It is October 2012, and we’re sitting next to James Bond on a thin, leather-topped bench in Room 34 of The National Gallery in London. Bond is out of shape after a near-death experience and a three-month retirement, and he has just failed his MI6 medical. Surprisingly enough, he is now seeking restorative comfort in the work of JMW Turner. His focus is “The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838”, a work he may have previously enjoyed on postcards and tea towels. It is a glorious painting, and an inglorious one, a warship that once played a vital role in the Battle of Trafalgar being towed along the Thames on its way to the knacker’s yard.
The symbolism hits you like a mast: one dry-roasted wreck looking at another. But here comes Bond’s new quartermaster to drive the point home.
“Always makes me feel a little melancholy,” Q says as he explains the painting with a sigh. “The inevitability of time, don’t you think?”
It is, of course, Skyfall. Bond is Daniel Craig, Q is Ben Whishaw, and the latter has come to give the former a plane ticket to Shanghai and a small box of new toys. The inevitability of time ticks on through the scene: Q looks like he’s barely out of school, while Bond looks like he may qualify for an early-bird discount in the art gallery’s restaurant. Their talk is all experience versus innovation, age versus ability. Q claims he can do more damage on his computer before his first cup of Earl Grey than Bond can manage in the field in a whole year. Bond’s usefulness has been reduced to trigger-pulling. When Q hands him a case with a new pistol and a radio transmitter, Bond looks disappointed. “Were you expecting an exploding pen?” Q asks. “We don’t really go in for that any more.”
Not any more. Bond has been living in the past since anyone can remember, his sad demons battling outdated codes. His timebomb is ticking ever louder in a lair; his modern foes regard him with the admiration they might afford a heritage railway. Of course, nothing plays with time as much as our wait for the new Bond movie itself. Long delayed and overburdened with expectation — not least the expectation of saving the entire movie business — the next offering again suggests our hero’s twilight: the poor chap finds he even has No Time to Die.
And then there’s the watches. The many watches, the manual, automatic and digital watches, the grappling-hooked, laser-beaming watches, the magnetic watches, the radio watches and the television watches, the Swiss, American and Japanese watches, the merchandisable, marketable and highly monetisable watches. More than any other franchise, more than any other anything, the watches gave us what we always wanted. All those evil geniuses in Geneva and Le Brassus with their chiming quarter-hours and high-frequency escapements in tourbillon cages, that’s all fine, but it turns out that the only thing we really needed was a watch that went “Kaboom!”
And Bond watches did go “Kaboom!” twice! Not content with Roger Moore in a tight spot in 1979 on the Moonraker launch pad with his Seiko M354-5010 Memory Bank Calendar, detonation enchanted us more recently in 2015’s Spectre. You remember: Bond being taken round a gadget emporium, rather crestfallen that the delicious new Aston Martin on display has been reassigned to 009, barely compensated with an Omega Seamaster 300, very much the same model that had just appeared in the Bond Street shops for about five grand.
Of course you remember: a nice automatic chronometer-rated Master Co-Axial Calibre 8400, a black baton dial housing Arabic numerals, a black ceramic liquid-metal bi-directional bezel and lollipop second hand, an 007-branded buckle, a black-and-grey Nato textured cloth strap and a regular stainless steel alternative, limited to only 7,007 pieces. What you don’t get is, well:
“Does it do anything?” Bond asks.
“It tells the time,” Q replies. “Might help with your punctuality issues.”
“M’s idea?” Bond wonders.
“Precisely. Oh, one word of warning. The alarm is rather loud, if you know what I mean.”
“I think I do.”
And in a short while we all know too: “Kaboom!” When Bond and Dr Madeleine Swann want away from that crater in the Sahara, he spins the Seamaster’s crown, causing the hour markers to flash red, and, soon enough, post-grenade, our friends are back to London.
Explosive as this watch is, it is not quite wonderful enough to make it as one of my favourites. Personal taste, of course. But if you had to assemble an all-time top seven James Bond film watch collection, based on utility, novelty and beauty (and never once do all three combine), I wonder whether it would look anything at all like mine. I am grateful for some of the intricate details that follow to the online academic rigour at Timepiece Chronicle, JamesBondWatches, Hodinkee, Bond Lifestyle and WatchTime, along with about 3,400 other watch and gadget fetish sites (it turns out that a lot of guys really do have too much time on their hands). In chronological, chronometrical order:
1. Gruen Precision 510
The first Bond watch seen on screen, a 17-jewel, 34mm gold number strapped to Sean Connery at the gaming tables in Dr No (1962), and it may have been the actor’s own. Now defunct, Gruen was a US company that began making wristwatches in 1908 using first German and then Swiss components, and swiftly became one of the leading manufacturers of mid-range timepieces, not least with its Curvex models that clung to the shape of the wrist.
