Vintage Rolex Watches of World War II
As the 1940s dawned, the war that would soon engulf the entire world had already been raging in Europe for several months. German forces swept across the continent almost unopposed. During this time, the Treaty of Paris in 1815 ensured Switzerland the policy of self-imposed neutrality.
In reality, finding themselves surrounded by Axis forces and occupied territories on every border, the country’s military mobilized against possible invasion in just three days. Their long history of democracy and upholding of civil liberties brought passionate criticism of Hitler’s fascist atrocities. As a result, the Swiss government refused to deport any of their Jewish citizens into the hands of the Nazi regime.
However, one part of Switzerland that did uphold its neutrality was its watchmaking industry. The country’s many manufacturers had no qualms about selling their products to the governments and militaries on both sides of the conflict. With one exception.
Wilsdorf’s Support For The Allies
Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf was German by birth, but had spent much of his life in Switzerland. Subsequently, he was unequivocal in his support for the Allies. His company’s advertisements from the era speak of the pursuit of freedom and defiance of tyranny.
Wilsdorf even had a policy of sending replacements for the confiscated watches of Allied officers held as prisoners of war. Of course, this was based on the understanding the recipients would send payment for them once they returned home.
The quality of Rolex watches was already making them highly desirable. Particularly amongst pilots in the British RAF. They preferred their increased legibility and robustness over that of standard issue military timepieces.
Popular Vintage Rolex Watches 1940s
As for the watches themselves, the 40s saw the introduction of yet another Rolex innovation introduced into the design of one of their most iconic creations ever. Also, along with the definitive Rolex, the turbulent decade conjured up other familiar names that are still going strong today.
Below, we’ll look at some of the most popular vintage Rolex watches 1940s decade.
For many people, the Datejust is Rolex. Debuting in 1945 with the ref. 4467, it was launched to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the company. It has been in constant production ever since. On its release, it married the two ground breaking revolutions that had put the Rolex name on the map. Then it added a third: housing the Perpetual movement inside the Oyster case. Now, it became the first waterproof, automatically-winding wristwatch to also display a date aperture.
Originally, it was only available in yellow gold with a cream dial. It was also unveiled in Geneva at an event hosted by Wilsdorf himself and sat on the first in-house bracelet Rolex crafted specifically for the piece. The Jubilee bracelet had its elaborate five link design. This lent an even greater sense of occasion to Rolex’s flagship watches for the last 70 years. Additionally, it gave them a dressier and less sporty look.
The Rolex Bubbleback
That first 36mm Datejust was nicknamed the ‘Big Bubbleback’ for the enhanced proportions it needed to house its movement. This was arguably the model that ushered Rolex into the major leagues among watchmakers. World War II had secured the reputation of the wristwatch as a vital accessory; more practical and convenient than a pocket watch, they were also able to better withstand tougher conditions. The simple, modest design and faultless reliability of Rolex’s newest offering signified everything people were searching for. As a result, sales of the Datejust skyrocketed.
In 1948, the company achieved another milestone when their 100,000th watch rolled out of the factory gates. They celebrated by presenting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill with a specially-made rose gold version of the Datejust. This was complete with the Churchill family coat of arms engraved on the case back. It was the kind of luminary endorsement Wilsdorf loved. No doubt, this only served to increase the status of Rolex as a brand favored by the elite.
The First U.S. President To Own A Rolex
A few years later, in 1951, Dwight D Eisenhower became the first US President to own a Rolex. The company sent the five-star General a Datejust of his own to mark the production of their 150,000th piece.
Today, the watch is available in just about every conceivable configuration of metal, dial and color. It is still one of the best sellers the brand produces. It also follows that it is a testament to the agelessness of the design that the modern version is still very recognizably from the same DNA as that first reference.
The Air King
Aerial combat had come of age in WWII. The daring exploits of both Allied and Axis pilots quickly became the stuff of legend.
