Dearer By The DozenBy Ken Kessler
Back in the day, “The Dirty Dozen” referred only to the motion picture starring the incomparable Lee Marvin. In the half-century since it was released, that film’s title has been employed by military enthusiasts and collectors – and I bow to the genius who thought of using it – as the name for that group of watches commissioned by the British and delivered between May and December 1945, after the Second World War.
Referred to as “W.W.W.” for “Wrist Watch Waterproof”, “Waterproof Wrist Watch” or “Watches Wristlet Waterproof”, depending on which source you believe (I prefer the third), the watch’s specifications were provided by the Ministry of Defence to be – obviously – waterproof. Thus, all bar one feature screw-in backs, IWC managing with a snap-on back.
Also defining the watches, which look pretty much the same save for the brand logos and hour-and-minute-hand types, were 15-jewel, manual-winding movements with Breguet overcoils, high luminosity white Arabic numerals on black dials, subsidiary seconds at 6 o’clock, broad arrows on the dials and casebacks, shatterproof Perspex crystals and fixed strap bars. Variations in dial details, however, crept in, creating a hierarchy of desirability among collectors, abetted by the name – IWC or Longines will surely attract greater interest than Record or Timor, as would preferences for case sizes, which ranged from 35mm to 38mm.
Because the casebacks were engraved with the makers’ serial numbers and the MoD’s military store number, W.W.W.s ensure that collectors can have a ball identifying theirs. It hasn’t stopped fakery, but plenty of websites can help in sorting the real from the phony. Some watches also feature initials such as “ATP” for “Army Trade Pattern” or “Army Time Piece”, or those denoting the foreign services that used them, including Dutch, Indonesian and Pakistani, also aiding the identification.
These being examples of military materiel contracted back in the days before backhanders were the norm, the tender was put out to the watch industry and 12 companies fulfilled the requirements – hence the nifty moniker. It is rumoured, however, that a 13th maker, Enicar, was approved, but no watches appear to have been produced. Had that been the case, this would be the less-cool Baker’s Dozen.
Over the years, I’ve owned seven – the Vertex, Cyma, Büren, Record, Timor, Omega and IWC, and still have the last three. Five eluded me. According to the grapevine, approximately 20 collectors around the globe have full sets.
Appropriately, in the film’s 50th anniversary year, Vertex is being revived, and in July 2016, London-based auction house Watches of Knightsbridge offered examples of all of the Dirty Dozen in auction, including two each of the IWC, Longines and Büren models. Aside from the Grana – which all knew would fetch the most – there were some surprises, including a few that went unsold. (All prices on the following pages are taken from the Watches of Knightsbridge auction.)
A wonderful realisation is that bargains still exist for those wanting just one or even all of the Dirty Dozen, the auction prices for many being far below what dealers ask. Record, Timor, Vertex and Büren have yet to command silly money. And the Omega’s affordability? One of the nicest of the bunch, it was – along with the Record – produced in the greatest numbers, so scarcity is not a factor.
Too bad we couldn’t have featured this in the previous issue of Revolution… after all, it was number 12.
Known to collectors for its role in devising, with Heuer and Hamilton, one of the first automatic chronograph movements, Büren was an apt subcontractor for a W.W.W. because the original company was British in part. The MoD would love to have used only British suppliers, but the local watch industry was not in any state to produce what would amount to around 140,000-150,000 watches from 12 companies.
Büren Watch Company, named after Büren an der Aare in the canton of Bern, was founded in 1898, the creation of H. Williamson Ltd of London, which had acquired Fritz Suter & Cie. It was a true manufacture, producing pocket watches and table clocks. Due to the existing rail link, H. Williamson Ltd. invested and expanded further in Büren and developed the site into an international branch.
After the stock market crash, a group of investors provided the capital needed to continue watch production under Swiss management and a new name: Uhrenfabrik Büren AG. In 1966, the Büren Watch Company was sold to Hamilton, manufacturing for the US brand and making its own movements. Büren/Hamilton was taken over by the SSIH (Societé Suisse pour L’Industrie Horologère) in 1971. A year later, Büren closed, with all assets sold. Büren’s W.W.W. used a 36.5mm chrome-topped case with in-house Calibre 462. Production was circa 11,000 watches, and the hands were the common sword type.
