Rolex’s Secret Watches
There are no more than a tiny handful of brands whose names have gone beyond what they physically produce and have crossed over into metaphor. Rolls Royce is one; now less a carmaker than they are a symbol of perfectionism, their name gets coopted by legions of others when it comes to describing the best example of something. The Brough Superior was the ‘Rolls Royce of motorcycles’, etc.
Another name which transcended their product long ago is Rolex. Through a century-long combination of design excellence and engineering innovation, coupled with a marketing campaign which is second-to-none, they are now a byword for all things luxurious and aspirational just as much as they are the world’s leading watchmaker.
It is an especially impressive achievement when you consider Rolex is very much a mass producer, building somewhere in the region of one million pieces each year (about eight of which will be that steel sports model we all want).
However, throughout their history, the brand has constructed a number of watches that never made it to public sale. These could have been prototypes for a new creation, or specially ordered variations on an established theme, destined for a particular group or company, or even royalty.
Occasionally these especially rare and fascinating models surface on the preowned market or at auction, usually followed by a certain amount of fan frenzy.
So below, we have picked out a few of our favorites—a selection of Rolex watches never found in stores.
The Rolex GMT-Master II Sea King
Originally built by U.S. company Sikorsky, the Sea King helicopter’s maiden flight took place in 1959. Nearly 50 years later, having seen service in every conflict since that day, from Afghanistan to the Falklands as well as Gulf Wars I and II, it was finally retired in 2016.
To commemorate the helicopter’s vital role, a consortium of pilots contacted a number of watchmakers to create a model specifically for those associated with the machine, from either the military or Search and Rescue, one of the Sea King’s most important responsibilities.
After meeting with the likes of Bremont, Breitling and Audemars Piguet, the group settled on Rolex’s ultimate traveler’s watch, the GMT-Master II.
Originally commissioning 179 pieces to represent the number of Sea Kings first ordered by the British, it was dropped to just 123 examples to be sold exclusively to serving and former crew members.
Taking the ref. 116710LN as the base, the steel version of the GMT with an all black bezel, Rolex added a case back engraved with an image of the Sea King, known as ‘Baggers’ in the Royal Navy, along with an inscription of their motto, ‘Fear God Honour The King’.
Although a very recent creation, the extreme rarity of the Sea King GMT-Master II has seen it become a much vaunted find at auction, with prices for such a limited edition military Rolex watch rising rapidly.
The Rolex Sea-Dweller Polizia Di Stato ‘Octopus’
The COMEX Subs and Sea-Dwellers top the personal grail list of many a Rolex fan, but those hard to find models are made to look positively copious next to this piece.
Created in 2008 to mark the 50thanniversary of the Polizia Di Stato, Sommozzatori, or the Italian State Police Diving Unit, Rolex furnished a standard ref. 16600 with the symbol of the outfit, a small octopus, at the dial’s nine o’clock.
Only 78 were ever made, and all were awarded to police divers. Of that tiny number, each had a special case back engraved with ‘Polizia di Sommozzatori 1958-2008’. Even more scarce, 28 pieces were also etched with the Military Brevet number.
Like the Sea King GMT above, these exceptionally uncommon watches are starting to attract huge amounts at auction. The last one sold in 2010 at Christies Geneva for just under an incredible $72,000.
The Rolex GMT-Master Al Maktoum
When His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum became Minister of Defense for the United Arab Emirates in 1971, he was the youngest man in the world to hold the position, at just 22 years of age.
To hail the event, he commissioned a number of watches be specially made, the majority from Rolex, and it is a tradition he has followed throughout his political career. Today, he is the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and the ruler of the Emirate of Dubai.
In 2018, one of the first pieces Al Maktoum ever ordered, a GMT-Master ref. 1675 complete with ‘HH Sheikh Mohammed’ in red Arabic script on the dial, went under the hammer at Christies.
The lot also included a unique watercolor painting of the watch, as well as a digital drawing on aluminum, and the box was embossed with the crest of the UAE.
The extremely rare piece, made especially for one of the most powerful men in the world, eventually sold for $162,500.
The Rolex FAN Caliber 7035
At the height of the quartz crisis, traditional Swiss watchmakers were being forced into bankruptcy at an alarming rate, culminating in around two thirds going under in just a decade.
While Rolex seemed to do the bare minimum to engage with the new technology, they still weathered the storm better than most; their Oysterquartz versions of the Datejust and Day-Date became vastly popular for their accuracy, radical styling and tempting price points.
Even though the brand had little time for quartz, in the mid-70s they were still
willing to experiment widely in order to avoid getting left behind completely.
One such delve into the unknown resulted in just five prototypes of a pseudo-analog, solid state watch movement with LEDs called the FAN Caliber 7035.
Standing for Forme ANalogique, the FAN advanced on the Delta movement conceived by the CEH, the consortium of 20 or so Swiss manufacturers who had bonded together to launch a defense against the quartz invasion in the 1960s.
The Caliber 7035 was in development between 1975 and 1978, and Rolex spent around one million Swiss Francs on it, sourcing components from the best in the business; the radical dial module came from Hewlett Packard and the light emitting diodes from Ceramic Systems in Sorrento Valley, California. The CEH themselves provided the integrated circuit while Rolex kept charge of system integration and assembly.
However, it was always unlikely that all the hard work was going to pay off. Even by the time of the FAN project, the public’s love affair with quartz was beginning to cool, plus the design of the watch was the complete antithesis of what Rolex had been doing so well for the previous 70-odd years. Yet, they still continued with the endeavor.
The watch featured a 30mm case, had an hour ‘hand’ made up of four LEDs, a minute hand with seven, while there were a further 60 LEDs representing the elapsing seconds lighting up clockwise around the perimeter of the dial.
Pressing a button would show up extra diodes at the cardinal points for easy orientation, and the date window sat in the middle made up of a conventional LED display. To see the day of the week illuminated for two seconds, the wearer had to push that same button twice, while pushing it a third time showed the month.
The prototypes worked, but it had almost become merely a demonstration of what Rolex could do if they had to rather than something likely to go into full scale production. In 1978, the strange looking creation was deemed a little (or a lot) too un-Rolex by legendary CEO Andre Heiniger and the FAN Caliber 7035 was scrapped, never to be seen again.