A tale of two watches connected by the date and now the same owner...
There are some dates that are pleasingly symmetrical. And one of them is the 5 May 2005, or 05/05/05 if you want to write it down in numbers. Do you remember what you were doing on that day?
I do, but because I was on the other side of the world: in Auckland, New Zealand, to be precise. Auckland is known as the ‘city of sails’ thanks to its stunning maritime setting, which makes it the perfect host port for the America’s Cup – a regular visitor to New Zealand’s capital.
New Zealand captivates like nowhere else. On the one hand, the rural parts of the interior enjoy a slow pace of life that some say feels similar to Britain in the 1950s. People can go out without locking their front doors, and the staple diet is Pukka pies and chips.
On the other hand, Auckland is a truly cosmopolitan capital that features all the sophisticated hotels, restaurants and shops that you would expect to find at a globally renowned destination. Including a Rolex Authorised Dealer or two – such as About Time, founded by Chris Grima, which you can read about here.
The big question
Back then, I’d recently crossed the threshold of being 30 years old – which seemed incredibly mature at the time – and so decided that the time was right for me to buy a new Rolex. Financially, it was a stretch, but through the friend of a friend (who was a very good customer) I was put in touch with Chris, who was able to offer the seemingly impossible: a good deal on a new Rolex sports watch. In 2005, the exchange rate with the New Zealand dollar was also favourable – and I was scheduled to visit New Zealand anyway for work – so the stars all aligned. In what seems even more impossible, Chris had pretty much everything in stock and he promised to keep some aside. But on the long flight over there, I remember feeling very torn.
Did I want to go for the Submariner or the Explorer 1 (he had both)? Throughout the transit in Hong Kong and the final leg to Auckland on a Cathay Pacific Boeing 777, I kept on changing my mind.
Submariner. No, Explorer. No, definitely Submariner. So, why can’t I get the Explorer out of my head then? Eventually, halfway through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy (a new film back then) I must have fallen asleep, slack-jawed and comatose after Cathay’s generous servings of gin and tonic, but still none the wiser…
Thinking it over
Also on the trip to New Zealand was my good friend and colleague Steve, well-known as a man of wealth and taste (in his dreams, at least). He too though was on a mission to buy a Rolex, having thoroughly investigated all the possibilities. The result of his exhaustive research was a detailed map of how to get to About Time and the desire to own a Submariner. Easy to understand why: he said it was the ultimate tool watch – before I added “for the ultimate tool” – and who could disagree (on both counts)?
Seriously though, the Submariner was a stunning piece of kit: the watch that everyone wanted to own. And perhaps it was also that steering me slightly towards the Explorer in the end; the desire to have something a bit simpler, slightly less totemic. Something different from Steve too. But I still wasn’t sure. So as we got into my Holden Barina hire car (which sounds exciting, right up to the point where you realise that it’s a Vauxhall Corsa with a different badge) and headed to About Time, the jury was still out. As I walked in through the door, I genuinely didn’t know what I was going to come out with.
The big decision
I tried both of course, and Chris was extremely generous with his time and knowledge, hauling out all sorts of different watches for us to try. Unbelievably, you could just walk into a Rolex dealer and buy one back then. Or even two, as that’s exactly what Steve and I did. The Submariner looked amazing, and as it sat on my wrist I was convinced it was the one.
Then I tried on the Explorer 1, and forgot all about it. The clean, simple lines and case made it the archetypal watch to my eyes. The one I wanted to have, which just worked so cohesively at every level. Anyone who has listened to the ‘Time to Unwind’ podcast will have heard WatchGecko founder Jon Quinn’s view that the Rolex Explorer 1 is the best watch ever made, and I would probably agree. Especially at that moment, when I’d finally achieved what for me was definitely a grail watch. Perfection in a timepiece.
Steve bought the Submariner, and as Chris filled in the documents – dated 05/05/05 – I couldn’t have felt happier. We walked out of the shop with the watches on our wrists: fully-fledged Rolex owners at last. And celebrated with fish and chips (which are amazing in New Zealand).
The Explorer 1 was actually my second Rolex – I have a 1970s vintage Oyster Perpetual too – but it was the first one that I had bought from new, with the original papers in my name. As time went on, I liked it more and more, and it’s still a common feature in my watch rotation now. Like most people who have a brand new watch of this standard for the first time, I initially treated it reverentially, before coming to my senses and wearing it most days (there was a period about four or five years ago when I was wearing it pretty much every day for about a year). And that’s exactly what the Explorer 1 is born to do, so who cares about the occasional scratch?
