I don’t think I need to spend much time introducing Eric Ku. Whether your poison is vintage Rolex, modern rare Rolex, Cartier, independent watchmaking or virtually any other brand, you can bet that Eric will have handled the very best examples on the planet. A serial entrepreneur, collector and super dealer, Eric Ku is a brand like no other. I consider it a privilege to call him an old friend, and we go way back to the early days of online forums, including the Vintage Rolex Forum. Nothing brightens my day more than a WhatsApp message from Eric showing me a new find or a new quarry that he has his sights on. And I clearly remember the day he sent me a picture of a Tudor chronograph like no other I’d seen before. “We are used to seeing the word ‘prototype’ when referring to dials on vintage Rolex, and, occasionally, a bezel. These pieces are more accurately proposals or test dials but, admittedly, there are some striking and great looking ones that have been placed in period-correct watches and look cool. A much rarer thing to find is an entire prototype watch and, in Rolex-terms, I can maybe think of only one other example that has ever surfaced,” he said. Eric was referring to the Oysterquartz Perpetual Calendar owned by Rolex expert James Dowling. “So, when I was made aware of a prototype Tudor chronograph, I just knew I had to get it!”
The Tudor chronograph story began in 1970. However, research and development of a new line can take many years. Many brands work up to five years ahead in terms of planning and developing new additions to their catalogues. This is evidenced by the proposal dials that Singer created for Tudor in the late ’60s. (Read more about these here) The white and black dials featured the same font that was used on Tudor watches with the rose logo, which preceded the shield emblem that is still in use today.
We now know, of course, that Tudor opted for the striking orange, grey and black colour scheme. Both the grey and black base colours have been seen in these watches, with a certain mystique about the nature of the black dials. What we do know for sure now, though, is that at the prototype stage, Tudor was definitely considering a black base dial. How do we know this? Keep on reading…
“As is often the case when buying such an interesting watch, the story behind the piece can be as fascinating as the watch itself. And this watch has maybe the greatest.I acquired it from the son of the original owner who was able to tell the story of how his father acquired the Tudor,” states Eric. The story harks back to the golden era of the Rolex Group, when some of the most iconic watches were being developed and produced. Central to this story is René-Paul Jeanneret, who was the public relations director at Rolex through the 1950s and ’60s. Jeanneret is credited with being the mastermind behind the concept of Rolex sports watches being proper tool watches. Submariners for divers, the GMT-Master for pilots and Explorers for true adventurers. It is widely acknowledged that Jeanneret was the driving force behind the development of the dual time zone watch with rotating bezel and 24-hour hand following a request from Pan Am. He was also a personal friend of Jacques Cousteau and was instrumental in the development of the dive watches, including the Deep Sea Special being taken down to the depths on the exterior of Auguste Piccard’s bathyscaphe The Trieste.
Jeanneret was a good friend to many and was well-known to be a generous man. In fact, this Tudor chronograph is the perfect illustration of the fact. Eric explains, “One of Jeanneret’s great friends was taking part in the Athens Marathon. According to his son, he placed well in the event and was delighted to have not only completed the race, but to have exceeded his own expectation of his performance. Clearly, his friends were pleased — none more so than René-Paul Jeanneret. To mark the occasion, Jeanneret took the watch [he was wearing] off his wrist and gifted it to his friend.” The watch Jeanneret happened to be wearing was a prototype of what we now know as the “Homeplate” Chronograph.
One of A Kind
To the casual observer, the watch looks like a reference 7031 “Homeplate”, albeit a rare black dial version. But looking closer, there are two very obvious differences. The first is the presence of a very unusual centre seconds hand. The production version of the “Homeplate” is fitted with what I describe as an elongated triangle hand in striking orange. The prototype has a hand that almost mirrors the hour markers at the pinion, with a long thin hand protruding outwards. The orange accents on the dial are also a different and more yellow shade to those we are used to seeing. “I don’t believe this is because of fading as none of the regular ‘Homeplates’ I’ve handled over the years has reacted like this. Under the loupe, it looks strong and uniform across the entire dial. The watch is actually in incredibly strong condition and has even been returned to Rolex at some point in the past 15 years or so for a service.”
The case is also unique. The regular production pieces were given reference numbers 7031 and 7032. The former had a black plastic tachymeter bezel and the latter, a brushed steel tachymeter bezel. At the launch of the Heritage Chrono “Homeplate” in 2010, Tudor shared a third prototype version with reference 7033. The 7033 prototype had a 12-hour rotating bezel which eventually came into use in the second series of chronographs in 1971, the iconic “Monte Carlo”. The prototype 7033 resides in the Tudor Museum Collection. The only difference is the bezel, however, and the watch is the same as regular 7031s and 7032s. Eric’s watch is very different in that the watch has no engravings at all. No serial number, no reference number and not even the “ORIGINAL OYSTER CASE by ROLEX GENEVA” inscription on the caseback. The caseback does very much belong on this watch, though, as inside there is the number 7030 stamped and the date stamp (1.70).
The regular watches did not have the 7030 stamp but did indeed have the date code. Says Eric, “I’ve found some very special watches in my career — special order pieces, unique watches and everything in between. I’ve even occasionally discovered an as-yet-unknown model. But this is arguably my greatest find from the Rolex house as it is a fully functioning pre-production prototype with an incredible story. I’m not sure I’ll equal or better this when it comes to a Tudor or Rolex!”