SuperFinds: ‘James Bond’ Rolex
Michael Kliebenstein, author of SuperFinds, asks: ‘Can a classic watch be a real SuperFind, like a car? Yes, if it is an iconic piece with an amazing history.’
While studying cinematography in the early 1980s, I came across a fascinating old Rolex watch during my internship at Pinewood Film Studios near London. It belonged to one of the underwater cameramen who was working for Albert Broccoli‘s Eon Productions, producers of the James Bond movies.
Above: Michael’s 1957 Buick Roadmaster, parked in ‘Cubby’ Broccoli’s spot at Pinewood Studios.
As a young student I found the company’s senior production crew members particularly fascinating. As many of them had been part of the team since the early 1960s, working on films such as Dr. No and Goldfinger, I was very keen to hear some of their stories.
During lunch in the wood-panelled restaurant of the main building at Pinewood Studios the opportunity arose to involve myself in conversation with a group of these ‘old hands’ – a team of highly specialised underwater lighting cameramen. They were talking about all the risks involved shooting special effects during the extensive diving sequences for the James Bond movies. The conversation then turned into a general discussion about diving equipment.
When asked about diving watches, one guy pointed to his old, well-worn Rolex, which he referred to as, ‘this bloody old thing’. He said that Eon Productions had given the watch to him before shooting Thunderball in the mid-1960s. He was one of six underwater cameramen used in the film. He then began to tell me how he’d worn it every day of production and had even loaned it to Sean Connery for a scene in Thunderball where Bond had to check the time while standing on a peer. ‘It’s actually in the film’, he said. Presumably Connery had forgotten to wear his own Submariner that morning. Anyway, my new acquaintance said he’d worn the watch every day since then without it ever skipping a beat but that it had only recently been damaged by a little salt water ingress.
Above: The title page for a story Michael wrote about Rolex Tool Watches featured his reference 6538 Submariner.
After lunch I very discreetly asked him if I could have it and repair it. ‘Sure’, he said, as he was about to get a Sea-Dweller – the latest diving model from Rolex at the time. So I made him a sensible offer and bought the watch that day. I wore it for decades, taking it with me on shoots all around the world. I remember taking it on a four-week shoot to Chichén Itzá and Teotihuacán in Mexico.
Above: Michael (on the left), shooting in Teotihuacán, Mexico with cameraman Joe Longo (middle) and his assistant. You can’t see it but under that denim jacket is a trusty old Submariner.
I also took the watch with me to Manaus in the Amazon, and nearly lost it for good while playing pool at the river – a hotspot for pickpockets at the time, apparently. I took it off because I can’t shoot pool with a watch on my wrist. Fortunately it was still in my pocket later that afternoon.
One day I took it to a Rolex concessionaire in Munich to have it cleaned. They said that, as they’d never seen one like it, it was probably a fake and they therefore refused to touch it.
Incidentally, a similar thing happened with my Citroën SM when I took it into a Citroën concessionaire around the same time. It needed its ignition timing checked but they kindly asked me to leave. Perhaps a personal objection to its Italian connection?
Only much later, sometime in the early 1990s, I found out that this particular 1959 Rolex Submariner is called reference 6538, the very same model that James Bond wore in the early films. It is therefore no surprise that among watch aficionados, reference 6538 enjoys the most authentic status as ‘the’ James Bond model. Reference 6538 is distinguished by its large guard-less crown, black lacquer dial and gold lettering which over time has taken on a characteristic dark brown tone caused by humidity – a true ‘tropical’ dial.
It took me many years to find information on this model, because up until 1990 there was no literature on classic Rolex sports watches. In the old days the early non-crown-guard Submariners were not especially valuable – nobody seemed to care much for them.
I regarded my other watches, like my hand-wound Daytonas, as being far more valuable. With hindsight, I probably got that wrong. Anyway, it was quite emotional putting the Submariner and my other watches up for sale at Christie’s in the mid-2000s. I always loved wearing the old Sub. It was very dear to me.
Above: Christie’s took their own highly touched-up photograph of Michael's 1959 Rolex Submariner reference 6538, case number 449198.