What Connery’s dress watch lacked in hipness it made up for in old-school classicism, perfect for after-hours chemin de fer and seduction. But it’s certainly not the watch of an action man. Accordingly, when Bond is called to smash and chase things, he’s wearing a more durable Rolex Submariner ref 6538. This may also have been Connery’s own, but who wouldn’t want to believe the legend that it belonged to producer Cubby Broccoli, who supposedly took it off his own wrist and tossed it to Connery before things got serious down in Crab Key. But the Gruen didn’t go quietly, and those who have looked closely have also detected its quiet appearance in From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), You Only Live Twice (1967) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971).
2. Breitling Top Time ref 2002
Finally, in Thunderball (1965), the fourth movie, Bond gets a watch with a purpose. Described to him by Q as “useful and unobstructive”, his chunky Breitling Geiger counter detects radiation from two stolen atomic bombs, and the world is saved from the terrible intentions of Spectre’s Emilio Largo, hoorah. The watch is a unique prop, a metal ellipse around the Breitling’s regular round face, and it was assumed lost for more than 45 years before being bought at a car boot sale for £25 and then sold at Christie’s in 2013 for just under £104,000. Breitling never graced Bond’s wrist again, although the company’s life-saving Emergency model, with its SOS transmitter for downed pilots and stranded explorers, would surely have been a decent match.
3. Rolex Submariner ref 5513
Setting the gadget bar high, this one marked Roger Moore’s debut and began the direct and ignoble link between Bond’s wrist and no-holds sexism. But before we go there, we should log the first brave-new-world appearance of the Bond digital. In 1973, near the start of Live and Let Die, with a woman in his bed, Moore hears knocking at his door and consults his silver Hamilton Pulsar P2 with its red flickering display. It is 5:48. The display appears so briefly, and the hour is so ungodly, that he must check it again. It is still 5:48.
Shortly afterwards, with his visitors admitted, Moneypenny hands him a ticket for New York and his old watch “repaired” by Q. If only all repairs were this good. His Rolex came back from the menders with a bezel doubling as a strong magnet, demonstrated early on by attracting the spoon from a nearby saucer. The magnet will, if you ever doubted it, soon be used to unzip the back of a woman’s dress, but the bezel has another use, too, as a rotating saw that will later come in useful to cut off rope around Bond’s hands. The saw prop was auctioned at Phillips in 2015 for CHF365,000 (£310,000), the catalogue declaring it “the most recognisable watch in history”; a good price for an item that didn’t tell the time (because the case didn’t actually house a watch mechanism).
4. Seiko DK001 Quartz LC ref 0674
The Seiko was the early star of The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), kickstarting the plot as Roger Moore is summoned back to MI6 by ticker tape. Extraordinary to think that this silver day-date “splash-resistant” was once considered the hottest ticket, but pair it with the miniature-telex-meets-Dymo-sticky-label-printer and you have the beginning of a beautiful quartz friendship. Many more Seikos followed, including the “smart” Memory Bank Calendar M354-5010 in Moonraker, the H357-5040 Duo-Display in For Your Eyes Only (1981), and three round-face Seikos in 1985’s A View to a Kill (it was basically the Argos catalogue). Roger Moore sure drew the short straw when it came to the classics. But then again, we have skipped all mention of Octopussy (1983), in which he wears not only the Sports 100 G757-5020 with a “lap” indicator, but also the unforgettably sexist deployment of…
5. Seiko Liquid Crystal TV Watch
Of which all that needs to be said is that Bond employs this watch only once, and not truly to advance the plot. Instead, he uses it — in long and close-up zooming style — to show the cleavage of a woman working in Q’s gadget factory. In case you somehow missed it, the time above the cleavage image advanced while the cleavage image was on display from 19:10 and 38 seconds to 19:10 and 39 seconds on Tuesday the 18th of an unidentified month.
