How James Bond saved the world… of watches

The watches used by the world’s most famous secret agent...and how he singlehandedly saved the Swiss watchmaking industry (well sort of)

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23 October 2015

Men want to be him, women want to be with him...and many of us want to wear his watches. 

The association between timepieces and the world’s most famous secret agent began 53 years ago with Dr. No, and it continues today with Spectre. Over the years, James Bond’s tastes have changed, in his favourite tipple, his attitude to women, and his watches. Over the same half century, the thriving Swiss watch industry plunged into depression, and recovered to new health – with a little help from Mr. Bond himself.

dr-no-bond-rolex-submariner

It all started with Rolex. Partly because Ian Fleming identified Bond’s watch in his book On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which James put his Rolex around the fingers of his right hand so he could use it as a knuckle duster. When Albert R. ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were working on the production of Dr. No, they had to choose a watch for Bond, and according to movie legend, Broccoli simply took off his own watch and handed it to the props department. It was a Rolex Submariner, probably a 6538 – no-one knows where that watch is today, and presumably Albert Broccoli still owns it.

Sean Connery wore the same watch in From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball and probably also in You Only Live Twice. Back in those days, watches were simply props, because an automatic watch was very much an everyday item, far cheaper than comparable models today. Switzerland had a virtual monopoly, and no-one had considered using films for marketing products – they didn’t need to. So Rolex remained the quintessential Bond watch right through to 1995.

Related: How to dress like James Bond

Over the years, Bond’s watches became more important in the film action and acquired a variety of gadgets courtesy of Q Branch. Already in Thunderball, in addition to his Rolex Submariner, Bond had a Breitling Top Time that included a Geiger counter. “Here we have a Geiger counter, useful and unobtrusive,” says Q, “the sweep hand takes the radioactivity count.” That watch, specially modified for its role in the movie, disappeared after filming and was rediscovered in a car boot sale then bought for £25. It was subsequently sold for almost £104,000 in a 2013 Christie’s auction.

breitling bond finalPhoto courtesy of Christie's

breitling bond

After You Only Live Twice, Bond changed but the Rolex remained. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), George Lazenby wore Rolex then Sean Connery returned in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and probably wore a Submariner.

Next it was the turn of Roger Moore in Live and Let Die (1973) wearing a 5513 Rolex Submariner with a neat gadget, a bezel that had a sawtooth edge and became a buzz saw, used to cut the ropes with which he had been tied up so that he could escape with the voluptuous Solitaire (Jane Seymour) before villain Kananga could feed them to the sharks. 

Roger-Moore-Submariner-5513-from-Live-and-Let-DiePhoto courtesy of Christie's

The watch was extensively modified, its movement removed in order to provide space for the mechanism that powered the blade. 

Live and Let Die Buzz SawLive and Let Die

The watch could also produce a hyper-intensified magnetic field whose function was to deflect bullets, though James also used it memorably to unzip Miss Caruso’s (Madeline Smith) dress. She commented on his very delicate touch, and Bond answered, “Sheer magnetism, darling.” This modified Rolex was sold by Christie’s in 2011 for about £144,000.

sheer magnetism darling

Roger Moore also wore another watch in Live and Let Die: a Hamilton Pulsar P2 digital LED watch. This clunky timepiece did nothing but show the time in red digits when you pressed a button, but digital watches were new and very expensive at the time and so the Pulsar P2 appeared in the opening sequence. It was the world’s first successful digital watch, and ironically it represented the start of the electronics and quartz watch revolution that would be so damaging for Swiss watchmaking.

roger-moore-pulsar

pulsarp2led0 crazywatches pl

Photo courtesy of crazywatches.pl

The domination of quartz was demonstrated by the watches used in the next three Bond films. In The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) Roger Moore wore a Rolex GMT-Master, but the cool role was played by a Seiko 0674 complete with ticker tape communications device.

Two years later, in Moonraker, the Seiko M354 Memory-Bank Calendar also had a detonator for explosives. There were two more Seiko’s in Octopussy (1983), the Seiko G757 5020 Sports 100 which had a GPS tracking device which at the time was a sexy new function, and the Seiko Liquid Crystal TV Watch on which Bond took a call from Margaret Thatcher. By this time, almost two-thirds of Switzerland’s watchmaking companies had gone out of business.

The Rolex Submariner returned in The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1989) starring Timothy Dalton. It was the first time that a Submariner with date function (probably model 16800) had appeared in Bond movies, and they were the last Rolex appearances in the series.

At about the same time as these movies, Nicolas G. Hayek was restructuring what remained of Swiss watchmaking by creating the SMH group, which would later become the Swatch Group. Another businessman, Jean-Claude Biver, became a Swatch Group director in 1992 and was entrusted with the task of bringing another Swatch Group brand back to profitability with Omega. Both Hayek and Biver understood that a mechanical watch was no longer a tool to tell the time, but an object of desire, a dream. In short, a luxury product.

tomorrow never dies.jpgPierce Brosnan in Goldeneye

One of the techniques that Biver used to communicate this to the public was something new at the time but has now become a standard marketing technique, that is of course product placement.

In 1995, Pierce Brosnan wore an Omega Seamaster on a gold bracelet in Goldeneye. The Q Division equipped the watch with a laser for cutting through armoured panels and it could also detonate explosives remotely. The exotic functions developed further in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), in which the Seamaster chronograph itself contained explosives, in a chamber under the helium release valve. In the photo below, Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies, and the Seamaster that he wore in that movie.

low 2531.80.00 worn 1995-2002Image courtesy of Omega

In The World Is Not Enough (1999), the Seamaster could shoot out a wire with a grappling hook on the end. By Die Another Day in 2002 product placement had evolved to the point that the film was promoting eight different products, giving it the nickname ‘Buy Another Day.’ For this film Omega launched its first special 007-branded limited edition for their boutiques.

casino royale

Daniel Craig and Vesper Lynd underlined just how far things had changed from the old days in Casino Royale (2006). In a scene on a train, Vesper looks at his watch and says, “Rolex?” James Bond replies simply “Omega.” He was wearing the Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean in that film, and it also appeared in Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. Below, the Omega Planet Ocean reference 232.30.42.21.01.001 (photos courtesy of Omega).

low 232 30 42 21 01 001Omega Planet Ocean reference 232.30.42.21.01.001, photo courtesy of Omega

We are looking forward to seeing Spectre and have already seen the collectors’ watch launched for it. The Seamaster Aqua Terra James Bond has a dial design based on the Bond family crest, which also appears on a shield on the seconds hand. The watch has the brand’s feature of 15,000 gauss anti-magnetic capability, labelled on the dial as 15,007 gauss, while the transparent caseback reveals a skeletonised oscillating weight with a bullet percussion cap at the centre.

And after the Heineken in Skyfall, Spectre marks the return of another Bond classic, the martini cocktail – following a multi-million pound deal with Belvedere Vodka. Shaken, not stirred.

low SE AquaTerra JamesBond

low caseback SE AquaTerra JamesBond