Ask Watches of Espionage Anything, Part I

Ask Watches of Espionage Anything, Part I

In this edition of the Dispatch, we address some common questions we get about W.O.E with an in-depth response. Many of these responses can even serve as standalone stories– and probably will at some point, but for now, here’s some additional insight on Watches of Espionage. 


What’s a good entry-level watch? What’s a good watch under $1,000?

This is the most common question we get, and we love this question because it suggests that the W.O.E. platform is opening up people to the world of mechanical watches, something that we are clearly passionate about. If your takeaway from W.O.E. is that you need a Rolex to be a cool guy, you’re missing the point. We believe the man makes the watch, not the other way around.  A badass wearing a Hublot is still a badass, just as a dweeb wearing a Rolex MilSub is still just a dweeb. It’s about who you are, not the watch you’re wearing. 

Read: Best Watches Under $1,000 - Ask The Experts

Watches of Espionage Seiko
(Photo Credit: James Rupley)

There are plenty of great watches under $1,000 and other publications have compiled lists that feature both established manufacturers and micro-brands alike that offer serious value.  That said, our answer to this question is simple: Seiko. If you like “Watches of Espionage” then you will love this brand.

When it comes to tools actually used in the field, you’re likely to find a Seiko on a professional’s wrist. Seiko, after all, is the “Toyota of watches”– they’re cheap and reliable utilitarian tools. For the same reasons Toyotas are a common sight in modern conflict zones, Seikos have adorned the wrists of hard men in hard places for decades. If you’re looking at dipping your toe in the proverbial pool of mechanical watches, this is a great place to start, and even end.

Arabic Dial Seiko
Arabic Dial Seiko (Photo Credit: James Rupley)

The follow-up question is always, "which model?" We hesitate to provide an answer to this because it’s a deeply personal choice.  You can scroll through our collection and others and see where we have landed, but it’s best to take some time and look through the website to see what speaks to you and what’s within your budget. The best way to land on the right reference is to find a Seiko dealer near you, try some on, and ask questions.

You can get an entry-level Seiko for well under $300 and I cherish mine just as much as I do my most expensive Rolex. Unfortunately, one of the downsides to Seiko is that the bracelets are the weak point. They have a specific “jangle” and can feel like they’re of much lesser quality than that watch they’re attached to.  So use some of that leftover coin to buy a few straps and change them out frequently to figure out what you like.  All the W.O.E. products are designed to be worn/used with a Seiko or a Rolex.

We will do a follow-on Dispatch at some point with some tips on buying watches with value in mind. 

What advice do you have for someone looking to join the CIA?

The second most common question we get is, "How do I join the CIA?" While the purpose of this platform isn’t to inspire the next generation of public servants, we are quickly learning this is a byproduct of W.O.E., which is great. If you want to join the CIA, don't message someone anonymously claiming to be former CIA.  Keep this goal private and practice discretion. The Agency values discretion, hence the label of a quiet professional.

CIA Seal Rolex

Here are a few pieces of advice for those interested in the operational side of the house.

  • Become a master of a trade. CIA hires former teachers, investment bankers, plumbers, businessmen, SpecOps, doctors, lawyers, and even professional athletes. Become unique and accomplished. Have a compelling story that will interest the CIA recruiter.  You can apply right out of college, but your chances of being accepted and thriving at the Agency will greatly increase if you have unique work/life experience.
  • Travel. Live, work and study abroad. The one common trait of 99% of CIA Case Officers is that they have significant prior overseas experience. Your job is to understand geopolitics and empathize with individuals different from you.  This can only truly be learned and demonstrated through experience. Even if you aren't interested in joining the CIA, we still think we would all be better off if we travel and experience different cultures.
  • Learn a language. Any language is advantageous, but the harder the better. Russian, Mandarin, Persian/Farsi, Korean etc. Turn on the news and see where the current/future conflicts are. The languages spoken in that area are generally of high interest and will make a CIA recruiter happy.
  • Keep your nose clean. You don't have to be a saint (I saw the inside of a jail cell a couple times growing up and made more than a few bad decisions). But if you do drugs, stop. Don't drink and drive. Pay your taxes. Don't commit felonies. This is all good advice for joining the CIA, but even better advice for life.
  • READ. This one is important. Read every book/article on the intelligence business you can find. This will help you figure out if it is right for you and where your interests are aligned. The current generation has a wealth of information at their fingertips on the Intelligence Community, including on the CIA’s own website.  Take advantage of this information and do your research.
  • If you are a foreigner, find an unattributable internet portal and google  "CIA walk in."

Lastly, a career as a Case Officer is more than just a job, it’s a calling and a way of life.  You have to be all in and cannot treat it like a 9-to-5. CIA is not perfect, but I loved my time working in the building and in the field.  It is not always an easy lifestyle and comes with unique challenges, but it is a great opportunity to serve your country, see the world and live a life worth living.  Happy hunting.