6. Omega Seamaster 300
So much watch-fuelled fun for Pierce Brosnan. Not only a laser gun on his and Omega’s first Seamaster appearance, in GoldenEye in 1995, but also this Seamaster with a grappling hook four years later in The World is Not Enough. I want a grappling hook on my watch. You want a grappling hook on your watch. Only Bond had a grappling hook on his watch.
7. The Omega Seamaster Diver 300M Co-Axial Master Chronometer
The latest one and in some senses one of the least. Least flashy; least loaded; least weighty. Everything else points to this as one of the best-looking Bond watches ever. I haven’t yet seen how Bond deploys it in No Time to Die, or whether it bears any relevance to the plot at all (it’s a diver’s watch, obviously, and the dial luminescence is strong, but neither of these hint at anything unusual). All the specifications — 42mm, black dial, titanium case and titanium Milanese mesh strap — suggest a weather-worn appearance. Ah, the symbolism again: long gone is the shiny, over-built beefcake of the Seamaster Professional, for here comes the less-is-more. The new model has “62” engraved on the back of the case, marking the year of the first Bond movie Dr No. All of which suggests some sort of perfect circle for the agent’s 25th year with Omega.
Alas, I own none of these watches. But not to be overly perturbed by my lack of investment in the Bond franchise, in September 2020 I bought a James Bond watch at auction. Not from Sotheby’s or Christie’s, but on eBay, and it was not an Omega or a Rolex, and decidedly not a Hamilton or a Seiko. Rather, it was a piece of crap. But not just any old crap — crap deluxe, the very special Animated Talking 007 Watch by Zeon, and it came with a series of exclusive features that would make Q give up everything and work in H Samuel. I have to ask you, when was the last time you saw Bond unbox a watch with a “Try Me! Press Here” instruction? I rest my hard plastic case.
Placing the watch on my wrist, it wasn’t difficult to see to see how quartz had sent the Swiss into a tailspin. My particular digital purchase was made in 2000, and instead of a reference number it had a helpline number, “should you experience any difficulties in operating the functions”. And what functions! Fully loaded with a new battery, the watch reveals not only the time visually, but announces it aurally. It also has an alarm, but Zeon was still far from content. So it added highly pixellated animations. In one, Bond opens a creaking door and asks (in an unusually tinny voice) “Morning Q, what do you have for me today?” Another shows a square-jawed Bond raising his watch to his chin and saying, “Moneypenny, put me through to M.” And in another, Moneypenny has a question of her own: “James, where in the world are you?”
As it says on the instruction leaflet, “You have purchased the ultimate multi-character timepiece. You will hear the time spoken, followed by one of your own personal cast of zanny [sic] characters.” Apple Watch Series 6 may offer blood oxygen levels, but does it offer, with merely one featherlight push of a button, anything like a cartoon showing Bond tied to a chair and a baddie with a goatee proclaiming, “Good morning, Mr Bond, I trust you slept well? Hahaha!” No, Mr Tim Cook in Cupertino, it does not.
The most extraordinary piece of information about my, er, timepiece, is supplied on the back of the cardboard guarantee card: while manufactured in China, Zeon Ltd is based just off the North Circular Road in Cricklewood, London NW2. Yes, this Bond watch is officially British, which renders it unique in the annals. Bond flies the flag for Savile Row, Booth’s gin and Aston Martin, but he tends to favour Swiss and Japanese timekeeping over the British. Yet, when it comes to semi-toy merch from Cricklewood, let the promo deals begin.
The day before my talking watch arrived, I enjoyed an email conversation with Raynald Aeschlimann, CEO and President of Omega, who is decidedly Swiss and only partly “zanny”. I wanted to learn more about his company’s 25-year association with the Bond empire — specifically Eon Productions — and about how each watch is selected. But primarily I needed to understand what sort of Bondian attributes I might inherit should I buy an Omega watch very similar to one worn in the movies.
“I think confidence is an important one,” Aeschlimann says. “When you wear a watch of a certain quality, it does make you feel particularly self-assured and good about yourself. It seems to me that Bond is a hugely confident character and that can be a good trait to have in life.”
