that time, they’ve designed timepieces for a wide array of military groups. One of their most famous partnerships has been with the British Ministry of Defense, for whom they created the MilSub. In the States, there’s the legendary Turn-O-Graph for the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron called the Thunderbirds. Aside from these more prominent collaborations, there are countless others that are lesser known. For instance, they designed a variation of the Daytona for the Peruvian Air Force. The UAE Ministry of Defense commissioned a GMT Master, and the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Defense commissioned an Air-King. Here, we’ll look at Rolex’s military past and how they continue to play a role among military forces today.
The Gateway to Military Partnerships
One key development helped the Rolex brand gain recognition among military forces: the Oyster case. When the brand first introduced the patented design in 1926, it was a pivotal moment in the horological history. However, it was not the Oyster case alone that led to Rolex’s first military endeavor. It was also a crucial partnership with one of the brand’s industry counterparts.
In the 1930s, Panerai was continuing to grow their work with the Royal Italian Navy. They were specifically tasked with developing a model that was robust enough to serve the Navy’s Frogmen who manned Slow Moving Torpedoes to their designated targets during covert night missions. The brand had been focusing their efforts on experimenting with luminous materials since the early 1900s, filing the patent for Radiomir in 1916. However, they still needed to improve their water-resistance technology. Naturally, they looked to Rolex and the Oyster. Together, they were able to design the Reference 3646 that would become the first official Radiomir model. It proved to be a resounding success. As a result, Rolex and Panerai continued to work together on watches for the Italian military for over two decades.
The Second World War
During WWII, nearly every watchmaker around the globe shifted their production from civilian models to military models. The Swiss, being neutral in the conflict per the Treaty of Paris, produced watches for both the Allied and Axis forces. However, Rolex decided to take a stand. The brand’s founder, Hans Wilsdorf, was German, but he adamantly opposed Hitler’s regime. So, Rolex manufactured watches exclusively for the Allied Powers. Some models that emerged from this era included the Reference 3525 “Monoblocco,” which was a precursor to the chronograph.
However, the most famous models to come out of Rolex’s work during WWII are the Air series. Rolex specifically designed these watches for members of the British Royal Air Force who served in the Battle of Britain. Early on, its rumored the RAF pilots discarded their standard-issue watches. Instead, they purchased their own Oyster Perpetuals, which were far better suited for their dangerous missions. Word reached Wilsdorf, and he decided to create a collection of dedicated watches for these heroes. The Air series consisted of a number of models including the Air-Lion, Air-Tiger, Air-Giant, and Air-King. Of the models in the collection, the Air-King is the only one that continues to be in production today.
The Latter Half of the Twentieth Century
Following the war, it was yet another Rolex innovation that caught the attention of military forces. In 1953, the brand launched a new variation of the popular Datejust called the Turn-O-Graph. The model introduced several firsts for Rolex. It was the brand’s first official tool watch. It was the first model released in two-tone gold and stainless steel. And eventually, it would become their first certified military watch. However, the most important attribute was the unique, rotating, 60-unit bezel. This is where the model’s name came from. The Turn-O-Graph bezel allows you to track two different types of measurements: elapsed time or a specific interval. Best of all, it was incredibly easy to use. This made it perfect for navigational calculations necessary for military forces, like the U.S. Air Force’s aerobatic regiment. Soon, it became their official timepiece and garnered the nickname “Thunderbird.”
A year later, Rolex got their big break among military forces. In 1954, the brand secured their most well-known military partnership with the British Ministry of Defense. They made the iconic Submariner the official watch of the Royal Navy, and it became the MilSub. Rolex only had to make two key revisions to the existing Submariner to make it fit for military forces. They gave it a larger and therefore easier to operate bezel and a NATO strap. Early examples include the Reference 6538 Big Crown and later the Ref. A/6538 and 5512.
Rolex only produced these initial models in very small quantities. For instance, there were only around 50 units of the Ref. 6538. Needless to say, they continue to be highly prized and command high prices in the pre-owned market today. The Ministry of Defense briefly switched to the OMEGA Seamaster in 1967.
However, they came back to Rolex just a few years later in 1971. The models of this era, like the Reference 5513 and 5517, are the MilSubs people typically think of. They feature sword-shaped hands and a full graduated bezel. In addition, Rolex produced them in much larger quantities. Still, the Submariner started to grow in popularity among the community at large and prices increased. Eventually, they exceeded what the Ministry of Defense was willing to pay. By the 1980s, they had ended their relationship with Rolex. Instead, they turned to a modest British brand called the Cabot Watch Company.
The Legacy that Continues on Today
Rolex’s work with military forces has arguably declined in the twenty-first century. Yet, in a way, their projects have just become more specialized. Today, their partnerships are more commonly with specific regiments or to commemorate specific military events. For instance, there were special editions of the Submariner and Explorer II custom ordered by the Special Reconnaissance Regiment of the British Armed Forces in the early 2000s.