Ask Watches Of Espionage Anything, Part II

Ask Watches Of Espionage Anything, Part II

In this edition of the Dispatch, we answer some common questions we get about W.O.E., timepieces and the Intelligence Community at large. Many of these responses can even serve as stand alone stories– and probably will at some point–but for now, here’s some additional insight on Watches of Espionage. If you have any more questions, please ask in the comments section and we will address next time.

See past questions “Ask W.O.E. Anything Part I

What advice do you have for buying watches?

There are more resources than ever before on watches, and if you are reading this then you’ve already demonstrated that you’re pretty far down the rabbit hole.  Here are a few tips below for those looking to get into watches.  Also check out our previous Dispatch on “Best watches under $1,000” as a good starting point.

watches of espionage
  1. Buy what makes you happy; no one else cares what you are wearing and 99.9% of people will not notice the watch you have on your wrist. (This one is cliché but it’s entirely true.)

  2. Buy the watch you can afford. You won't be happy if you spend more than you can afford, as “buyer’s remorse” is real and can undermine the sense of satisfaction from wearing the watch.

  3. Don't buy for investment. Your watch may appreciate, but buy with the expectation you will wear it until you die (and a loved one will wear it after you die). Values are generally trending downward in the watch world anyway. That’s not what they’re made for, and treating a watch like a financial instrument takes away something from the hobby.

  4. When in doubt, stick with a known brand: Seiko, Rolex, Breitling, Omega, Tudor, JLC, IWC, Bremont, Patek, etc.  There are some great micro brands out there (like Tornek-Rayville), but also a lot with smoke and mirrors, especially in the “tactical” space. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Any worthwhile watch company wasn’t either.

  5. Buy the seller and build a relationship with that person. If the deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.  A lot of people have had great experiences with Ebay and other online forums, but there is something about building a relationship with the actual person selling the watch that makes it special. Plus, it’s very easy to get burned on Ebay. It’s less easy to get burned by someone you know and trust.

  6. Take your time. Do your research. Even if you have the money to buy the watch you want right away, spend time learning about the different variations and history of the reference or brand. This will likely change your outlook and make you appreciate the watch you end up with even more.

As a closing remark, don't feel like you need a "luxury watch," a ~$500 watch can be just as meaningful as a $5,000 watch.

How do I organize Unit watch?

After our “Tudors of Espionage” piece, we received a lot of queries on how to organize a “unit watch” for a specific military, law enforcement or intelligence organization.  We have heard from our industry contacts that companies across the board have received an increase in these requests.  This is cool, because “unit watches” are at the heart of watch culture in the National Security community and closely tied to the idea of “Watches of Espionage.”

Tudor JTF2 Pelagos

To review, a unit watch is a timepiece that is customized by the manufacturer for members of a specific unit or organization inside the military.  Customizations can include the unit’s insignia or motto on the dial and/or an engraving on the caseback. Occasionally, markings can be applied to the side of the case as well.  

We will continue to go deeper on various unit watch programs (like Bremont Military and Special Project's Division) and guide those looking to organize a custom watch for their organization, but in the meantime, here are some initial steps:

  1. Do it: To accomplish anything in the government, you need an internal champion.  Be that champion. Nothing will happen otherwise.

  2. Build Internal Support:  For most custom watch programs, you need a minimum of 50 pieces. It needs to make sense for a manufacturer to tool up to produce a custom watch, which incurs a significant cost on their end.  Start building support within the organization and gauge interest from other unit members.  Take the opportunity to educate non-watch members why a watch is a great way to commemorate a moment in time and one's service.  Seek approval from the unit/command leadership if needed.

  3. Explore Brands: There are some great brands that provide unit watches. Each one has its pros and cons.  Decide on 3-4 that work for your unit's culture. As a starting point, look at Breitling, IWC, Omega, Tudor, Bremont Watch Company, Elliot Brown, CWC, Seiko, and Sangin Instruments.

  4. Contact the brands:  For larger brands (Tudor, IWC, Omega, etc) visit a local boutique/Authorized Dealer and explain what you're looking to accomplish.  You need someone on the inside to help shepherd you through the process, as it can often be opaque.  For smaller brands (Elliot Brown, CWC, Sangin) you should reach out directly through the website.  Some companies like Bremont have formal “Special Projects” programs and make it seamless; others are more based on personal relationships.  Ideally, have a specific idea of what you are looking for, i.e. a specific reference and design/location of the insignia.

  5. Be Patient:  These things take time.  Having spoken with some of the individuals who have shepherded Tudor pieces, these projects can take over a year for delivery.

Automatic vs Quartz?

CWC Watches of Espionage

There is nothing wrong with quartz movements, and anyone who says otherwise is a nerd.  Not a good “watch nerd,” just a nerd.  In general I prefer an automatic timepiece because I appreciate the craftsmanship it takes to produce an automatic movement.  Operationally, there is a strong argument for an automatic movement, as batteries will always die at the wrong time.  