*Sold for £320.
Creeping up in value, the Cyma W.W.W. hovers between the two arbitrary groups as defined by desirability. Split nearly down the middle, the most coveted for quality rather than rarity (the Grana wins hand-down for that) are IWC, Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Longines, Eterna and Lemania, while more pedestrian are Timor, Vertex, Büren, Record and, yes, Grana. The Cyma, however, is said to possess the most robust case, if not one of the largest, at 37mm – closest to it in this respect is the Longines.
The watch contains the Cyma Calibre 234 – by definition, a manufacture movement. Cyma, founded in 1862 as what would be the Tavannes Watch Co, was by the late 1920s the largest watch producer in Europe, with 2,000 employees assembling 4,000 watches a day. The brand still exists, producing mainly quartz watches.
Cyma’s W.W.W. has a stainless-steel case without the chrome top, and is visibly more rugged than other Dirty Dozen examples thanks to a wider bezel, though in other details it’s almost indistinguishable from those with straight hands. Numbers produced are believed to be around 20,000, making it the third most common version after the Omega and the Record.
*Sold for £700.
Watchmaker Peter Roberts has worked on nearly all of the watches in the Dirty Dozen at one time or another and says of the Eterna: “It is among the more underrated, especially as it has a fine movement and a nice case.”
Eterna, of course, was entirely manufacture at the time – its story having been told many times before by Revolution. The company was founded by Dr Joseph Girard and Urs Schild in 1866, to produce movements for other watch houses. This eventually led to the founding of ETA, which is now the largest supplier of mechanical movements in Switzerland.
Eterna’s W.W.W. came only a few years before the watches that would grant the brand eternal fame – those worn on Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition of 1947, which saw the Norwegian explorer travel by raft across the Pacific Ocean. Heyerdahl and crew apparently chose the Eterna because of its waterproof case, which suggests that there could be a link between theirs and the W.W.W.s.
Eterna’s beautifully finished case measures 36mm across, and the movement is the in-house Calibre 520, which carried on for many years as the 520S with centre-seconds hand. The Eterna W.W.W.s have never been inexpensive, and not just because they carry the Eterna name and movement: their production numbers are among the lowest for the Dirty Dozen, at around 5,000. That said, there are still some bargains to be had.
*Sold for £650.
The rarest of the Dirty Dozen by some margin, with only around 1,000-1,500 believed to have been produced, the Grana is technically a Certina. The brand was covered in depth in Revolution UK12 but, to recount, ébauche manufacturer Kurth Frères first marketed its own watches under the “Grana” banner in 1906. This was short for the Latin name for Grenchen: “Granacus”. In 1939, the Certina brand name was registered and a decade later was the sole name in use by the maison.
Aside from the exceptional rarity, one should note that the pedigree of the movement and its superior finishing ensure that the Grana is actually less of a second-division W.W.W. in terms of desirability, if not quite a rock star like the Jaeger-LeCoultre, Longines, Eterna or IWC. Its stainless-steel case measures 35mm, while the movement is the Calibre KF320. Some Granas have been found with the letter “P” in a circle in the sub-dial; this is believed to stand for “Phosphorylation” or “Promethium” – the process and element used to achieve luminescence of the watch dial.
Amusingly, this may be the only instance in vintage watch sales when what is effectively a Certina will fetch far more than its Longines, Omega, IWC or Jaeger-LeCoultre equivalent in auction.
*Sold for £4,800.
IWC MK X
This is the only one of the Dirty Dozen that’s produced in a series that continues to this day. Because of exceptional archives, IWC’s Mk X is the best documented of all the W.W.W.s, though Longines, Omega and Jaeger-LeCoultre also have reasonable records. Following the Grana, Eterna and the Longines, this is the fourth rarest of the group, with just 6,000 pieces made, and it is the only one with a snap-on caseback. Inside the 35mm stainless-steel case is the magnificent Calibre 83, an exceptional movement that is, arguably, the best in the group.
