In Watches and in Espionage, Context Matters

In Watches and in Espionage, Context Matters

By Cole Pennington

I spent four years writing about watches professionally as an editor at Hodinkee, the leading publication in the world of horology. I focused my writing mainly on tool watches, meaning watches that were engineered and used for a specific function, oftentimes by members of the military, scientists, explorers, or other professionals that didn’t treat their watch as a decorative piece of jewelry. 

The stories that kept me up for days at a time researching and writing focused on watches that played a small but important role in shaping history. For example, the Rolex Oyster Datejust that Civil Air Transport pilot Norman Schwartz was wearing when his C-47 was shot down during a 1952 CIA covert operation in Jilin Province, China. Or the WWII-era Active Service watch that Lt. Alex C. Jones wore aboard the HMCS Oakville that eventually returned home to a museum in Canada, over half a century later. 

I was lucky to explore stories like these, any many more. But there were so many stories that I didn’t have the opportunity to dig into, simply because of the fact that their very nature was deemed far too controversial for mainstream consumption. I had to turn down dozens of pitches and kill my own ideas that I thought were fascinating, but were unfit for the larger world of watch enthusiasm. 

These stories never found a place to land – until now.

(Photo Credit: Cole Pennington/Hodinkee)

I connected with Watches of Espionage a year and a half ago over a shared appreciation for watches that had fascinating stories to tell, long before it grew into a well-known platform in both the world of watch nerdery and intelligence/Special Operations. It’s been a long time in the making, but I’ve finally found a space to tell those stories, right here at W.O.E. 

What’s the story behind the Omega Constellation that North Korean founder Kim Il-sung commissioned for his most senior officials? What happened to the infamous Rolex GMT-Master once worn by Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara? Or Fidel Castro’s Rolex collection? What does the “Blackwater Breitling” represent?

“Blackwater Breitling” - W.O.E. Personal Collection (Photo Credit: James Rupley)

As the Dispatch takes on a life of its own, we’ll answer those questions. But first, it’s important to turn the lens on ourselves, the readership of this newsletter, and look at how we can best approach controversial watches and the stories connected to them.

Mainstream watch media often shies away from controversial watches because undoubtedly someone will be offended by the discussion of the watch in question. But by doing that we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to educate ourselves. When it comes to war, conflict, espionage, and geopolitical affairs, it’s always murky. Sometimes there isn’t an obvious “right” answer immediately. We’re very quick to judge without knowing all the facts. There’s a haze of mystery around watches connected to this world. But through scholarship and a nuanced approach, we can cut through that haze and get to the truth. That’s part of the mission of WOE. 

Sometimes history, and further, horological history, is ugly. A number of respected Swiss (and German) watch brands produced watches for the Nazi forces during the dark days of WWII. There’s nothing glorious about watches serving as a cog in a war machine meant to obliterate the societal ideals we hold dear.  

But some watches take some time to work through; it’s important to understand the context surrounding them. For example, the series of Elgin watches ordered by The Russian War Relief in 1941 and delivered to Soviet troops to aid in the fight against the Nazi forces. From the story I wrote in 2019:

The watches are inscribed with an encouraging note to Soviet soldiers: "To the Heroic People of the USSR – Russian War Relief USA,” with the latter half of the inscription being a transliteration into Cyrillic characters from English. 

There was a healthy amount of skepticism from the Western Allies towards the Stalin-led Soviet Union at the time, but the need to work together became obvious as Hitler’s Germany grew more powerful. American policymakers handled Soviet cooperation with a sort of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" approach. It wasn’t necessarily an alliance formed from shared values, brotherhood, or kinship, but rather it was an alliance born out of sheer necessity. The only way to stop Germany was to band together. Winston Churchill shared the sentiment with typical English wit: "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons." 

The war ended with the defeat of the Nazis, and the Russian War Relief dissolved as America entered peacetime. Pins, posters, and records at the New York Public Library are all that's left of the organization, but every now and then a confusing watch pops up from an American watchmaker with Cyrillic writing on the back. The relationship that developed between Russia and America in the post-war years is another chapter in history entirely, but the watch serves as a reminder of the time our nations came together to fight a greater evil. 

The Russian War Relief gave the Soviet soldiers a vital timekeeping tool for warfare; the Soviet soldiers gave all they could in the fight against the Nazis.

Right now Russian forces are carrying out a hostile and bloody invasion on neighboring Ukraine under the autocratic Putin regime, flying in the face of international diplomacy and leaving thousands dead and a number of cities in ruins. Even Switzerland, with its age-old neutrality, was challenged by these actions. With the war in Ukraine raging, the Elgin I wrote about in 2019 can be seen in a different light – but it shouldn't. Context is important when we think through watches with a contentious past. We must set aside our biases and look at watches through the lens of history. 

Looking at watches with a complicated history requires ruthless objectivity, that’s the only way to cut through the discomfort of looking at topics and periods of history which don’t represent humanity at its best. By doing this, it allows us to produce scholarship around watches that we would normally write off as simply unacceptable.

Che Guevara smoking a cigar with his infamous Rolex GMT Master Ref. 1675 (Photo Credit: Unknown)

At W.O.E., we don’t shy away from hard truths. Many see watches in the context of a modern luxury status symbol, but watches can also serve as historical objects that challenge social narratives. As an editor at Hodinkee, when I first contacted W.O.E. to write about the role of the wristwatch in the world of intelligence, he debunked a lot of the common notions created by the likes of James Bond and instead revealed that watches are often used as gifts to build relationships in the modern world of intelligence operations. As early as WWI “trench watches” were used as a bargaining chip for a soldier's release. Some even had a gold insert set into the caseback that could be removed and traded for freedom. These watches are fascinating. I’ve written about their unlikely beauty at length

WWI Era “Trench Watches”
(Photo Credit: Cole Pennington/Hodinkee)

But the timepieces were made for a singular purpose, to provide Allied soldiers with an advantage on the battlefield. They increased their lethal capabilities. And that’s why it’s important to consider context when looking at watches. They can teach us about design, history, and most importantly, ourselves. 

Read Next: Man O'War And The Horological Symbols That Inspire Us

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