That said, some of the greatest military watches are quartz: CWC, Elliot Brown, and Marathon, not to mention the venerable Breitling Aerospace.  A quartz movement is likely more accurate than an automatic movement and some of these pieces are just as fashionable and robust.  There is something satisfying about picking up a watch and knowing that the date and time are set.

Jordanian Breitling

They both have their place in the watch world.  Again, these are tools and you choose the right tool for the task.

Does the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board (PCRB) censor your writing?

The CIA does not “censor” my writing when it comes to beliefs, opinions, or watch content.  It does review my writing (including this piece) to ensure that it does not contain classified information.  All current and former CIA officers have a lifelong obligation to protect classified national security information, and one aspect of this lifelong commitment is submitting writing to the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board (PCRB).  This is a good thing, as it protects every party involved. 

CIA Seal

Overall, I have found the review process relatively smooth.  Like most “formers” who write about the intelligence field, I have a general understanding of what we can and cannot say and there have been no major issues with the PCRB.  There are occasionally times when the PCRB will remove a location, word, or sentence, but overall it has not impacted the core points of any of the stories I’ve written.

As a private citizen, I am free to express my own opinions about the government, CIA, or watches, and I have not heard of any cases where a former CIA officer’s opinions or writings were “censored” in the traditional sense. 

It appears as though the CIA has made a conscious decision to be forward-leaning by allowing formers to write (relatively) openly about their experiences.  This is also a good thing.  My personal opinion is that the Intelligence Community should protect secrets, but should also be open in educating the public on what we do.  There are a lot of misconceptions about the CIA and we are in a position to dispel those myths and educate people on the reality. By writing semi-openly, we can achieve that. 

Do you sleep with your watch on? (We have received this question a lot.)

Watches of Espionage EDC Valet

I do not. Does anyone? That's weird.  I actually find myself taking my watch off often when I am at home, when typing on the computer, doing chores etc.  I haven't really put much thought into why this is but I have never slept with a watch on, and I don’t even put it on my bedside table unless traveling.  Generally, I take my watch off in the bathroom or office and have been using a W.O.E. EDC Valet in both. If anyone does sleep with their watch on, I would love to hear their rationale in the comments.

Thoughts on tactical micro-brands?  Are you a poser if you did not serve in the military?

When you buy a watch–any watch– you are buying into that brand and the community and reputation the brand commands.  This is especially true with micro brands/tactical brands.

There are some great micro brands/tactical brands out there and several were highlighted in the “Best Watches Under $1,000” Dispatch.  That said, I do not have much first hand experience with them, so I will reserve judgment.  If you are interested in a tactical brand, I encourage you to really do your research.  

Sangin Watches of Espionage

In my opinion, Sangin Instruments is one of, if not the, leader in this space.  Started by a Marine Raider, they make great watches but perhaps more importantly, they’ve built a true community around the brand.  Though largely driven by the active duty military and veterans, one does not have to be a veteran to take part and you are by no means a poser if you support this brand.

One other that I have also personally owned is RESCO Instruments, which was started by a former SEAL. Similar to Sangin, they have strong support from the active duty military and make a robust toolwatch.

Starting a watch company is hard, really hard.  There is a reason the top watch brands have been around for over a century.  Do your research: many of these companies have good intentions, slick websites and lots of tactical dudes wearing them, but actually building a company like Sangin and RESCO is not easy or for the faint hearted.

Final thought, any brand that gets you interested in watches is a good thing.  If you like the aesthetic of a watch and the guys building a brand, buy one. Try it out.  It’s all just a part of the larger process of going deeper into the hobby. 

Favorite city to visit?

Istanbul, Turkey; Beirut, Lebanon; Cape Town, South Africa.

If you had to choose only one watch to keep forever, what would it be?

From an emotional standpoint, it would likely be the titanium Royal Jordanian Breitling Aerospace, a gift from His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, but from a purely aesthetic and functional perspective, it would be my Rolex GMT-Master II, an early 2000s black and red “Coke” ref 16710.

Rolex GMT Central Intelligence Agency

For years, I have said that the Rolex GMT–any execution of the watch– is the ultimate CIA Case Officer’s watch– a classy and refined tool that signals to others you are a man of culture, yet don’t mind getting your hands dirty. A Case Officer has been described as a “PhD that can win in a bar fight,” and that fictional person would wear a Rolex GMT.  While this is less true today with the astronomical prices of “new” pre-owned models, there is still a lot of truth to it. 

When traveling, the quick-change date and GMT functionality are useful for telling the time back home, and a simple wrist check is easier than pulling out a phone. The watch also captures the spirit of the often-romanticized ‘50s Rolex GMT, originally developed in the 1950s for commercial Pan Am pilots.

I have an old “Root Beer” ref 16753, but the newer model is more robust and still maintains some of the vintage aspects, including drilled lug holes and the aluminum bezel.  The “Pepsi” of course is a classic, but there is something about the red and black that I have always gravitated towards.  It is just different enough to make it stand out but still retains that timeless appeal of the classic bi-color bezel formula. 