What watch did you wear most operationally?

In my initial Hodinkee article, “The Connection Between Watches and Espionage,” which was in many ways W.O.E.’s debut to the larger watch community, I wrote about wearing my titanium Panerai Luminor Marina 8 Day during a military coup in Africa. The opening story was a relatively mundane night, no heroic activities, just a standard night as a Case Officer operating in Africa. The only reason I even remember that watch that night was that it was relatively new, and the luminous numbers stuck out. In fact, I could have written that story about countless nights wearing several watches.

Africa Division CIA
W.O.E.’s personal IWC Mark XVII and Africa Division challenge coin. (Photo Credit: James Rupley)

But, looking back at pictures of the years I was at CIA, the most common watch on my wrist appeared to be an IWC Mark XVII.  It is a great and versatile watch that can fit in with a suit and tie at a diplomatic function in Europe or jeans and a dirty t-shirt in the African bush.  It is also not overly flashy and would not draw undue attention. 

Watches of Espionage IWC
W.O.E.'s IWC with W.O.E. DNC strap prototype (Photo Credit: Michael Shaffer / @capitolsunset)

Truth is, I did not put much thought into my watch while overseas; it was a tool I used regularly.  This IWC has three letters engraved on the back, only one of which is one of my initials. The engraving caused some problems during a training exercise and then when I was (REDACTED) pulled into secondary for additional “screening” (interrogation).  Fortunately, I had come up with a cover story for the three letters as the initials of a fictitious father prior to the training exercise and it was not a significant issue.  It was a good lesson and reminder that the smallest details matter in the world of espionage.

Breitling Jordanian
W.O.E.'s Breitling Aerospace (Photo Credit: Tom Brenner)

A close second was the Breitling Aerospace that I received as a gift from King Abdullah of Jordan.  This is an entirely practical watch given the digital feature set.  The digital timer was particularly useful and was used to log activities during surveillance operations in African capitals, time debriefings of ISIS members, and to record legs of Surveillance Detection Runs.

How do Case Officers, Special Operations personnel, etc. afford a Rolex?

First, not every HUMINT collector or military “operator” wears a mechanical timepiece, let alone a luxury watch like Rolex, Breitling or Tudor.  It is easy to get this impression given the content at W.O.E., as there is a clear selection bias for the stories we tell.  While this was largely true in the mid-20th century when many of these watches were issued and/or easily purchased at the local PX, today the vast majority of "operators” rely on cheap and effective digital tool watches. 

That said, there is a strong watch culture in both the military and intelligence circles, and the percentage of individuals that have mechanical and even luxury “tool watches” likely exceeds that of the civilian counterparts of the same socioeconomic status.  The reason for this is just as much (if not more) culture than anything else.

Rolex Explorer II
(Photo Credit: James Rupley)

Second, not all mechanical or even luxury timepieces cost $10,000.  As discussed above, quality Seiko tool watches can be purchased for well under $1,000 and brands like Breitling, Panerai, IWC, Tudor and many others can be acquired second-hand for a fraction of the inflated prices of Rolex.

So how do we afford them? The short answer is, the same as everyone else.  Contrary to many Hollywood representations of CIA officers, the majority of Case Officers I worked with did not come from elite Ivy League backgrounds or wealthy families.  They work hard and save up.  If you have spent the last 10-20 years in an operational capacity, you have likely spent several years deployed to a conflict or other hardship post and the government has compensated you (relatively) appropriately.  While you will not become rich from this calling, you will likely have earned enough disposable income and it can be used at your discretion to fund your hobbies and interests. Many choose to use some of the funds to purchase a watch.

Rolex Submariner WOE
(Photo Credit: James Rupley)

One example of this is the “war zone watch.” While a government salary does not support an extensive watch collection, when officers deploy to war zones for an extended period, their pay can almost double while their personal expenses are minimized. After returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, or one of the undeclared expeditionary locations, many officers take a portion of their savings and purchase a watch to discreetly commemorate the accomplishment.

Further, as much as we all can’t stand the black box of who gets priority on the Authorized Dealers (AD) “waiting list”, the stores and sometimes even individual sales associates have significant leeway with whom they prioritize as customers.  Some ADs in Northern Virginia and metropolitan areas near large military bases prioritize clientele from military and government agencies.

Why are you anonymous?

I get the impression that a lot of people think the main reason behind W.O.E. being anonymous is because of OPSEC (operational security).  In reality, when I left CIA, I requested that my association with the Agency be declassified.  This was approved with certain stipulations/restrictions.

