While vintage watch collectors love a good celebrity tie-in (particularly when the celebrity in question is ) there is a whole world of worthy classic watches without such high-profile provenance. There’s perhaps no better example of this than the so-called “Dirty Dozen” watches, twelve no-nonsense WWII-era timekeepers that have come to symbolize allied victory, 1940s nostalgia and classic watch design in all its glory.
To the delight of military-minded collectors everywhere, on August 24th a full set of these pieces will hit the auction block in London as the highlight of . While the estimated sale price of £25,000 – £35,000 (about CAD$43,000 – $60,000) isn’t exactly pocket change, it does represent a rare opportunity to own a wearable piece of WWII history that integrates into a casual wardrobe much more easily than a steel helmet. And , a full set of Dirty Dozen watches seems like a sound investment for whoever walks away with them.
While the Dirty Dozen weren’t famously worn by any celebrities, they do have a connection to Hollywood by way of the classic war movie from 1967. In The Dirty Dozen, a group of ne’er do well US soldiers (led by a stalwart Lee Marvin and including a very young Donald Sutherland) undertake a suicide mission to take out a Nazi stronghold. There’s no obvious connection between the watches on auction in London and the film itself, but the story behind them is equally compelling (if more historically accurate).
In the 1940s, at the height of the war, the British Ministry of Supply for the Military was in need of all manner of equipment – from rifles to uniforms to watches – to outfit the Army, Air Force and the Royal Navy. Times being what they were, no single manufacturer could meet the military’s demands, so the contract went out to a dozen watchmakers to create a simple, sturdy timepiece that could withstand the rigours of the battlefield. Among the companies tapped for this job were big contemporary names like Omega, IWC and Jaeger LeCoultre, as well as lesser-known brands like Buren, Grana and Cyma.
Because each of these manufacturers had their own limits on output, they produced widely varying numbers of these watches, making some – the ones that made it through the war in one piece, anyway – imminently more collectible than others. Omega and Record produced the most watches, with 25,000 apiece, while IWC and Eterna only made 5,000 at most. These watches, all designed and produced between 1944 and 1945 are what we now think of as the classic WWII field watch: stainless steel case, black dial, big, legible numerals, and a small seconds subdial at 6 o’clock. This unique look, combined with their rarity and connection to the allied victory in Europe, has made a Dirty Dozen watch a must-have for any collector with a yen for military watches. Finding a full set of them in good condition, however, is the kind of score that comes along once in a lifetime.
We’ll be watching this auction closely, and might just throw down a deposit on as a consolation prize.