There are times when you really wish that your watch could talk. And if I could imbue just one watch in my collection with the power of speech, there’s no doubt which it would be: my ‘dirty dozen’ Omega, which is actually one of the watches that I’ve owned for the longest time. It was given to me by my uncle in the late 1980s when it would have been ‘only’ 40 years old or so, and I was around 15.
It was through him – something of a watch collector himself – that I first learned about the legend of the ‘dirty dozen’ and found out more about field watches.
The story is well-known among aficionados, but here’s a brief recap: the British army commissioned a variety of field watches during the Second World War with a very specific design brief. A total of 12 different manufacturers – hence the ‘dirty dozen’ – answered the call, producing watches that looked similar, but all had their own individual characteristics and personalities.
The problem was that the war was more or less over once the watches were delivered, but never mind: they went on to see active service for many years to come, in all sorts of other conflicts and contexts. Many also found their way out of the British army into other armed forces. Like all enduring items of military equipment, the watches were repaired from time to time by the army’s engineers, who rarely deployed much finesse when it came to recommissioning. Instead, the priority was to get them back in action as quickly as possible, using whatever parts fitted and happened to fall to hand. As a result, there are all sorts of entirely legitimate Frankensteins lurking out there within dirty dozen collections – wearing their service hands with pride, as part of a distinguished military pedigree. Unlike most other scenarios in the watch-collecting world, originality is not necessarily an advantage when it comes to the dirty dozen. Who wants a perfectly preserved soldier, after all?
Of the 12 versions of the Waterproof Wrist Watch (hence the ‘WWW’ engraved on the back of each one, around half a century before the internet was born) the 35mm Omega is one of the most common, with up to 25,000 examples produced (out of around 140,000 dirty dozen watches in total) – although nobody is exactly sure about any of those numbers. The rarest is the Grana, an example of which sold for what is thought to be the record high for a dirty dozen watch – £18,000 – two years ago.
The one that I own first saw the light of day in around 1945 and eventually ended up in Italy, where it once belonged to a collector, who eventually sold it to a dealer in Turin, which is where my uncle got it from. Other details about its life are in frustratingly short supply, but the patina shows that it’s certainly lived a bit, with the original radium lume and Arabic numerals betraying the years of distinguished service. The small seconds hand is much newer than its counterparts and was probably fitted as recently as the 1980s. The strap too has been changed, about 10 years ago, although the similar one that came with it when my uncle bought the Omega is unlikely to be original either.
That was, and always will be – in my lifetime at least – the last time this watch is sold, as it’s one I am keeping forever, for all manner of reasons. The rich history of this watch was one that helped grow my interest into what became a fascinating hobby and then also a job. Quite literally, this is a watch that influenced the course of my life. It’s a fine tribute to my uncle too (who is still alive and well, enjoying all the watches he has accumulated over his lifetime) and it accompanied me faithfully during my university years; for a long time I wore the Omega every day. Throughout that period, I never stopped obsessing over the little details: the patina that matures year on year like a majestic oak tree, the famed WWW marking and individual serial number on the case back, and of course the distinctive ‘broad arrow’ logo on the face, as well as the granular dial itself, which looks as old as the surface of the moon. If only it could talk…
But it can’t, so that’s where your imagination has to come in. The fact that it was in Italy for a long time suggests that it may well have arrived during the tail end of the war and remained there for some reason; although perhaps not immediately.
Did its original British owner maybe become romantically involved with an Italian woman and decide to stay? Did he come back to find her after many years? Did they start a family, and did he pass the Omega onto his children as a souvenir of his time in Italy and how he met their mother? It’s a romantic, but not implausible tale. If true, this was a watch that would have accompanied its first owner from a time of fear and uncertainty into a life that he might never have expected. Hopefully a happy one, with his watch a constant reminder that the inexorable passage of time can deliver the greatest joys and surprises that go on to shape your destiny. Exactly as this watch did for me, in a very different way.
But at the time, our unknown soldier would have just thought of it as a tool; part of his military equipment. Just as a modern serviceman would view his carbon Luminox 3050, for example, as a standard issue for Navy SEALs these days.
We had one in the office recently, so the opportunity to put the two together was too good to miss. More than 75 years – three-quarters of a century – separate these two very different operational watches, but they were born to do exactly the same thing. Seeing them side to side makes you appreciate the evolution of the species. And also just how different they are, yet how similar too.
Watch collecting is a philosophical art because it makes you appreciate and think about your fleeting space in time like nothing else. One day in the future, just like the Omega right now, this Luminox too will evoke nostalgic memories of past conflicts and historic resolutions. Both sooner and later than we will ever realise.