Taking Time For The Dirty Dozen

25/03/2022     General News

Sam Hicks, watch consultant at Keys Auctioneers & Valuers, explores the enduring appeal of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ military watches from World War Two.

Mention ‘The Dirty Dozen’, and most people will immediately think of the 1967 star-studded movie in which a ragtag group of 12 convicted criminals are sent on a suicide mission during World War Two.  But to watch enthusiasts, the phrase has an altogether different connotation: it is the name given to 12 specially-commissioned timepieces which were worn by those who actually took part in the conflict.

Although they are by no means the most expensive watches which to go under the hammer, the Dirty Dozen set of watches are amongst the most sought-after amongst collectors.

The military has always been a big driver of advances in watch technology.  The ability to tell the time accurately is crucial for everything from determining your position at sea to co-ordinating actions on the battlefield.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, no British watchmaker could come anywhere close to the accuracy and reliability achieved by Swiss producers.  Before the war Switzerland was already a big exporter of watches to both Britain and Germany, but British military planners recognised that the needs of soldiers was very different to that of civilians.

So they challenged the Swiss watchmaking industry to come up with custom-built watches.  They needed to be accurate, reliable and durable, as well as waterproof and shockproof.  The brief was very specific, with other features such as black dials and luminous hands, a stainless steel or chrome case and shatterproof glass all included.

Twelve Swiss makers took up the challenge, creating what is now know as the Dirty Dozen.  They were Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex.  Production by each company varied, but around 150,000 watches were produced in total for the British military.

The Dirty Dozen watches can be identified by what is engraved on their backs: three Ws (standing for Watch, Wrist and Waterproof); the standard arrowhead which has long been the mark of government goods; and a serial number consisting of a capital letter followed by five numbers.

Because so many were produced, many collectors have at least one of the Dirty Dozen in their collection, but very few – it is estimated only around 20 in the world – have the complete set.  This is because whilst some producers made watches in huge numbers (Omega made 25,000), others delivered far fewer than that, with the Grana watches being the rarest – it is estimated that as few as 1,000 of these were delivered.

Bear in mind also that these were timepieces destined for the battlefield, so many were damaged or lost, or else returned to the Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers for restoration, which was often done without the skills and quality materials which their Swiss creators had invested in them.  Watches in original condition are rare, and hence more valuable.

However, the more numerous Dirty Dozen watches do come up for sale and can be bought for relatively affordable prices – at keys we sold two of the Cyma watches last year, both of which went for £750.  It is only when you talk about collections with the rare watches that you start needing very deep pockets – a complete set was sold at auction last August for £27,000.

Bear in mind that these are not bejewelled, golden adornments for the wrist, or even particularly beautiful.  They are practical and even dour in appearance.  But the connection with an important part of Britain’s history means they are still very collectable, and because they were made to be rugged and durable, many of them are still in good working order even today.

That connection to the past, coupled with the challenge of seeking out the whole set, is what appeals to collectors.  The fact that they adorned the wrists of everyday heroes who fought to defend our country gives them an appeal which for some goes far beyond the more showy and beautiful watches which make huge sums at auction.

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