Just by looking at today’s ornate mechanical watches, you’d struggle to think that they were anything other than just luxury items. However, if you’d take just a short jump back in time, these mechanical marvels were in fact necessities. With the absence of today’s technology, the synergy of a movement’s moving parts was the most efficient way to keep time. And beyond the average consumer’s timekeeping needs, these mechanical watches were also once pivotal tools for military operations.
During the Second World War, every participating nation needed tough, reliable timekeepers for their military personnel. The Americans had their A-11 spec watches, B-Uhr watches were made for the Germans, Seikosha watches for the Japanese and finally, the watches we are going to be talking about, the W.W.W. commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) a.k.a. The Dirty Dozen.
And Then There Were Twelve
Not to be confused with the 1967 movie of the same name, in the watch world, The Dirty Dozen refers to the 12, mostly Swiss manufactures who made watches commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence in the 1940s. Before The Dirty Dozen, the British army was equipped with what were civilian watches with military dials, and as you can imagine, these didn’t hold up in the heat of battle. Thus, the MoD drafted out a new set of specifications for a wristwatch calling it W.W.W. — Wrist, Watch, Waterproof.
In this new specifications, the watch had to be between 35 to 38mm in diameter, not including the crown; have a stainless steel case; have a shatterproof crystal; have a black dial with luminous hour markers and hands, and a railroad minute track. For the movement, they specified the use of a 15-jewel movement between 11.75 and 13 lignes in size with chronometer grade precision. And finally, these watches had to be waterproof.
In the end, it came down to 12 Swiss brands who managed to fulfil the criteria set by the MoD: Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex. And because each manufacture was of different sizes, the number of respective watches supplied to the MoD also differs. However, it is estimated that some 150,000 of these watches were ultimately delivered to the British government.
A Collection Worthy of its Name
Given what most of these watches have been through you’d be right to imagine that they would make fantastic collector’s items. However, also because of what these watches have been through, it makes them particularly hard to collect, especially if you want them in a set of 12.
Identifying these watches are not all that difficult since there were only 12 brands that made them and because the look is also quite distinctive. The Broad Arrow insignia on the dial is a dead giveaway as these logos are a mark of property that belongs to Her Majesty’s Government. On the back of the Dirty Dozen watches, you’ll also find W.W.W. engraved in addition to some other military numbers.
Price is also not much of an inhibitor as you would likely be able to find most of them on eBay ranging from about USD 1,000 to USD 4,000 depending on the watch’s condition. The only exception to this is the watch from Grana. At the time, they only were able to deliver 1,000 to 1,500 watches to the MoD thus, when a watch like this pops up in auction the price is likely to be much higher. One recent case was a Grana auctioned by Trevanion & Dean at Whitchurch in 2018 for about GBP 9,000. On acollectedman.com the price listed was GBP 6,000.
Another reason why The Dirty Dozen can be quite hard to collect is because of the authenticity of the parts used to repair these watches. During the war, this task fell to the R.E.M.E. (Royal Electric & Mechanical Engineers) focused solely on getting the watch back to working condition without much thought put into the use of original parts. Also, after the end of the war in Europe, the MoD sold these watches to Allies like the Pakistani Military, the Dutch Military and the Indonesian military.
If you somehow managed to navigate through all these circumstances and managed to get all 12 in relatively acceptable condition, then you will be one of the very few collectors around the world that can claim to have a significant slice of British military history.
As The Story Goes
These days, only a few from the 12 Dirty Dozen brands are still around. Cyma, Eterna, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Longines, IWC and Omega are all still making watches, albeit far removed from the spirit of these Dirty Dozen watches. Times have changed forcing the mechanical watch into the confines of ‘luxury items’ as opposed to the functional tool it once used to be. Although some of these brands are digging back into their past offering vintage homages to their military heritage but suffice to say we will never get another collection of watches from different brands, quite as storied and emotional as these 12, these Dirty Dozen.
This story was first published in MVMT 2019 for August Man Malaysia. The story can also be found on augustman.com.