A look back at Fleming's Bond books, as well as the watches on the wrists of those involved...
“A gentleman’s choice of timepiece says as much about him as does his Saville Row suit.” - Ian Fleming
With the most appropriate watch quote of all time, join me on a personal and hopefully interesting journey to explore the watches of the real James Bond and his creator Ian Fleming. First of all let us establish when I say real Bond I refer to the ruthless Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officer in Fleming’s novels, as opposed to the superhero of the silver screen.
Whilst one cannot deny the enormous popularity of the films, to me there will only ever be one Bond and he exists in the pages of the original books. So I will unashamedly put the movies aside; perhaps for another day.
Ian Fleming’s background in World War Two Naval Intelligence and his key part in the formation of the US Central Intelligence Agency left him well placed to write novels which had more than a veneer of truth and a real insight into some elements of how the cold war was fought in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, From Russia With Love was President John F. Kennedy’s favourite novel and I think we can safely assume he was not a man who would read unrealistic nonsense.
I had a career which dabbled in the periphery of Intelligence so have always enjoyed studying the history of the technical side of espionage. When one learns more about the details of the Special Operations Executive and its partial successor SIS you begin to understand why Fleming ensured that Bond put much effort into the selection of his personal equipment.
And there is one key technical piece of equipment that Bond has always relied upon and often made good use of to secure mission success.
It is a critical item which must work in all environments. It is an item which is fundamental to ensuring that the lone operator makes a rendezvous on time to meet a friendly agent, or make a crucial radio transmission, or measures the amount of life left in a scuba tank. We speak of course about James Bond’s watch. Fleming’s choice for his hero was a Rolex.
Bond's go-to Rolex?
There has been much debate online about what watch Bond wore. Fleming never refers to it by a specific Rolex model, such as GMT Master, but he describes the watch as stainless steel and additionally as having an expanding metal bracelet.
The critical piece of evidence for the model is in Thunderball when Felix Leiter asks Bond if “he is still wearing that old wrist watch...…with the big phosphorous numerals?”
The Rolex expanding bracelet was a 1954 addition to the early Oyster bracelet family which first appeared in 1948. It was issued until the 1960s and is not always discussed with much affection holding the watch almost too tight to the wrist and having unforeseen hair removal properties. It was replaced in the 1970s with the standard Oyster bracelet which is largely what we are accustomed to now.
With regards to Bond’s actual watch, in the world of Bond novel fandom, it is universally regarded as being an Explorer – Rolex reference 1016. We can judge this by the fact that Fleming himself wore that same model and like all Explorers, the 1016 actually had large phosphorous (luminous) numerals rather than circular or baton hour markers. I believe it is nothing more than a simple case of Fleming describing what was on his wrist as he wrote. And there is evidence for this judgement.
There is other verifiable history and circumstance where Bond’s small arsenal of equipment had been selected not because it was the best at the time, but because Fleming himself either owned or had experience of such a product.
For example, Bond’s original pistol is a .25 calibre Beretta. We know Fleming had access to such a weapon during his Naval Intelligence service. Like all good authors, Fleming wrote about what he understood. It’s interesting to note that from an operational perspective Bond’s firearms have dated enormously.
No serious operator would now carry a .25, or even a later Walther PPK. They are antiquated, uncomfortable, and by today’s standards underpowered, however, a Rolex Explorer would still be seen as high-end equipment either in intelligence or military capacity! Operators in the latest Special Forces unit to be created in the UK, The Special Reconnaissance Regiment which was formed in 2005, were issued with Rolex Explorer IIs. Such is the longevity and quality of the brand.
Fleming’s creative place was his office in his luxury home called Goldeneye in Jamaica. There are many images of him in his tropical idle wearing his Rolex Explorer while sitting at his desk. It is interesting to bear in mind that this is a time when watches were much smaller and thinner than today. In 2019 we think nothing of wearing a 48mm Breitling but in the 1950s that size would have been considered ludicrous and quite possibly a 36 or 40mm Rolex would be the largest watch anyone of that era would come across.
