There’s a bit of dialogue in Casino Royale, the 2006 reboot of the James Bond movie franchise, when Vesper Lynd thinks she has Bond figured out, right down to his watch:

“Rolex?” she asks.
“Omega”, Bond replies.
“Beautiful”, Lynd assesses.

Those three words sum up 50 years of Bond and his wristwatches. They also have either made Rolex and Bond purists shake their heads and mutter, “product placement” or Omega devotees cheer wildly and clink their Planet Oceans in a sort of watch-nerd toast. The history of James Bond and his timepiece choice can really be divided up into the “Rolex Era” and the “Omega Era”, despite the fact that the Bonds of Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton donned digital Seikos and a TAG Heuer in between. But Moore’s 007 had more to be ashamed of than what he wore on his wrist, and when was the last time you watched License to Kill? That’s what we thought.

In the beginning there was Rolex. James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, gave his secret agent hero a “heavy Rolex Oyster Perpetual on an expanding bracelet”, a watch Bond put to use as a knuckle duster while punching out a henchman in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There is no mention of the exact Rolex Fleming intended; despite many theories, including that it was an Explorer (ref. 1016), no one will ever really know. The fact of that matter is, Rolex still has a model called the “Oyster Perpetual” in its lineup. It is a simple, time-only watch with the legendary Rolex self-winding “Perpetual” movement and the 100-meter (at least) water resistant Oyster case, a direct descendant of the watch Rolex sent to Mount Everest with the successful British expedition in 1953. It certainly could have been one of these tough but understated watches that Fleming intended for his character. But we’re really talking about the James Bond movies — where the silver screen would make 007’s timepieces iconic.

Take Note:

Q Branch Timepiece Hits

For better or worse, gadgets have always helped defined Bond’s superspy status. Many of his timepieces across the 23 film series were simply included for style, status and sponsorship, but the Q Branch did tinker with plenty over the years to help MI6’s chief agent thwart villans. Here are the hits — see further down for the misses.

Magnets & Buzzsaw
Jame’s Rolex 5513 Submariner in Live and Let Die saved his (sex)life on multiple occasions thanks to an integrated buzz saw for cutting binds and a high powered magnet for unzipping dresses from afar.

Laser Cutting & Remote Mines
007’s Omega Seamaster in GoldenEye emitted a laser for cutting through armored panels and acted as a remote activator/detonator for magnetic mines. A few years later, it would also inspired one of the most entertaining ways to frag in multiplayer console gaming.

Grappling Hooks and Mood Lighting
All OMEGA Seamaster’s feature luminous markers for reading in low-light, but Bond’s version in The World Is Not Enough was bright enough to set the mood in an avalanche survival balloon and also boasted a miniature grappling hook (a must for any true swinger).

In 1962’s Dr. No, we first catch a glimpse of Bond’s watch: a Rolex Submariner, reference 6538, on the wrist of Sean Connery. Though Fleming made no mention of a diving watch in his books, the Submariner is a fitting choice for 007’s screen debut. Diving had reached a high point in popularity in the early ‘60s and was seen as an activity for the bold and adventurous — making dive watches lifestyle symbols, just like Bond. Dive watches were symbols of this lifestyle just as Bond personified it. Connery wore the Submariner throughout his tenure as 007 and the watch became so linked with his Bond that collectors today call the reference 6538 and similar “big crown” versions, “James Bond Submariners.”

So fetishized is Bond’s watch choice that even the strap he wore it on has achieved a cult status. Though he wore the Submariner on a leather strap in Dr. No, by Goldfinger, the third Bond film, the same watch is seen on a one-piece striped nylon strap. The Internet contains endless debate and speculation about this strap.

First of all, it is obviously undersized for the watch. The distance between the lugs of the Submariner is 20 millimeters yet the strap we see on Connery’s watch was clearly made for a smaller timepiece, with most likely a 16mm lug width. Why? Some say it was a hurried addition to a watch that was chosen at the last minute, an easier fix than sizing a riveted steel bracelet. Again, a mystery for the ages unless Mr. Connery is a Gear Patrol reader and cares to settle this once and for all.

The second point of debate about this strap is in regard to its stripes. On grainy videocassette, the strap looked like it had alternating stripes of black and “Admiralty gray” and many strapmakers sold reproductions of this pattern in the NATO style. But the advent of high definition DVD told the real story of this most mythical of watch straps. Countless watch nerds paused their Blu-ray editions of Goldfinger as Bond raises his wrist and lights a cigarette to check on the status of the bomb he’s planted. The strap is not gray and black striped but in fact appears to have a subtler pattern, with some red, a green-gray and black. Or is that Navy blue? Strapmakers scrambled and a new, more authentic version is now found on thousands of Submariners worldwide.

