For individuals that choose to focus their collections on purpose-built, durable, and understated expressions of utilitarian craftsmanship, there is one class of watches that will always be a cut above the rest – vintage military watches. Rich with exciting, well-documented provenance, military timepieces have always been a source of joy and intrigue for aficionados, as what the watches have witnessed is truly quite astonishing to say the least. Whether they’ve seen the front-lines of battle overseas, the extreme depths of foreign waters, or flew at super-sonic speeds through the skies, there’s always a riveting story to be heard when discussing these great watches. Over the past few years, this market has taken off quite dramatically, causing many people to take notice of these subtle gems, and with good reason. Without further ado, let’s take a look at what makes vintage military watches so interesting, and genuinely worthy of a closer look.
One brand that will almost immediately come to mind is Rolex. The coronet bearing beacon of horological excellence has always been known for producing “tough” watches, built to withstand the most demanding of conditions. This is exactly why so many militaries issued Rolex watches to their men. In the minds of experts worldwide, there is one military issued Rolex that is arguably the ultimate service timepiece – the Submariner Ref. 5517. This reference made available exclusively to enlisted men featured more significantly sized hands, a fully gradiated bezel, and fixed bars, thus making for a beautifully functional aesthetic.
Another great vintage military watch that really doesn’t get the exposure it deserves is the Heuer Bundeswehr Flyback. These chronographs were originally made back in the day for German Bundeswehr pilots that needed a legible watch for use in the cockpit, along with a similar rendition that was also produced for the general public. To today’s standards, the Bund’s are well sized at just under 43mm, and the added functionality and mechanical complexity of a flyback is always appreciated.
Panerai is yet another manufacturer of hard-wearing watches today that possesses a famed history of supplying militaries with notable dive watches. Their most well-known military projects include the 6152 – a 47mm, time only piece given to frogmen manning torpedoes, and the GPF 2/56 “Egiziano” made for the Egyptian navy, coming in at a whopping 60mm! Though the oversized nature of these pieces may be off-putting to some, one must remember that this was done to make the watch as sturdy as possible, which is what military watches are all about.
Today, we can easily see how the brand pulls direct inspiration from their important pieces of the 1940s and applies a similar design to models from the current collection through pieces like the PAM 587. Its minimalist “sandwich” dial, acrylic crystal, and patina colored luminous compound are heavily reminiscent of earlier military issued examples, presenting a strong vintage vibe.
As previously stated, in the recent releases of several notable brands today, we often see a strong resemblance to the vintage, military-issued models of yesteryear. Casual collectors are now more educated about their watches than ever before, and they’re beginning to pay more attention to the little details that remind them of their favourite vintage references. Though while the reissues may attempt to recreate the feeling of an older vintage piece, the emotion, warmth, and mystery of a vintage military watch just cannot be emulated by a brand new interpretation.
At the end of the day, the main reason connoisseurs love and endlessly hunt down these rare military-issued watches of politically complex and uncertain times, is the way they reflect the technical advancements of a specific time period, and the historical weight they hold. Between the people you can meet, the paths you’ll be taken down, and the stories you’ll hear, there’s never a dull moment, and the established community will always keep you coming back for more.