Watches of Espionage Instagram
W.O.E.’s hands busy influencing. (Photo Credit: James Rupley)

The real reason “W.O.E.” is anonymous is twofold.  First, “Watches of Espionage” is not about one person, it’s about our entire community.  “W.O.E.” is the curator or the “guide” on this journey, but it’s not just about me.  I insert some of my own experiences and stories for context or to demonstrate a point but that’s it–it’s strictly to add additional information.  In fact, if you read the articles where my personal experiences are mentioned, I am not the hero; they’re relatively mundane experiences of a CIA Case Officer.  Secondly, I value my privacy.  I don’t want to be famous or an internet celebrity in either the watch or tactical community. That’s just not for me. 

Additionally, being anonymous ironically allows me to be more authentic in my presentation of my watch collection and love of timepieces.  Posting expensive watches on social media can often accurately be interpreted as a “flex” or show-off and can quickly fall into “cringe” territory. Being anonymous allows me to show whatever I want without any of the added recognition. 

What watch would you recommend for a woman in the field?

“W.O.E. Mansplains What Watches Women Should Wear” is what I would call this article. Truth is, I am not qualified to really comment on this topic.  Check out Brynn Wallner who runs a platform called Dimepiece Co. if you are a woman interested in getting into watches.  She does a great job curating content specifically for women and is a disruptor in this industry.

Homeland Hamilton Watch
Homeland, not an accurate portrayal of female Case Officers (Photo Credit: HBO, Homeland)

Traditionally there have been men’s and women's watches.  To simplify a complicated topic, men’s watches are generally larger and women’s smaller.  Recently there has been a movement to remove gender from watches and make them all unisex.  While we won’t take a position on this hyper-sensitive debate, we will say that there is no reason a woman couldn’t and shouldn’t wear a traditional men’s timepiece.  Mrs. W.O.E.'s current go-to timepiece is a Tudor Black Bay 58, one that many may say is a traditional men’s watch.  Likewise, some men appreciate and even prefer smaller timepieces that some may perceive as women’s watches.  More power to you. Wear whatever you want. 

What is your grail watch?

A “grail watch” is the ultimate watch for a collector, something that they would never sell if they were able to acquire it.  Like the “holy grail”, this watch is often unattainable, or incredibly unlikely to obtain. It is more of a fantasy than a realistic goal.

South African Military Tudor
Photo Credit: Tudor Collector, Ross Povey

W.O.E.’s grail is a military-issued Tudor Submariner, specifically a South African military-issued Tudor Sub from the 1970s.  While I have no affinity for the South African Defence Force (especially from that time frame), I have spent much of my life living and working on the continent and would find the connection meaningful.  Pictured above is one of the few known watches, a 1974 South African Navy Issued Black Tudor Submariner 7016.  I want to do a full deep dive Dispatch article on this, if nothing else to build my knowledge base.

Why do you not have a G-Shock in your collection?

The Casio G-Shock is a great watch and if you are in a tactical or operational position, it’s hard to beat as a tool watch.  For deployed paramilitary officers or uniformed military personnel conducting direct action and kicking in doors it is a fantastic tool.  The same for Garmin, Suunto, Timex and the plethora of other digital pieces. There are some downsides, most notably the requirement for a battery, but they are cheap and relatively indestructible. Additionally, G-Shocks also have a cult following in the watch community and there are many collectible references and collaborations.  So why doesn’t W.O.E. have one in the toolbox?

Watches of Espionage

While it is ideal for military personnel, the Casio G-Shock is a clear “tell” for Americans to wear overseas.  For Case Officers, who mostly operate in capital cities while under cover (i.e. posing as something they aren’t) this watch can make one stick out as much as a gold Rolex Daytona.

A decade ago I was posted overseas in a major African capital.  The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were dying down, but the “Global War on Terror” was still in full swing and a priority for the USG.  Department of Defense personnel had flooded into Africa to conduct overt military assistance to host country nations.  One night I was out for drinks with an early local contact at a high-end hotel when a group of civilian-clothed USMIL personnel walked in.

Navy SEAL G Shock
Tactical? (Photo Credit: Casio)

My contact, who was not yet aware of my Agency affiliation, eyed the group as they took their seats at the bar and proudly said, “There are some of your spies, you can always spot American spies, they have beards and wear large plastic watches on the inside of their wrists.”  I don’t remember what watch I was wearing that night, but I do know it wasn’t a large black tactical watch.  It would have been something that supported my cover as an American (REDACTED).

Navy SEAL VBSS G Shock
Navy SEALs conducting VBSS while wearing G-Shock, likely DW-6600 (Photo Credit: US Navy)

We have detailed the role digital watches play in espionage and regardless of one’s horological interests or occupation, a cheap and reliable digital timepiece is a must in any collection.  My go-to is a Timex Ironman, which I use for PT and other water activities when I want to record specific times.

Would you wear another unit’s unit watch? Does this qualify as stolen Valor?