Rolex was perfect for Connery’s Bond. The first dive watch on the first 007, rugged and authentic, in an era before Bond went commercial and Rolex became a status symbol. When Connery handed over the reins of Bond to Roger Moore, the quartz era had dawned and the world went digital. Bond kept up with the times and the digital watches that spit out typed messages from HQ seemed perfectly fitting for a high tech hero.

But just like the safari suit with its wide lapels, what seemed like a good idea at the time started to look too dated for a classic character like James Bond.

Fast Forward

Fast forward to the 1990s. After the cartoonish Moore years and the dour Dalton films, Pierce Brosnan strutted out as a perfect Bond for his era—glib and handsome, he had cut his pearly white teeth as a TV star. Bond was going to be bigger than ever. The costume designer at the time, Lindy Hemming, considered everything from cufflinks to socks and when it came to his watch, she passed over Rolex for Omega. The Rolex Submariner was by then the most ubiquitous luxury watch around. Omega had a long history with the British military, with its Seamaster having been the choice for Royal Navy divers in the 1960s. So, to the chagrin of Rolex, and Bond purists everywhere, Brosnan strapped on a Seamaster Professional and Omega has been “Bond’s choice” ever since.

Take Note:

Q Branch Timepiece Misses:

Plastique Explosive Detonator
The Seiko M354 Memory-Bank Calendar shown in Moonraker came in handy thanks to a built-in Plastique explosive detonator. Unfortunately, the detonator cord had to be wired directly into the charge and was shorter than Odd Job.

GPS Tracking and Discrete Cleavage Peeping
Octopussy featured two advanced tickers highlighting the pinnacle of technology in the 80s. The Seiko G757 5020 Sports 100 was equipped with a GPS tracking device for locating a lost Faberge Egg (snooze), while the flashier Seiko Liquid Crystal TV Watch took satellite video calls from Margaret Thatcher and kept an eye out on rogue bombshells.

Ticker Tape Messaging
Bond’s Seiko 0674’s Ticker Tape shown in The Spy Who Loved Me was a pre-texting solution for staying in touch with HQ. It probably made for a damn good label maker too.

To an entire generation of Bond fans, Omega is the watch of James Bond. What started out as a costume choice became a marketing bonanza, with Omega making full use of the movies to sell a lot of Seamasters. The timepiece that Brosnan wore for all of his films was a blue-dialed Seamaster with a blue rotating bezel, on a steel bracelet that had alternating polished and brushed links. Like the Rolex 6538 was the Bond Submariner, the blue Seamaster was the “Bond Seamaster.” Omega featured the model on its Website, with Brosnan’s photo and produced limited edition (if 10,007 can be considered limited) 007 versions that had gunbarrel casebacks and “007” marked dials.

The current James Bond, Daniel Craig, also wore Omega but in his screen debut in Casino Royale, he introduced a new watch to the mix: the Seamaster Planet Ocean. For a more serious, physical Bond, the Planet Ocean was a perfect choice. It is bigger, burlier and less “pretty” than the dandy blue polished Seamaster of Brosnan’s days. Bond also wore it on a rubber strap, better suited for parkour chases through Third World constructions sites. Later in the movie, when he slips into a dinner jacket for some high stakes gambling, Craig swaps out the Planet Ocean for the old blue Brosnan Bond Seamaster. It’s the last time we see that watch on James Bond. In the gritty Quantum of Solace sequel, 007 only wears the Planet Ocean, now on its steel bracelet, and it gets ample screen time.

In Skyfall, James Bond is again in Omega, again the Planet Ocean but also a blue-dialed Seamaster Aqua Terra for a few scenes. The Aqua Terra is fine choice for Bond, subtler than the chunky dive watches but still rugged enough to withstand 150 meters of water pressure. Though Connery’s Bond would never think to be traveling with a second watch and the Aqua Terra on a bracelet is a far cry from the old Rolex on an ill-fitting nylon strap, Omega is really a perfect choice for the modern James Bond. It is well-made with classic styling and the right mix of rugged and refined that defines Bond. Omega also retains the pedigree of a storied brand, and one with a credible link to England’s military but without the baggage that Rolex has these days.

While watch aficionados like to debate whether Omega or Rolex is the true “Bond watch” we like to think they both are, well-suited for the eras in which the spy wore them. There’s certainly room in our watch box for a vintage Rolex Submariner and a modern Planet Ocean. And who’s to say that when Bond goes home to his London flat after another difficult, bruising mission, he doesn’t slip his Planet Ocean onto his watch winder and pull out his old Sub and think about the past. We just hope he’s got a better-fitting strap on it by now.

Bond Week Continues This Way »