Mk Xs can confuse collectors because a number of dials do exist with differences: with or without railtrack chapter ring on the sub-dial, models where the “5” and “7” are whole, while others have them cut into by the subdial, and so on. My own Mk X was subject to a complete overhaul at IWC: the company still has new-old-stock dials, so it looks brand-new. Japanese and Italian purists hate me for it.
Oddly enough, the pair of Mk Xs in the 2016 London auction – one of each as regards the chapter ring style – did not sell. Both have MoD dials, but collectors at present want either NATO dials, with a W10 issue code in place of the IWC logo, or dials that say “Swiss Made”.
*Unsold. Estimates £2,500-3,200.
For many collectors, this is the one to own. It’s sufficiently rare, with various sources citing between 6,000-10,000 known examples. Its movement is the rather fine Calibre 479, gilt-finished though that was not necessary for a military watch, and the 35mm case is the only one to have 17mm lugs instead of 18mm. The JLC model features distinctive cathedral hands like the Longines – all of the rest having straight hands or slightly sword-shaped ones like the Omega.
Mention of lug size brings us to straps, and most sources suggest the watches were originally issued with pigskin straps, while military watch authority Konrad Knirim has discovered a basic canvas strap that may have been used with W.W.W.s. The tendency today is to fit them with G10s or NATOs that didn’t exist in 1945, which is not unlike fitting low-profile tyres to a Bugatti T35, but that’s your call.
As the Jaeger-LeCoultre is one of the more uncharacteristic of the Dozen due to case quality, movement and hands, it – like the Grana – enjoys a cult of its own.
*Unsold. Estimate £1,500-1,800.
Although of middle-level rarity, with the usual suspects quoting between 6,000-10,000 pieces, the Lemania actually seems less common than its numbers suggest. I’ve only seen two in 25 years, but I just may be keeping the wrong company. Another element of its appeal is the ascent of the brand’s reputation despite it no longer existing, Nouvelle Lemania having been completely subsumed by Breguet.
It is an odd one. A number of dial variants exist, the name printed with the bulging mid-section, but some feature the crown logo above the name and some don’t. The hands on extant models are either pencil-straight or sword-like as with the Omega, the sub-dial has been found with or without railtrack chapter ring, and it’s one of the models that may
or may not feature the letter “P” in a circle in the sub-dial, like the Grana.
Common to all is the 36.5mm diameter case housing the Tissot-sourced Calibre 27A gilt movement. This is not surprising, as Lemania joined SSIH – the group founded by Tissot and Omega in 1930 – in 1932. It’s basic-looking, but that suits the specification. Given the uncommon nature of the Lemania, one might anticipate this member of the Dozen to be a good investment if one buys now.
*Sold for £1,000.
A.K.A. the Greenlander (to the dismay of purists who believe that evidence suggests that there were no Longines watches present during the actual expedition of 1952-1954), this is the only one of the Dirty Dozen to be reissued as a facsimile by its maker prior to the recent appearance of the all-new Vertex. Longines re-released an updated take on it in its Heritage catalogue as the W.W.W. with date – not that it would ever be confused for an original. Suffice it to say, the reissue proved one thing about the Dirty Dozen: they make great-looking contemporary watches.
As the Longines is the largest of the group at 38mm, houses a 12.68z manufacture movement, features cathedral hands to make it a bit different and is said to have had a production run of only 5-8,000 examples ensuring its rarity, this rightly deserves its place as a “premium” member of the group alongside the IWC and JLC. Add to it that it’s the only one of the group with shock-resistance, and you can see why it easily fetches four figures.
*Sold for £1,400.
Laws of supply-and-demand occasionally seem immutable. Although Omega’s W.W.W. is clearly one of the best of the group thanks to the Calibre 30T movement, the sword hands and the prestige of the brand, the prices remain relatively low because 25,000 were produced. All else is normal, including the rugged 35mm stainless-steel case, with very few dial variants to worry you beyond the thickness of the print and the presence of “Swiss-Made” vs “MoD”.