How has your interest in watches evolved over time?

South African Tudor Submariner

My personal interest in watches has evolved greatly over the past year as my collection has expanded. My collection and my interest grew together in tandem.  I’m still interested in modern tool watches, but have gone down the vintage military-issued watch rabbit hole.  I recently acquired a South African issued Tudor Milsub ref 7016 and a US Navy UDT/SEAL-issued Tudor 7928.  Both of these watches are “grail” pieces for me, and for the time being I am satisfied and have so much history to learn and uncover when it comes to the pieces I already own.  I will continue to be on the lookout for unique watches with military provenance.  There is something special about owning a piece of history and being able to wear it on your wrist.

What are your thoughts on watch modifications?

I have never modified a watch before, but this is something I would really like to explore in the future.  The idea of taking a Tudor Black Bay 58 or an Arabic Seiko as a blank canvas and personalizing it is incredibly intriguing.  This is still a controversial practice for much of the traditional watch community.  George Bamford originally made a name for himself by customizing Rolex watches into unconventional designs, much to the chagrin of the Swiss luxury brands.

Bamford Custom Commando Rolex
Customized “Commando” Rolex Submariner (Bamford Watch Department)

That said, I am not attracted to customizing a timepiece to look like another timepiece, aka a “Homage” customization.  If this makes you excited, then I am happy for you, but it is not for me.

Before selling out and going corporate, our friend and spiritual mentor Cole Pennington wrote a piece for Hodinkee defending homage pieces.  I generally agree with everything Cole writes, but when it comes to this topic I respectfully disagree.  Cole points out that there is a “big difference” between homage pieces and counterfeits, but in reality whether produced by a manufacturer or individually customized, the difference is often not that big.  I would rather purchase (and wear) a Seiko that looks like a Seiko, than a Seiko that has been retrofitted to look like a Rolex.

What is the future of Watches of Espionage? What new products and will they be in stock?

W.O.E is and always will be an enthusiast platform.  The reason we are successful is that we are passionate about watches (and espionage) and that’s our core fundamental driving force–not profiting from the watch community.  Our goal for Watches of Espionage is to become the number one resource for military, intelligence and national security content as it relates to timepieces.  We have just scratched the surface and have a lot more to explore.

We have made a lot of progress over the past year, with the launch of the website and initial W.O.E. products.  Our main focus is building a community of like-minded individuals who appreciate history and an interest in timepieces.  Content will continue to be our main focus and our intention is to keep this free and open to everyone.  

Sangin Instruments Watches of Espionage

Much of the watch industry works on a “pay to play” model where brands sponsor content or invite journalists to “exclusive” press trips which inevitably influences any potential watch review. Our goal is to avoid this model and remain an impartial third party in the watch industry. We will support brands and people who are doing good things.  If we enter into a partnership with a brand, it will be on our terms and will not be just a transaction for cash to exploit our relationship with the community.

Obviously this takes significant time and money and will only increase as we continue to expand.  After thoughtful consideration, we moved into the product space, and have found this equally fulfilling to create novel and exciting products for our community.  We appreciate those who have supported W.O.E.-- as this support will give us the opportunity for increased quality content. 

Watches of Espionage Zulu Alpha

Over the coming year, we hope to expand the number of articles per week and potentially move into other mediums.  Regarding products, we are working on some new and exciting projects and hope to have some in stock at all points.  We are in the initial steps on a coffee table book that we hope to be available in 2024.

This year, we have raised over $23,000 for Third Option Foundation and we have more fundraisers scheduled for this year that will be both meaningful and interesting.

As always, thank you for the support.  This would not be possible without you.

Read Next: Vietnam MACV-SOG Seikos: Setting The Record Straight

*Unless otherwise noted, pictures are of W.O.E.'s personal collection by James Rupley.


Can’t wait for the coffee table book in 2024!

Peter A

Another weirdo nocturnal watch wearer here. I actively try and limit my screen time in the evenings, and I have bouts of insomnia. As far as I can tell they’re linked for me. So checking a well-lumed watch on my wrist in the middle of the night is the best solution I’ve found so far. For a middle of the night time-check, no phone screen seems to dim low enough to not give me some sort of pavlovian response from the days when I’d have to check email in the middle of the night.


Always slept with a watch on deployment. Still do now. I’d rock a cheap Casio with an alarm set for every hour. Can’t beat a cheap digital watch when you’re out on the boat, if it breaks I’d just get another for $20. Finally upgraded to a marathon gpq and love it. I do miss having my alarm go off every hour though but tradeoffs are worth it.


I wear my watch at night. My sleep gets interrupted regularly and I like to do a quick wrist check to see what ungodly hour it is.

Bryan Reed

I slept with my watch on during my time in the military, especially on deployments and I still do to this day. Most of my military buddies do as well. Fun article!


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