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Rolex watches for Allied POWs
August 1, 2008 12:45 AM   Subscribe

"This watch costs to-day in Switzerland Frs. 250 – but you must not even think of settlement during the war." Rolex's remarkable offer to British P.O.W.s in Nazi camps during WWII.

Rolex today. (via Time Zone.)
posted by ikkyu2 (34 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
"This watch I got here was first purchased by your great-grandfather during the first World War. It was bought in a little general store in Knoxville, Tennessee..."
posted by dhammond at 1:05 AM on August 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Fascinating story -- thanks for posting this.
posted by mosk at 1:17 AM on August 1, 2008


Double.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:21 AM on August 1, 2008


Oh sorry, different POW, carry on.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:49 AM on August 1, 2008


That was back in those quaint times when we followed the Geneva Conventions, and the Nazis didn't, right?
posted by orthogonality at 1:49 AM on August 1, 2008 [4 favorites]


Wow. What? Really?
posted by sourwookie at 2:07 AM on August 1, 2008


Obviously, Rolex was counting on the Germans winning - which in 1942 seemed like a safe bet.
posted by three blind mice at 2:26 AM on August 1, 2008


I'm not surprised to read this - Rolex is a very unique company in many ways.

Hans Wilsdorf, a German watch maker, founded a predecessor firm in London in the early 1900's. Their business was integrating other peoples watch movements into cases they constructed themselves.

After a few years due to England's high taxes on exports of jewelry, they relocated to Switzerland and setup shop under the name Rolex, which, as far as anyone knows today, was totally made up. The best explanation of its origin that I've heard is was derived from French phrase for wonderful watch, or horlogerie exquise. But just this week I read another explanation that is very compelling - in A Movement in Time with Breitling & Rolex an Unauthorized History, Cooper (2007) claimed the name is a combination of Rolls Royce and Timex. Apparently back then Timex was a luxury brand so that explanation sorta makes sense.

The thing that I find most interesting about Rolex is the corporate structure today. Rolex is 100% owned by a private trust, which is mandated to pass along all profits to charity. Because companies are run for the benefit of the shareholders, Rolex is required to generate a steady stream of consistent profits. This is (IMHO) one of the reasons why the company's designs are so so timeless and classic; under the existing corporate governance model, it just can't rapidly change to suit trend-of-the-day.

The Rolex Submariner 50th Anniversary Edition is an interesting example - anticipated and talked about for at least three years, all they changed was the bezel colour and added a green second hand.

This is a very, very conservative company that changes very, very slowly. The last data I'd seen they make about 171K watches every year, and sell every one they make. Some models have waiting lists of six or seven years.

That's not to say you've gotta wait that long; Rolex jewelers will trade inventory amoung themselves, so for most models it works out.

I'm currently wearing a GMT Master Model II, gold bezel and when I purchased it in 2004 there was a six year waiting list. My guy made a few calls and traded a Daytona to another guy to me my watch. I privately sold the Rolex the new watch replaced, getting about 80% of purchase price after some five years of use.

Counterfeits: yeh, they're out there and some are of surprisingly high quality. Most of the better made counterfeits integrate a Swiss ATA movement into a fairly nice case. Hey I wouldn't wear one, but if the owner is happy I'm not gonna look down on anybody for wearing a counterfeit. Besides, I know guy that owns a very high end Rolex (Daytona, about £12K) and at least two Daytona counterfeits. Can't really blame him if won't wear the real thing out when he's clubbing. I always wear mine though, and it's been with me all over Africa and The Middle East. I never take it off.

Anyhow, the point I always make about counterfeits when folks tell me I could have purchased a knock off and saved tons of money: yep, some of the counterfeits are good, damn good in fact, good enough to fool everyone. Everyone except me that is.

Interesting anecdote - many thanks for posting.
posted by Mutant at 2:29 AM on August 1, 2008 [24 favorites]


Obviously, Rolex was counting on the Germans winning - which in 1942 seemed like a safe bet.

This is precisely the opposite to what the article claims:

It meant that Wilsdorf, himself a German, was betting on an allied victory. By early 1943, this was a risk worth taking. The tide of war had turned: the Russians were on the offensive after routing the Germans at Stalingrad; German and Italian armies were being driven out of North Africa.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:00 AM on August 1, 2008


It would be nice if the Imperial War Museum could somehow end up with the watch.
posted by Optamystic at 3:21 AM on August 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


That was back in those quaint times when we followed the Geneva Conventions, and the Nazis didn't, right?

Amazing - the invoice indicates that the watch was shipped directly to the prison camp in 1943, meaning that the Nazi's delivered mail, packages, luxury watches to their prisoners.