Aeschlimann tells me there is indeed a British connection between Bond and Omega, albeit a psychological one. The choice of a Seamaster, rather than perhaps a Speedmaster, was a conscious decision by Lindy Hemming, the costume designer on GoldenEye, the film in which the watch first appeared. “That watch has its true origins in the British military and in diving,” says Aeschlimann, “and she felt it was the most genuine choice for Commander Bond to have. The Seamaster also has an elegance and sophistication that goes with the character’s suave nature.”
What other attributes apart from suavity, I wonder, came with such an enduring line of product placement? In other words, why is Bond and Omega such a cool fit? As one might expect, the answer from Switzerland comes in terms of shared values, among them “dependability, precision, good looks and strength”. Omega’s association with Bond, Aeschlimann claims, allows the company to appear “pioneering and edgy”, although it has no say in how long the watches are seen on screen, much less in how they may advance the plot. “There’s no such contract, no demands or requirements. That might surprise some people,” he says.
With regards to the explosive watch in Spectre, Aeschlimann says Daniel Craig himself was influential. Nostalgic for the days when earlier watches came with a laser or saw, “Daniel felt like he wanted to bring some of that fun back into it and give the watch a special purpose again. So we were really excited to find out that the watch in Spectre was going to have a special role. Everyone at the company watched the movie together and there was a big cheer during that scene.”
The only lasting problem with Bond wearing Omega is that it isn’t the watch he actually favoured in the novels, and it isn’t the watch his creator wore himself. Photos and paintings of Fleming at his writing desk at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica show him with a Rolex Explorer ref 1016, a rather slim and modest choice by today’s standards — black dial, luminescent numbers and a hollow-end, fixed-link silver bracelet — although there is plenty of evidence in the books and correspondence that he was more than adequately versed in other, higher-ends brands, as well as their narrative value as signifiers of wealth and status. Bond’s first printed outing in Casino Royale in 1953, for example, features a nefarious Swiss “traveller in watches”, a form of currency decidedly easier to transport across borders than gold bars.
In June 1960, Fleming wrote to a reader who had spotted that an early printing of Moonraker had ex-Nazi Hugo Drax wearing a misprint, notably a “Parek Phillippe”. Fleming thanked him for the correction, and announced that a future Bond novel would feature an Audemars Piguet, something which never came to pass. But in another letter, Fleming wrote that Bond preferred to use “fairly cheap, expendable wristwatches on expanding metal bracelets which can be slipped forward over the thumb and used in the form of a knuckle-duster, either on the outside or the inside of the hand”. Such a watch was used for such a purpose in his 1963 book On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but was purposefully not a Rolex, for (as Fleming wrote to a fan) Bond found that the “Rolex Oyster Perpetual weighs about six ounces and would appreciably slow up the use of his left hand in combat”. This may explain why, two years earlier in Thunderball, the no-gooder Italian pilot Giuseppe Petacchi was appointed with a solid gold Rolex “Oyster Perpetual Chronometer on a flexible gold bracelet”.
Fleming clearly took pleasure in loading his baddies with watches of which he disapproved. From Russia With Love featured the untrustworthy Red Grant and his bulky gold wristwatch on a well-used brown crocodile strap, “a Girard-Perregaux model designed for people who like gadgets, and it had a sweep second hand and two little windows in the face to tell the day of the month, and the month, and the phase of the moon”. Those were gadgets? The novels were relatively poorly served by doodad horology; that part of our imagination, like so much else, was principally fired by the movies.
Fleming himself was not a collector. He famously believed that “a gentleman’s choice of timepiece says as much about him as does his Savile Row suit”, while surviving family members have said that his Rolex Explorer was the only watch that mattered to him, and the only one in his possession when he died aged 56 in 1964.
But what about Bond? Does he hoard any of the old Rolexes and Seikos and Omegas? Does he even bother changing their batteries or set them nodding on automatic winders? Does he merely sigh when they escape his clutches and fetch astronomical prices at auction? The physical evidence is scant, but the documentation is telling.
Fleming suggests that Bond would have coped very well without a watch at all. In June 1958, 10 weeks after the publication of Dr No, and still four years before it was made into the first Bond film, he wrote to a reader named BW Gooden that his hero would wear “an appropriate” watch whenever one is available, but he also had a reliable alternative: “James Bond has trained himself to tell the time by the sun in either hemisphere within a few minutes.”
So there it was, when Bond was still young: gadgets and product placement were all well and good, but then there was the hottest and oldest timepiece of all.
This article is taken from the Big Watch Book 2020, available here
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