Broad arrow thickness would be an issue for collectors with the next generation of military Omegas, notably the 1953 with fat-vs-thin broad arrow being a condition of that model, but the earlier Omega W.W.W. is a relatively consistent affair. Nearly all of the examples I’ve seen have “sword” hands, but even these can differ in width at the top end of the hour hand. My own Omega W.W.W. has “MoD” hands, which means the watch was serviced in the UK by the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) at some time in its life.
If you’re only going to seek out one of the Dirty Dozen and don’t want to go crazy with the JLC/IWC/Grana offerings, suffer frustration looking for an Eterna or feel you want something less common than the models in the sub-£600 sector, this is the ideal choice.
*Sold for £850.
Founded in 1906, Record was absorbed along the way by the Swatch Group via Longines, but it effectively ceased operations in 1991. With production figures to match that of the Omega, Record’s W.W.W. was always the easiest to find in the days before collectors outnumbered watches. They’re still accessible as one’s first W.W.W. purchase, but 25 years ago, flea markets, junk shops and nascent vintage watch vendors knocked these out for less than £100.
Before you wish you had access to a time machine, note that’s roughly what they go for today when you calculate the relative value of £100 from 1990. The shock, then, should actually be that they haven’t appreciated in real terms. What’s changed is that they are no longer quite so plentiful.
Nicely sized at 36.5mm, the Record houses a Calibre 022 movement. Due to the sheer number made, there are numerous variants to keep collectors on their toes. The one offered at the Watches of Knightsbridge sale was fitted with MoD pencil hands rather than the sword-type seen on early models before they were swapped for non-radium luminous hands. Records have been seen with both types of sub-dial – rail-track chapter ring or just indices – and with NATO re-dials, as well as dials bearing a “T” in a circle (representing the tritium that created the dial’s luminescence).
*Unsold. Estimate £350-550.
Like Record, Timor is one of those brands that simply faded away. The name Timor Watch Co. SA was registered to Bernheim & Co in La Chaux-de-Fonds, and was an assembler of cases and movements from outside suppliers. How such a small company came to be one of the Dirty Dozen is down to a goodly number of Timor watches being exported to England, the brand being well-known to the British.
Although the company was making its own movements by 1939, the Timor W.W.W. was fitted with the Calibre 6060 based on an A. Schild 1203 ébauche, modified in-house. Not dissimilar to a Record in value, the Timor is actually much rarer, as the brand only produced around 13,000 W.W.W.s – again, supply-and-demand determines the worth. Like the Record, the Timor’s case measures 36.5mm in diameter, it is fitted with pencil hands and has been found with both types of subsidiary dials. Timors were among the quartet of watches in the Dirty Dozen with inner dust caps, along with Cyma, Grana and Eterna.
My own Timor shows how these watches led varied lives. Its back reveals that it was issued at least twice, and was downgraded to “ATP” level. Prices haven’t moved on these for ages, which is good news: they’re a safe bet if you want to just have a simple, single W.W.W. for your collection.
*Sold for £350.
What will happen to the value of original Vertex W.W.W.s now that the brand is back with an updated reissue (see page 168 for full story) remains to be seen, but there are definite signs of a slight upward movement for the W.W.W. that may be the most British of the lot. Vertex was a Newbury-based watch brand established to sell Thommen watches in the UK, eventually producing its own-labelled timepieces. It also housed Swiss movements in British cases from suppliers such as Dennison.
Close to the Timor in numbers, Vertex produced around 15,000 W.W.W.s. Its Calibre 59 was made for the company by Thommen, before being encased in a 35mm steel case. The Vertex features pencil hands, while the seconds dial uses a non-railtrack chapter ring with full 60-second gradation, rather than the minimalist style on the NATO re-dials. In all other respects, this is as straight-down-the-line a W.W.W. as it gets, with no quirks to confuse the matter.
For me, Vertex is personal, a name to tug at my heartstrings. It’s one of the reasons I’m here today, writing about timepieces: the first military watch I ever acquired was a Vertex W.W.W., purchased in the mid-1980s for the princely sum of £80. That’s £230 in today’s money, so for sure Vertex W.W.W.s have appreciated.
*Sold for £460.