Our prisoners of war (read: "detainees")? The goons that run Guantanamo (and the criminals that empower them) probably feel that there'd be no need to deliver watches to prisoners because you can't see what time it is when there's a plastic hood over your head all of the time.

I am so ashamed that our country treats its prisoners worse than the Nazi's treated theirs.

thanks for letting me get that out
posted by scblackman at 3:23 AM on August 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


I am so ashamed that our country treats its prisoners worse than the Nazi's treated theirs.

Some English and American officers were relatively well treated. Corporal Goldenstein, notsomuch.
posted by Optamystic at 3:31 AM on August 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Point taken. Please allow further debasing of our current administration and their policies.
posted by scblackman at 3:34 AM on August 1, 2008


Yet another example of hyperbolic rhetoric damaging the point that was trying to be made.
posted by Dagobert at 4:13 AM on August 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


This is precisely the opposite to what the article claims:

Then why didn't he send Rolex watches to German prisoners in British POW camps?

It seems more likely that British POWs would have paid for the watches if Germany won, Rolex and their Nazi friends could have made it a condition of release. On the other hand, once the German apparatus broke down and the delivery records fell into British hands - as it turned out - it would have been a simple matter for the British POWs to say that their watches were never delivered.

Some English and American officers were relatively well treated. Corporal Goldenstein, notsomuch.

Apparently true.

There is also a common misconception, fostered by the U.S. government and continued by Hollywood, that all American prisoners-of-war caught by the Germans were accorded the same treatment. Both of these assumptions are rebutted by Jeff Donaldson in his book “Men of Honor-American GIs in the Jewish Holocaust”.

... A veteran and a journalist, Donaldson had this version of history shaken in 1995 when he ran into Ed Cornell, a Jewish World War II veteran, who had been captured in the Battle of the Bulge. The Jewish veteran spoke about his experiences in a German POW camp, where Jewish P.O.W.s “were segregated and sent to slave labor in a German mine”.

Cornell also told Donaldson that when he arrived at the camp he was urged by fellow prisoners to discard his dog tags marked with the letter “H” for “Hebrew.” He did so and avoided being deported.

posted by three blind mice at 4:21 AM on August 1, 2008


Then why didn't he send Rolex watches to German prisoners in British POW camps

If I understand the article, whatever his view of the war may have been it was impossible for him to send stuff to Britain. It also seems that, whether or not he thought they were on the winning side, British officers were the only people he trusted to pay up when they could. I should think it would have been quite difficult to enforce payment on POWs, whichever side won.

More to the point, perhaps, I don't actually see myself that selling goods to POWs implies that you're betting on either side to win: though sending watches to British POWs on very easy terms implies a friendly attitude.
posted by Phanx at 4:49 AM on August 1, 2008


More to the point, perhaps, I don't actually see myself that selling goods to POWs implies that you're betting on either side to win: though sending watches to British POWs on very easy terms implies a friendly attitude.

Exactly. I read that note to mean "given your current condition and the hardships entailed therein, we're happy to accommodate you as soon as we can, with the friendly understanding that you'll compensate us as soon as you're no longer indisposed." It's a great tactic for bolstering sales (even if that doesn't necessarily translate to black ink in the current fiscal year) when your markets have mostly dried up, requiring only that you trust a group of people who have proven to be very trustworthy, and it generates so much good will that we're still talking about it 65 years later.
posted by Mayor West at 5:14 AM on August 1, 2008


Pretty touching for a form letter.
posted by exogenous at 5:53 AM on August 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Rolex couldn't ship to Britain, or any of the Allies, because Switzerland was completely surrounded by occupied Europe. He shipped only to British officers because he felt he could trust in their honor to pay up after the war. He DID sell, cash-and-carry, to any Allied escapees already in Switzerland. And I imagine to any Germans in Switzerland and anyone else with the dough.

It's all in the article, folks.

Great story. Thanks, OP.
posted by nax at 5:59 AM on August 1, 2008


It is a great story and a great post, but I must admit this cooled my enthusiasm a little:

Wilsdorf hedged his bet further by making this offer available to British officers only, in the belief that their word was their bond.

Fuck that noise. I'm not sure which bothers me more, the snobbery or the Brit-worship. (I wonder which he would have extended the offer to first if he were forced at gunpoint: a Yank officer or a British enlisted man?)
posted by languagehat at 6:12 AM on August 1, 2008


i once stopped aside the road to change a flat tire and found a rolex watch lying in the grass. the band was damaged, but the watch was in great shape and running. i took it to a jeweller and had the band replaced for a mere 380 dollars. several months later, while having a drink with a friend, he told me the story of a horrible car crash in which several people were killed. it had taken place in the area where i found the watch. foolishly, i suppose, i gave the watch away as i became very uncomfortable wearing it.
posted by kitchenrat at 6:21 AM on August 1, 2008


Two points, languagehat.

