Watches of Espionage was recently profiled by Andrew Harrison for Esquire's "The Big Watch Book."
The Mysterious Story Behind 'Watches of Espionage'
The Instagram account and website has become a runaway hit by revealing the surprising links between luxury timepieces and spycraft. One detail remains classified. The identity of the former CIA officer who runs it
by Andrew Harrison
Which watch would you choose to wear on the day you die? It’s not a question that many of us face too often. But then our day’s work seldom involves flying in secret by Black Hawk helicopter from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan to the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, there to locate and kill Osama bin Laden.
Will Chesney was the dog handler with SEAL Team Six, the US special-forces unit selected to carry out “Operation Neptune Spear” in 2011. His chances of being shot down by Pakistan’s air defences en route or killed by an explosion in bin Laden’s compound were, he calculated, high, for Chesney and his dog Cairo were tasked with locating IEDs on the compound perimeter. So for this operation only, Chesney put aside his workaday digital and wore his prized Rolex Submariner instead. It was a special watch, reference 14060, engraved with the SEALs’ “red man” logo. Rolexes and Tudors had been engrained in SEAL culture since Vietnam; Chesney had bought his own watch when he passed the infamously harsh selection process to join Team Six. It was, by certain measures, impractical for the mission. But what exactly, he reasoned, was he saving it for?
“I thought it would be fitting to wear the watch on that operation since it was my gift to myself for making it there,” he would say later. “I figured we wouldn’t be making it back so I might as well die with it on.”
But they got their man, Chesney didn’t die and neither did Cairo. When Chesney told this story — of how the two would later be presented to President Obama, how Cairo would help him rehabilitate after he was seriously wounded in a grenade attack in Afghanistan in 2013, how Chesney commemorated his canine partner in the book No Ordinary Dog after Cairo died of cancer in 2015 — he told it to Watches Of Espionage. (Read the full post, it’s fascinating.)
Launched in February 2021 by a former CIA intelligence operative with an itch for timepieces, the Watches Of Espionage Instagram feed has gained some 130,000 followers and its website has a cult audience unlike anything else in the horological universe. “WoE” readers range from hardcore watch aficionados who want to know exactly why SEALS love Panerai and how Delta Force guys get their custom Breitlings; to fans of the vicarious military experience, from the knowledgeable to what you might call the Gareth-from-The-Office demographic; to another, more select, harder-to-reach group: anonymous men who do anonymous things in the service of their country.
They might not be allowed to talk about what they’ve done — many a WoE post ends with the words, “This has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information” — but they want to communicate their watch lore to others in the know, and maybe leak a little to the rest of us. WoE is both their community centre and a window into their world.
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