It was a pilot’s timepiece that first drew Bill Heming to military watches. Previously a diving watch enthusiast, he had admired the style and engineering of a friend’s Breguet Type 20, issued by the French military in the 1950s, and bought his own at auction five years ago.
He regards such watches — those purchased by a military from a manufacturer and issued to service personnel — as a “piece of history”. “They are also relatively rare so it is somewhat of a challenge to find them,” says the retired lawyer from Boston, who sources pieces at auction, through fellow collectors or at specialist shops.
His hobby coincides with a wider uptick in interest as watch enthusiasts’ websites, forums and social media put military pieces on collectors’ radars.
There has been “really remarkable growth” in auction prices over the past five years, says Eric Wind, vice-president of Christie’s watch department in New York. He partly attributes this to better scholarship and thus increased knowledge about pieces’ unique characteristics, how many were made and how many survive. “For many models, we’ve seen them grow 300 per cent in five years, some far more,” he says.
Before 2016, Mr Wind says the record price for a Heuer Autavia made for the Israel Defense Forces was probably around $10,000-$12,000; in November 2016 in Geneva, Christie’s sold one from the 1980s for SFr62,500 (then $63,200), more than treble its estimate.
An Omega Seamaster 30 made in 1963 for the Republic of Singapore Air Force achieved SFr12,500 in the same sale, also exceeding its high estimate. Phillips will offer two rare Heuer Carreras, issued by the Jordanian air force and the Angolan army, for sale in November.
Watch collectors, rather than military history buffs, are driving the market, say auction house watch specialists. Part of the appeal of these pieces, which usually have military-issue markings on the back and are often made for specific purposes such as diving or flying, is the distinctive features not found on equivalent civilian models.
The Rolex Military Submariner (“MilSub”), for example, has sword-shaped luminous hands and a bezel marked with minutes all the way round — instead of the first 15 minutes only, as on a regular model. It has solid bars between fixed lugs that mean it has to be worn with a Nato strap (one that folds through the bars, which cannot be pulled off).
“All those things were actually defined by the Ministry of Defence in a contract for Rolex,” says Jonathan Darracott, head of watches at Bonhams.
The MoD issued three series of the MilSub in the 1970s, the “holy grail” (according to Mr Darracott) being the reference 5517/5513: Bonhams sold one for £120,100 in London in December 2015. Another sought-after model issued by the MoD is the Omega military Seamaster 300.
Mr Darracott says there is “tangible” interest in these watches because they were made specifically for the military and are “quite rare beasts” since they were produced in limited numbers and not all survived. About 1,000 Tornek-Rayville dive watches were made for the US Navy during the Vietnam war, according to factory documentation.
Countries were not brand-loyal; the French used a number of manufacturers including Breguet to make Type 20 watches to the same specifications for their Aéronavale (naval air force). But they were certainly brand-aware. Bonhams recently offered for sale 11 Omegas issued to the Pakistan Air Force in the 1950s and 1960s. “They’re models that had names already, so they were the Ranchero and the Railmaster,” says Mr Darracott. “Popular fable says that [the Pakistani military] didn’t really want to issue their officers with something which is called the Railmaster — because the rail in Pakistan is the public mode of transport — or the Ranchero — a ranch person is not particularly officer material — so they had those names completely taken off the dial and had ‘Seamaster’ put on there instead.”
While military watches from the first world war come up for auction, the pieces popular with collectors date from the second world war onwards, partly because these tend to be larger and more to current tastes.
Government-issued military watches started declining in number in the 1990s, according to Mr Wind. “[Today] militaries generally don’t purchase watches and issue them or, if they do, they’re off-the-shelf items that other people can buy,” says Mr Wind.
Military watches can come with moral qualms: they may have been involved in deadly attacks or even crimes against humanity. In December 2015, Bonhams sold a Japanese Imperial Air Force Seikosha believed to date from the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor and a pilot’s watch produced around 1942 by A Lange & Söhne for the Luftwaffe, the German air force during the second world war. Other second world war models in demand include those signed by Rolex and sold by Panerai to the Italian military, which Mr Wind says in many cases issued them to German frogmen whom it was training.
He believes watch enthusiasts who do buy Nazi-era pieces are not so much interested in the history as the design. Mr Heming says it was indeed the “amazing design” that attracted him to his 1944 anonymous piece, attributed to Panerai and Rolex, belonging to a German combat swimmer. He says that while the history is “bothering”, his purchase of the watch is “by no means a statement of support or confirmation that what went on was right”.
Mr Heming’s piece does not feature Nazi symbols. But some collectors will “pay a premium” for original markings, many of which were polished off after the war, says Paul Maudsley, international specialist director of watches at Phillips. Auction houses are reluctant to handle such pieces, however. “We hesitate to sell things that have insignia that is Nazi-related,” says Mr Darracott.
The variety of military watches available means the category is “a very broad church”, says Mr Maudsley. With some pieces selling for hundreds of pounds, it also provides “a very visible and affordable entry” into collecting.
But collectors will require patience, warns Mr Heming, as condition is highly variable. “Many people . . . would much rather have a perfect watch and these things are 50 or 60 years old now and were used in war,” he says. They earned their scars.