When Tom Bolt received a letter from Rolex confirming the authenticity of a watch he had in his possession, one might well have expected him to fall down laughing. After all, that piece of paper meant that his timepiece would now be valued at some several million pounds — rising to some £15m if the market continued on its current trajectory.
It also meant that an almighty hunch had been proved correct — a hunch that Bolt had earlier staked his vintage Ferrari on. And, most importantly, it meant that Bolt owned one of the most curious and intriguing watches in history.
“And yet I felt strangely deflated,” admits the London-based international watch dealer behind Watch Hunter. Perhaps that’s to be expected. Bolt’s past conquests are staggering: a Rolex Daytona made for the Sultan of Oman; the original gadget watch from Live and Let Die; the Rolex used to time the Second World War PoW break-out immortalised in The Great Escape.
“But I guess for me the fun of the hunt was over,” he sighs. “That said — I didn’t want the hunt to end in bad news…”
After all, Bolt has had a long and winding relationship with this particular watch — a 1968 Rolex “Single Red” Sea Dweller, so named in the connoisseur community because the model name has been printed on the dial in red, and on a single line, for more than 20 years. When the watch first came into Bolt’s possession he had a hunch there was something special about it. This one had an escape valve — one of only four such examples of the model known to do so. And yet it also had a serial number out of sorts with other known Sea Dwellers too.
Something was up. Maybe it was a sophisticated fake? Bolt commissioned some detective work — provenance is a big selling point at this level of the vintage watch market — and in the meantime found a buyer. He’d “paid peanuts” for it, and soon sold this possible white elephant on at a reasonable mark-up. But that was when the detective work came in, and it was revelatory.
So when, earlier this year, the owner asked Bolt if he wanted to buy it back, Bolt pulled out the stops and did a deal that saw an exchange of the timepiece for his Ferrari 599 Aperta, one of the rarest Ferraris of the last three decades. Had Bolt lost the plot?
“There are a lot of rules which, frankly, watch dealers have made up, which determine the greater or lesser value of a vintage watch,” explains Bolt. He cites the fact that a standard “Single Red” might be worth £1m, but if it’s had its dial restored, might lose some £250,000 in value.
“And that’s a bit daft because these are rare watches in their own right regardless,” he adds. “There’s the matter of provenance too, which also gets some collectors excited. I get it when the provenance has particular pertinence to the watch. I even get the ultimate cock extension of having a watch that once belonged to Paul Newman. But a lot of that kind of story-telling is nonsense really.”
And yet here was a watch that not only had a fascinating Boy’s Own back story, but held true horological, historical significance. The watch’s last owner was one Professor Ralph Brauer. He was a pioneer diver on the SeaLab missions — the US Navy’s attempt at the underwater equivalent of the Apollo moon missions. Brauer was the leading researcher in the hyperbaric oxygen treatment of diving-related illness, and drove the use of hydrogen as a breathing gas to counter the tremors sometimes caused by rapid decompression, a study he undertook by making himself the guinea pig.
In between such adventures, Brauer had also headed a branch of the US military’s investigations into applied nuclear research. His expertise was so great that he even became the only American involved in the Soviet Union’s own deep sea programme, during which time he covertly took photographs for the CIA.
"For me, the fun of the hunt was over..."
“Put it this way,” says Bolt, “when Brauer died he left his belongings to the University of North Carolina [where he was tenured]. The watch was eventually found under his mattress — along with a large bundle of cash and a hand-gun.”
But what of the watch itself? Back in the 1960s, Omega had sewn up watches for the space programme, leaving Rolex especially keen to get into the “inner space” programme of deep sea diving “aquanauts”. Rolex’s main hope was the Sea Dweller, a rival to similar Omega options. But after an early version failed to cope with the pressure fluctuations of decompression while coming up from the depths, Rolex retro-fitted a few examples of the model with the fledgling technology of the escape valve.
It was not an ideal solution — but it was fast, affordable and a foot in the door. Then Rolex heard about Brauer and, since he wasn’t under any contract with Omega, became determined to get him into one of its own watches — and a best-in-class model at that. For Bauer’s watch, Rolex decided to bespoke build a new Sea Dweller from scratch, one that incorporated the escape valve tech from the outset. This would, in effect, be the prototype model for Rolex’s move into professional-standard deep sea dive watches. And it was this watch that Bolt now had in his hands.
“In a way I wish this was two watches — one that had Brauer attached, and another that was this prototype. There’s too much going on for one watch,” Bolt laughs. “But what a great story of ownership, not least because of Brauer himself, an incredible man, an Indiana Jones-style figure, involved in all this top secret stuff. What a great watch too — the grand-daddy of Rolex’s decompression dive watches. For the discerning watch collector market, this is the holy grail.”
Unsurprisingly, this is one watch which Bolt is in no hurry to part company with. He doesn’t have to sell it, he says. But he’s a dealer at heart. And if the price is right, he says he’ll move it on. “This isn’t just about the money. I do love the buzz of proving a watch is what I think it is, no matter how long it takes,” Bolt says.
“But one thing I’ve also learned about watches while working as a dealer is that if a watch is rare — and I mean genuinely rare — then it’s only going to be more valuable in the future. “So it will go for the price that has enough profit in it such that I won’t regret seeing its value increase in years to come. After all, I reckon this is one of the top five most important Rolexes in the world. And that kind of watch doesn’t come along often.”