1. To repose special trust in one group of people is not automatically an insult to everyone else.

2. Not everything is about Americans.
posted by Phanx at 6:29 AM on August 1, 2008 [5 favorites]


I am willing to bet there has been a horrible car crash at nearly every intersection in America. You snookered yourself there, friend.
posted by fusinski at 6:32 AM on August 1, 2008


This is an interesting story, thanks for posting it ikkyu2.

Also, that's a great looking watch, much more attractive than the gaudy, clunky, conspicuous Rolexes now seen.
posted by Daddy-O at 6:39 AM on August 1, 2008


I'm fascinated by the group photo of the soldiers behind the fence. I'm not sure if it's the clean uniforms or the smiles or what, but it just seems really peculiar 1.) when viewed in a modern light and 2.) when you consider who their captors were.

The world has changed is subtle and strange ways.
posted by quin at 7:45 AM on August 1, 2008


My dad was always a conservative guy, and was strongly against any displays of his ever-increasing wealth. But, as with most of us, there had always been a few things he wanted. For his 55th birthday, he bought himself a suit of armor, a nice one, ordered from England, fully articulated and decorated and wearable (though I don't think he ever did put it on). Then, for his 60th birthday, he got himself a Rolex, one of the more conservative ones, but, yeah, a big gold Rolex.

He died a few years later, leaving his full estate to my mom. My brother and I were allowed to take a few things, one of which was his Rolex. My brother came up with some plan that would have us switching ownership of the watch every year, but I'm not one to wear a watch at all, much less something flashy and expensive like that one. So I gave up my rights to the watch. My brother, being a fair-minded sort, insisted then that I have first rights to the estate when mom dies, that I can have first choice of anything in the house of comparable value to the watch.

That armor is MINE, baby.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:48 AM on August 1, 2008 [4 favorites]


The Swiss watch industry also heavily promoted its watches to the estimated 5,000 allied escaped POWs in Switzerland (known as évadés), including more than 1,200 US airmen who had baled out of, or landed their crippled aircraft in Switzerland. The Americans, as well as British officers, stayed in luxury hotels in such Alpine resorts as Adelboden, Wengen and Davos, becoming the mainstay of the wartime tourist industry.

Then-popular brands such as Aureole, Angelus, Cyma, Invicta, Movado, Mulco, Olma, Paul Buhré, Richard, Rodana and Pierce, advertised heavily in the évadés’ newspaper, Marking Time. Richard, in particular, took out whole-page advertisements offering evadés a 25% discount on their 100-franc automatic model, payment in 12 weekly installments, and replacement in case of loss or theft.


There was a newspaper. In Switzerland. For escaped POWs and other Allied servicemen stuck there during the war. That is nuts.

You know what? That strongly implies there was also a mini-industry oriented to serving Axis personnel in the country as well, although it's well documented that Germany treated the Switzerland as a vassal in some ways (routing concentration camp cattlecars though the country, for example). I wonder, were there barfights?
posted by mwhybark at 8:07 AM on August 1, 2008


Phanx: So you would have been fine with their offering the deal only to the Americans in the camps?
posted by languagehat at 8:08 AM on August 1, 2008


Very interesting. Thanks for this post.
posted by caddis at 8:28 AM on August 1, 2008


languagehat, I agree with your point too. I would have been totally pissed. Where the hell is MY watch?!

Fascinating post!
posted by snsranch at 8:44 AM on August 1, 2008


Yes, languagehat, if he'd happened to feel particularly well-disposed and trusting towards ordinary American soldiers. Or French marines, or whoever. Doesn't it seem a little crabby to resent a generous gesture because it wasn't made to everyone?
posted by Phanx at 9:01 AM on August 1, 2008


I'm not sure which bothers me more, the snobbery or the Brit-worship.

Cry me a river.

Pot-kettle.
posted by Zambrano at 10:33 AM on August 1, 2008


mwhybark, "The Americans, with an allowance of CHF20 a day, had the most money to spend."

Somebody was giving each American evadé one Rolex Oyster Chronograph (250 francs) every fortnight. Who? Surely not the American taxpayer?
posted by Laotic at 2:02 PM on August 1, 2008


i once stopped aside the road to change a flat tire and found a rolex watch lying in the grass. the band was damaged, but the watch was in great shape and running. i took it to a jeweller and had the band replaced for a mere 380 dollars. several months later, while having a drink with a friend, he told me the story of a horrible car crash in which several people were killed. it had taken place in the area where i found the watch. foolishly, i suppose, i gave the watch away as i became very uncomfortable wearing it.

Gave it away? Not, "Contacted the families of the crash victims to see if they wanted the watch?"
posted by Chuffy at 10:51 AM on August 4, 2008


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