James Bond’s Radioactive Watch Dial

NAWCC BULLETIN cover, June 2009The original dial under the “superdome” crystal of this wristwatch is what fascinates me the most. It had indices painted with radium-226, no doubt providing the referent for Fleming when he wrote of Bond’s watch on page 154 of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, first edition: “The big luminous numerals said midnight.”

Debate surrounding luminescent material containing a radioactive isotope of the element radium has received excellent technical coverage in previous BULLETIN issues. I wasn’t in London when the Fleming watch decision was made, but I’m told that concerns related to radium exposure came down to a decision that its dial be replaced prior to showing it at the Imperial War Museum.

The photograph of the watch that appears on page 89 of the February 2009 WatchTime was taken after that change.

So, in addition to being aged, the original dial would have only had the word “SWISS” below its 6 o’clock position, as opposed to “SWISS – T < 25,” as seen in WatchTime. It also had a minute-track insert. Finally, the word “Rolex” was in a slab serif typeface, and the crown logo had a more squared proportion than later versions of the 1016.

I’ve been able to access a similar Rolex Explorer with a 596,xxx serial number for comparison and analysis by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Its caseback markings date its production to the fourth quarter of 1960, placing it — and the original Bond watch, with an identical caseback — nicely into the retail window I wrote about in WatchTime.

This virtually identical watch, which still has its original dial, will be on display at the 2009 NAWCC National Convention in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Manufacture date, markings, and other important Fleming-Bond watch configurations described in this BULLETIN article have been confirmed by Rolex UK.

Last May 28 I was at the Lilly Library in conjunction with Ian Fleming Centenary commemorations. While there, I took time to pull from their archive an original On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Uncorrected Proof, which would have been printed shortly before that novel was first published on April 1, 1963 — almost six months after the October 5, 1962, premier of Dr. No starring Sean Connery. I found that Ian Fleming had not only continued to make changes to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service well into spring 1963, but among those he’d made a key correction in reference to the James Bond watch.

But there was no effort to reconcile a consistency with the movie-Bond wristwatch. The singular “Oyster Perpetual” wording in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service could have easily been changed to “Submariner” at that late date. It wasn’t.

This was a period of unique challenges for Ian Fleming, intimately, as the creative force behind 007. Litigation stemming from an earlier attempt at a movie deal sought to wrest credit from him for various successes of the James Bond icon. A massive heart attack in 1961 mandated radical changes to his active lifestyle. The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) was an experimental departure from the popular formula that Fleming had established for the book series, and it was resoundingly panned by critics.

Then, with the Dr. No movie, the world of Tinsel Town got him caught up in a measure of playacting choreographed to blur the lines between his actual service with the Department of Naval Intelligence during World War II and the fictional exploits of his fantasy secret agent.

In my WatchTime article, I wrote that it was “hard to imagine that Ian Fleming would have let the last detail of Bond’s Rolex model be determined by someone else.” My research leads me to conclude that that “someone” was three-time 007 film director Terence Young. In an interview published in 1981, Young described the nature of his rivalry with Fleming at that time over how the James Bond character would be presented going forward.

I’m confident that the Bond creator held fast to key details of the character as reminders that it would always be “Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007” (as, in fact, the lead to each new movie states even to this day).

In You Only Live Twice (1964), Fleming made what I read as yet another insider passage for which he is famous, this time, to horologists. In defense of the post-World War II greatness of England, James Bond gives only one specific: “…we still climb Everest….” Here again is implication of Ian Fleming’s propensity to keep almost any scrap of information he came across and to use it however he could in his stories. Period Rolex documents connected his Explorer to the climb he had Bond reference. I don’t think that is coincidence.

In my opinion, there is indeed one specific brand, model, and configuration for James Bond’s first watch — just one. That’s what I’ve written about here.

It’s hardly a surprise to prove that Ian Fleming first wore the original James Bond watch (and I suspect that Sean Connery would be among those most happy to agree). But the question for this BULLETIN article was not so much “Where—?” but, rather, “How was it found?”

That answer required discussions with those who actually knew Ian Fleming, professional examination of his Rolex, physical contact with the author’s own James Bond writings, and a Geiger Counter. Even then, my proposal draft to WatchTime was substantiated by some 168 footnotes before going forward — a field assignment quite worthy of Agent 007 himself.

This is how I found the original James Bond watch.

Dell Deaton is an expert on Ian Fleming and James Bond, creator-author of JamesBondWatches.com, and guest curator for the “Bond Watches, James Bond Watches” exhibit, June 18, 2010, through April 30, 2011.

How I Found the Original James Bond Watch,” Part 1 of 3
“How I Found the Original James Bond Watch,” Part 2 of 3
“How I Found the Original James Bond Watch,” Part 3 of 3

Discovered: James Bond’s Rolex,” Part 1 of 9
“Discovered: James Bond’s Rolex,” Part 2 of 9
“Discovered: James Bond’s Rolex,” Part 3 of 9
“Discovered: James Bond’s Rolex,” Part 4 of 9
“Discovered: James Bond’s Rolex,” Part 5 of 9
“Discovered: James Bond’s Rolex,” Part 6 of 9
“Discovered: James Bond’s Rolex,” Part 7 of 9
“Discovered: James Bond’s Rolex,” Part 8 of 9
“Discovered: James Bond’s Rolex,” Part 9 of 9