It’s a watch that is impressive by its breath-taking capability and adaptability to any occasion, showcasing perfectly why Rolex is a worldwide icon. I’d find it hard to part with any of my watches – but the Explorer 1 holds a special place in my heart, both for what it is and what it meant.
Missing the boat
Like most people who are into watches, I’ve been a fan of Rolex ever since I can remember (it probably had something to do with reading lots of James Bond too). I often wondered though whether or not I should have opted for the Submariner all those years ago in New Zealand, and seeing their desirability as well as value increase has always prompted a slight feeling of having missed the boat. Especially because I’ve got plenty of friends who consider the Submariner to be the finest expression of Rolex’s art, and mocked me roundly for turning down the opportunity to buy one new when I could.
Because that’s the thing: while the current Submariner is certainly not a cheap watch, getting hold of one is a far bigger problem, to the point where it’s practically impossible unless you happen to get particularly lucky or famous. There’s no point adding fuel to the fire of a well-fanned debate already, but I also share many peoples’ view that the subsequent ‘maxi case’ Subs are not as aesthetically pleasing as the ones that were being sold back in 2005 (reference 16610, used from 1989 to 2008) although the maxi case concept was actually first introduced in 2005 with the GMT Master 2. The very latest Submariner does address that question, but the chances of finding one to buy in a dealer are approximately between nought and zero. How times change.
I finally decided to get myself a Submariner early last year, having sat on the fence for a while (since early 2005, you could argue). I’d always wanted one though – for all the reasons listed above – and talking about it with Tim Vaux, whose words mostly fill these pages, only got me more excited. Tim owns a stunning (pre-maxi) example from 2008, and having looked at it closely, I knew that this was the one I wanted.
Unlike most people, I was actually pretty easy about whether I wanted a date version or not: I oscillated between firstly thinking that the no-date was cleaner, and then feeling that the cyclops was a quintessential part of the Sub, distinguishing it further from the Explorer 1 that I already had. In the end, I came to realise that I probably didn’t mind. So the search was well and truly on. And right from the start, it was clear that this wouldn’t be easy. The more affordable end of the market was exclusively formed of Subs with no boxes or papers, while the more expensive end of the market was, well, expensive.
And at the end of it, you might still be buying a watch with largely unknown provenance, often shipped from the other side of the world with only photos (which you have to assume are of the watch you’re buying) to guide you. Maybe all my friends were right: I should have bought one new while I could.
A few months ago I was in a rainy traffic jam in London, which made it a pretty ordinary day. Then the phone rang, and that call ended up making the day somewhat less ordinary. It was Steve about a work-related matter, and after we’d finished discussing it, we ended up chatting about watches (Seiko specifically, as Steve had bought a Prospex recently).
He also mentioned – perhaps because of his fleet of Seikos – that he was thinking about possibly selling his Sub, on the grounds that it mostly lived in a drawer these days. Before the traffic had even started moving again, I told him that I was definitely interested. He said he’d send me some photos and think about it. The photos duly arrived on WhatsApp the same evening, and his date Sub was even more breath-taking than I’d remembered. By the following day, we’d agreed a sale, and a couple of weeks later I was driving down to Steve’s house on the south coast to pick it up, relieved that the search was over.
No rain this time, just sunshine all the way. You can see why those premier footballers (and Steve) live near Sandbanks; it’s a beautiful setting overlooking a bay with several yachts in the harbour, which is strangely reminiscent of…Auckland. That couldn’t be more appropriate, as after 15 years and several other trips around the world, I was finally coming to pick up the Sub that I had first tried on in the ‘city of sails’ and now finally owned. It wasn’t a new watch, obviously, but it was the next best thing (actually better, thanks to the reference 16610) because I wore it on the exact day it was purchased by a very good friend who has looked after it beautifully since. And of course, I was there when it was originally bought, on 05/05/05, from the authorised dealer.
I drove back with the Sub on my wrist, feeling like it belonged there. When I got home, I was able to reunite it with its ‘twin’: the Explorer 1 purchased at the same time, from the same place. They now sit next to each other in my watch box.
The feelings were similar to 15 years ago: a sense of achievement, pride, and now the satisfaction of tying up some unfinished business and bringing those watches back together to complete a collection.
Both are timelessly designed to get out there though, so you’ll be hearing a lot more about them here in future.