Hans Wilsdorf produced a line of ‘Air’ watches following the Battle of Britain of 1940. This served to pay tribute to the brave Royal Air Force and their desperate struggle to preserve superiority of the skies over England. RAF pilots had been paying for their own Rolex Oysters since the 30s. They found them to be much better suited to the rigors of battle than the 30mm Speedkings that were standard government issue at the time. In time, the Rolex founder discovered the high regard his watches were held in. So, he set his company to make a series of manually-wound models designed specifically for aviation. With names like Air-Tiger, Air-Giant, Air-Lion and Air-King, they were larger than the typical Rolex pieces of the day. Finally, all the better for reading at a glance in stressful situations.
The Vintage Pilot Watch
By the end of the war, only the Air King remained. It was available in four sizes—31mm, 34mm and 36mm, with a lady’s version at 26mm. Christened the ‘Warrior’s Watch’, stylistically it was, and still is in the modern-day version, one of the simplest designs the brand makes. It was an uncomplicated three-hand timepiece. However, it had no date function, but it did have a beautifully stark and clearly readable dial.
It was such a popular model that the Air King has joined the Datejust as one of the longest serving pieces in the Rolex catalog. This model enjoyed numerous updates in its unbroken production run up until 2014. After a brief hiatus, the much missed pilot’s watch reappeared two years later with an all-new version. Because, it was still among the most practical and least fussy layouts from the brand.
With everything you need from a watch and nothing extraneous, the Air-King was a fitting tribute to the heroes of aviation.
The 3525 Chronograph
Unusually for a company responsible for so much progress in the development of the wristwatch, Rolex struggled to come up with a viable chronograph of their own for many years. It wasn’t until the legendary Daytona emerged in 1963 that it can be said they experienced any significant success. Until then, many other brands had been making them better for longer.
One of the exceptions—and the first chronograph to sit inside an Oyster case—was the ref. 3525. Actually launched in 1939, the Second World War saw it gain an enthusiastic and very specific audience.
Upon capture, British Prisoners of War would routinely have their watches confiscated, as their German guards remained wary of the Allies’ ability to hide tiny silk maps, magnetized compass needles or other paraphernalia that could aid their escape inside the cases. Incredibly, Rolex ran a system that allowed these prisoners to request a replacement directly from the company, with the understanding that they were to “not even think about payment” until they were home and safe.
The Rolex 3523 Monoblocco
Rolex sent out more than 3000 new watches to internment camps during the war, many with personalized letters from Hans Wilsdorf himself. The most sought after was the chronograph Rolex 3525. Nicknamed the ‘Monoblocco’, (from the Italian for ‘one block’, as the case and bezel were formed from one solid piece of metal) the 3525 series housed calibers from the Swiss manufacturer Valjoux, who were still making chronograph movements for Rolex until as recently as 1988.
The Great Escape
But it was Rolex’s reputation for faultless accuracy that has sealed the 3525’s place in the history books, and popular culture. Several of the pieces made their way to a POW camp in what is now Poland, called Stalag Luft III. It was here in 1944 that one of the largest mass breakout attempts of the war took place, immortalized in the movie The Great Escape.
For over a year, some 600 prisoners dug three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry, under the camp fences, with only Harry being completed; of the other two, one collapsed, the other was discovered by the Germans. For more interesting stories about Rolex, check out more facts about Rolex.
Glow In The Dark Watch
Several of the escape committee, when they found out about Rolex’s offer of supplying replacement watches, ordered the Rolex 3525 specifically for its renowned precision and reliability, and used them to time the exact movements of the prison guards. The radium lume on the hands and dial was also a vital feature, making the watch easier to read in the darkness of the tunnel and during the night flight through the surrounding forests.
In all, 70 prisoners escaped before the attempt was discovered, with all but three being rounded up in the days that followed. An enraged Hitler ordered 50 of those recaptured men to be executed in violation of The Geneva Convention.
Of the men that survived and returned home after the war, many kept the watches that had been sent to them and presumably, with the honor of British officers at stake, paid their bills to Mr. Wilsdorf.
While the 1940s marked some of the darkest days in history, for the Swiss watchmaking industry, it was the decade that saw them achieve total dominance. With watch production effectively halted in other countries, and America especially, to concentrate on manufacturing for the war effort, it saw Rolex emerge at the top of the tree—the biggest and most recognizable name in luxury watches, a place it has occupied ever since.