The Rolex “Prisoner of War” Watches

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May 9, 2007
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An Interesting Tale from Times Past

I have a liking for nice wristwatches & I noticed this on another forum & thought that our readers here would like it

The story of the Rolex “Prisoner of War” watches is a fascinating one, but a story that has become almost a legend in its retelling. I will, in this short article, try and separate legend from truth and set down the known and independently verifiable facts.

Firstly, the legend; if you were an allied prisoner of war captured by the Germans during World War II, you could write to Rolex, Geneva and they would send a watch to you free of charge.

The reality is only a little different, it seems that this service was only available for British prisoners and not for the French, American or other allies. The letter would be sent to Rolex from the camp via the International Red Cross, who (like Rolex) was headquartered in Geneva. Hans Wilsdorf himself, who wrote a letter that accompanied every watch dispatched to a P.O.W, ran the administration of this programme.

As stated in the first letter, the recipients were expected to pay for their watches in Swiss Francs at the end of the war. However due to economic situation at the end of the war, it was often 1947 or 1948 before foreign exchange resources were available to meet the bills.

The first letter is to a senior officer in the RAF, who is now a guest of the German Air Force. This was because one of the stranger German habits during WWII was that each service ran its own prison camps “catering” to prisoners from the opposing service. This all can be gained from the address “Stalag Luft 3”, Stalag, meaning “prisoner of war camp” and Luft being short for “Luftwaffe” or Air Force.


The interesting thing about the letter (other than the fact that Hans Wilsdorf wrote it himself) is what was included with the watch, as listed at the bottom of the page. There was an invoice, the instruction book and the guarantee card but also included was the official chronometer-rating certificate. I suppose as Wing Commander Trumble would have some time on his hands, at least he could now measure it accurately.

The camp Stalag Luft 3 may mean nothing to most of you but if you have ever read the book by Paul Brickhill or the movie (roughly based on it) both called “The Great Escape”; you will know something of it.

The second letter is the most interesting; as it is a personal letter from Hans Wilsdorf to the parents of a British Officer taken prisoner, most likely during the fall of France. Note what Wilsdorf says in the letter “We are looking after his wants in the same way as for some other British Officers, who are also prisoners in the same camp. Please rest assured that we will do everything in our power to obtain food or other articles."


There are a number of questions about this letter. Why is Wilsdorf writing to the family with this important information? Isn’t this the job of the Red Cross? He also offers the firm’s services as a communication conduit, once again normally the job of the Red Cross.

I have no proof for it but my gut feeling tells me that the subject of the letter “Grahame” may well have been a Rolex employee before the war. And, as he is an officer (note that he is in an “Oflag” or Officer’s camp) was most probably of managerial status and would then have known Wilsdorf. This may also explains why Wilsdorf always calls Grahame, not Captain Smith (or whatever his name may have been). Lending further credence to my theory is the fact that almost every POW Rolex I have seen was a boy’s size Speedking. However the watch that was sent to Grahame was a reference 3525 Oyster chronograph, one of the most expensive watches in the Rolex catalogue at that time.

Note Wilsdorf’s PS is in his handwriting and is further evidence of a personal relationship between Wilsdorf & Grahame.

The reason the British Prisoners of War needed a new watch was that most of them would have had their own (or government issue) wristwatches confiscated when they were captured. Whilst some of this was simple looting, the main reason the Germans did this was that they knew that RAF officers were normally given escape & evasion kits by the RAF. Examples of this were needles in sewing kits which were magnetized to act as compass needles and maps printed on silk concealed in the heel of a flying boot. There was even a special section of British Military Intelligence (MI9), specially dedicated to getting escaped prisoners & downed aircrew back to the UK. The logic behind all this was that every escaped prisoner tied down hundreds of German troops and police drawing them from offensive operations against the allies.

©Write Time Partners V, 2000

Further to the above, a friend has posted this in reply, on another forum , as follows :

As a matter of interest, the American Ponzi scheme man Bernie Madoff (now serving life) had one in his collection of illegal gains.

By Warren Giles

Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) --
Bernard Madoff’s Rolex “prisoner watch” will be auctioned tomorrow in New York.
The name has nothing to do with Madoff’s current status as inmate No. 61727- 054 at Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina.

The 18-carat gold chronograph, model 3525, gained its moniker because Rolex offered similar timepieces to prisoners of war in Germany during World War II, including those involved in “The Great Escape.” It is one of 27 Swiss-made watches that the U.S. Marshals Service plans to sell as it seeks to recover assets for Madoff’s victims.

The sale will do little to ease the anger in Geneva, where clients of financial institutions, including Union Bancaire Privee, Banque Benedict Hentsch & Cie. and Notz, Stucki & Cie., lost about $7 billion on Madoff investments.

“It won’t change anything,” said André Polony, owner of the Piguet jewelry and watch store in Nyon, 17 miles northeast of Geneva, which sells Swiss brands, including Chopard, Baume & Mercier and Oris. “It’s not like the money will make its way back to Switzerland.”

Madoff’s watch collection included 17 Rolexes, seven Cartiers and timepieces from Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Franck Muller, all of which are made by companies based in or near Geneva.

The prisoner watch is valued at $75,000 to $87,500, according to Gaston & Sheehan Auctioneers, which is running the sale at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers in Manhattan.

Witness to History
“It’s ironic, the greatest financial crisis for decades and this belonged to the man who contributed to this in Switzerland,” said Aurel Bacs, co-head of international watches at Christie’s in Geneva. “Any object that’s been witness to a critical historical moment may attract a premium, and this is a conversation piece for the curious trophy hunter.”

The value of the watch may be reduced by other aspects of its provenance, said Osvaldo Patrizzi, head of Patrizzi & Co. auctioneers, who pioneered specialized watch sales from Geneva and is in New York to look at Madoff’s collection of watches.

While Madoff’s model 3525 chronograph is the same type as those delivered to Allied airmen imprisoned in Germany, it is unlikely this watch was ever owned by a prisoner of war, he said.

Rolex sent steel watches to prisoners through the Geneva- based Red Cross because they were more durable and gold would have been confiscated by German prison guards, said James Dowling, co-author of “The Best of Time: Rolex Wristwatches, an Unauthorized History” (Schiffer Publishing 2006).

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Fascinating..many thanks :thumb:
Sorry to lower the tone of a great thread, but I couldn't help thinking of...


"I hid this uncomfortable piece of metal up my ass for two years"

At least he was regular. :D
LOL... I admit when I read the title, I thought of Christopher Walken:D

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