We have written extensively about unit watches and there are some cool references like the SAS Explorer II that sometimes show up for sale or auction.  While it is unfortunate that some operators choose to part with these meaningful timepieces, we also understand that life circumstances change, and the astronomical secondary market can become irresistible.

SAS Special Air Service Rolex Explorer
Special Air Service Rolex Explorer II Ref. 216570 (Photo Credit: Sotheby’s)

Short answer is yes, I would wear another unit’s watch and I do not view this as stolen valor.  For example, if someone gave me the SAS Rolex Explorer II (I couldn’t afford or want to spend the asking price), I would wear it.  In fact, the watch ending up with a true collector who appreciates the history and meaning behind a unit watch is probably a good thing. 

The caveat to all of this is that it all comes down to intention: if someone uses the watch to attempt to convince someone that they served in a specific unit when they did not, of course that is taboo.  But there are far easier and more effective forms of stolen valor than spending a small fortune on a collectable timepiece. 

What are your opinions on smart watches?

This is a fascinating topic and something I will dive into deeper in a future Dispatch, a lot to unpack here.  First, in general we are not against smart watches, in my post-government life I have worked in emerging technology and the benefits of “wearables” including smart watches are immense.  Even though they are contrary to much of what we put out at W.O.E., smart watches are great tools, providing immediate and actionable data to increase your health, productivity, and situational awareness.

Apple Watch CIA
Apple Watch (Photo Credit: Apple)

That said, for people in the business of espionage, smart watches and the internet of things (IoT) have profound counterintelligence implications and are not ideal.  For one, wireless devices are not permitted in SCIFs (sensitive compartmented information facility) so they are not even an option for most while at work.  Secondly, as previously documented, smart devices are certainly not a spy’s best friend. When wading through a Middle Eastern souk trying to detect and avoid hostile intelligence services, wearing a beacon with a microphone that tracks your every move, on your wrist or in your pocket, simply is not acceptable.

Strava military base
Secret Australian government installation on the Strava heat map showing routes of staff movements logged in the app. (Photo Credit: Daily Mail / Strava)

In late-2017, open-source fitness tracker data was used to reveal the location of sensitive military locations in countries including Syria, Niger, and Afghanistan. A reliable timepiece is a necessity to ensure you conduct your operational act (agent meeting) at the exact time and place without leaving behind a digital footprint that can be pieced together by a competent hostile intelligence service. Sometimes it’s best to do things the old-fashioned way.

Again, this is a great topic and something we will flesh this out in more detail in a future Dispatch.

Read More: CIA Officers And Apple Watches

What is a modern MACV-SOG Seiko?

As documented in the Dispatch: Vietnam MACV-SOG Seikos: Setting The Record Straight, “SOG Seikos” are one of the greatest historical examples of “Watches of Espionage.”  They are procured using black budget funds and issued to SOG operators as sterile and untraceable equipment. Seiko’s cult-like following combined with military historians’ fascination with SOG has made the MACV-SOG Seikos incredibly collectable (i.e. expensive).



While the prices of the MACV-SOG Seikos have recently skyrocketed to well over $1,000 if you can even find them, for those interested in purchasing a modern version, the SNK381K1 is as close as it gets. At 37mm, it is smaller than most modern watches, but throw it on a green nylon strap, add a tactical compass, and you can play the part.

W.O.E.’s personal modern MACV-SOG, Seiko SNK381K1

If you really want to signal to others that you are a tactical watch bro, wear it on the inside of your wrist like John Stryker Meyer did in Vietnam. Like most Seikos, it is relatively affordable and you should be sub-$200 all in. Pretty cool watch. 

Do you plan to restock straps, cases etc?

Yes, all of our products are hand made in the US/UK so they take time and cannot be mass produced. We are working on some unique and innovative things for 2023 and will announce them in the newsletter.  We should have a large release of W.O.E. Travel Pouches in late January/early February and we are really excited about the leather straps later in February.  The next release of the W.O.E. Zulu Alpha Strap is TBD.  Sign up for “Notify Me When Available” for anything that interests you. (HINT-HINT)  More to come!

Thanks for the support.

Read Next: The Connection Between Watches And Espionage

This Dispatch has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.


Currently an 1811 for a DOJ agency. Would you recommend leaving that to become GRS or a staff officer and which job field is better?


Dear Mr. W.O.E.

As followers of your stories and majestic timepieces,
My friend and I, want to thank you for the great content that inspired us
into researching about the history of the IC as well as it’s tradecraft.
Consequentially, it is nice to learn about the beautiful timepieces as we are becoming enthusiasts of them.

My question is: Would you perhaps share a story about the Balkans Division?
It would certainly be interesting to your audience to learn about Southeastern Europe and its complex nature.

Best regards from Bosnia and Herzegovina,
Mr. L.

P.S. We use our tools wisely.

Mr. L

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