Indeed Fleming alludes to this during his novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the novel, there is quite possibly the most famous Rolex scene of all time when Bond uses his watch on the expanding bracelet as a knuckle duster to despatch a guard in a daring escape.
As a result, the watch is shattered and when he considers what to replace it with he goes through the following thought process:
“Another Rolex? Probably. They were on the heavy side, but they worked. And at least you could see the time in the dark with those big phosphorous numerals”.
We can deduct from this statement that the Explorer in 1963 was still considered to be both big and heavy. Not words one would normally associate with a 36mm watch today.
Mixing with the well-heeled on Jamaica and in the USA Fleming would have been exposed to many high-end watches and some make their way into his novels. The chief protagonist on Moonraker, Hugo Drax, wears a “plain gold Patek Philipe with a black leather strap” and in Thunderball, the traitor Giuseppe Petacchi wears a “solid gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual Chronometer on a flexible gold bracelet”.
Fleming’s Bond adventures ended with the release of The Man With the Golden Gun published in 1965, a year after Fleming’s death. The highly successful author Kingsley Amis advised on the last unfinished draft and to this day rumours persist that he actually completed the book. We will never know if this is true but Amis did write the next Bond novel in the series – Colonel Sun, published in 1968.
It stays very true to the original novels and Amis keeps Bond’s equipment intact and faithful to the original novels. Set in Greece we find our hero sitting at night on a rocky mountain on an island where he “peered at the luminous dial of his Rolex Oyster Chronometer…” There is no way to differentiate what Rolex Bond was wearing but at least we readers could take comfort from the fact that he was still glancing at the watch we all loved.
Over the next 40 years, several rather average novels followed from various authors and some watch references were made but they were often movie influenced. John Gardner tried to update Bond’s mission equipment with the introduction of a Luminox military watch.
Whilst this was a one-off and the notion was slightly heretical to purist Bond fans the idea was sound. In an attempt to modernise the character Gardner had actually made a reasonable deduction as such watches were (and still are) hugely popular with military and intelligence units.
They are a unique design, a world away from a stainless steel Rolex, and offered a number of advanced features such as being ultra-lightweight, equipped with tritium vials which glow with a real intensity and polyamide construction which allow some specialist models to be anti-magnetic for Explosive Ordnance Disposal work.
All in all, ideal for the SIS man on the move! I must confess had I been in Gardner’s shoes I would have lent more towards Traser than Luminox. Traser were the original specialist military watch of the modern era first appearing in 1989 when their H3 won a key US military contract against the very tough specification coded MIL-W-46374F. Trasers are less complex to look at than Luminox but there are numerous similarities as both heralded from the same design requirements. As a seasoned Traser user, I also like to think a modern Bond would have gone down the same route as me when his Rolex was in for a service…!
In a potted history of Fleming and Bond’s watches it is important to ultimately take note of the latest Bond book, Trigger Mortis, by the respected screenwriter Anthony Horowitz. Unlike the last 50 years of fairly forgettable novels this is a fine Bond story, set in 1961 two weeks after the events in Thunderball. As a self-confessed Fleming guru, Horowitz has made an effort to be true to the original style of writing and has reverted back to the watch of purists, with a slight spin.
In the book Bond wears “a Rolex Submariner that was barely three years old.” If we are to assume that this means the watch is a 1958 Submariner it is most likely a Rolex reference 5508 without the protective crown shoulders – which by no coincidence is the watch Bond wears in his very first iconic big screen appearance in Doctor No.
A fitting end perhaps to our appreciation of Bond’s Rolex as we come full circle from the novels to the movies which ultimately are the character that most people know. However, we must not lose sight of the genius of Ian Fleming who created Mr. Bond.
A genuinely talented author with his secret background he chose the equipment now associated with the world’s most famous spy such as the Walther PPK and Rolex Explorer.
These items actually came from real life experience and helped shape the immortal hero we all know today.