James Bond’s movie watches are well known from the Rolex Submariner to the Omega Seamaster. However, very few people can recognise the watches of the 007 books as they range from Cartier to Rolex and even a Patek Philippe. Read on to hear about every watch appearance in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.
Whether your genre or not, the James Bond franchise has become one of the most widely-known around the globe. The movies, whichever may be you favourite, captured an exoticism which was striking for many in the mid-20th century and gave excitement to many people’s lives. I might also note that, in these times of self-imposed quarantine, it’s more enjoyable than ever to picture the sapphire-blue waters off Jamaica or the smoke-filled gambling clubs of London frequented by Bond.
However, today’s article is not actually about the films or the watches which famously inhabited them. Instead, I’d like to shed a light on the much less discussed world of Fleming’s novels. Without making this article too literary, it’s worth commenting on the way Fleming constructed the world in which Bond lived. Unlike the arguably more subtle writing of other espionage-related novelists, Fleming filled his books with brand names and product details to create the atmosphere which is best portrayed in the films starring Sean Connery.
Bond doesn’t smoke cigarettes; he smokes cigarettes made bespoke by Morland of Grosvenor Street from a blend of Balkan and Turkish tobacco. He doesn’t drive a sports car; he drives a Bentley which he has had coachbuilt to accommodate more luggage and, later, an Aston Martin DBIII expressly chosen over a Jaguar. These are both members of a string of automobiles described which serve to titillate any car enthusiast.
In this way, a tangible environment was created for Bond to live in and this most definitely applied to the watches of the 007 books. More importantly, Ian Fleming used the watches of the 007 books to present his characters, ranging from heroes to villains, in vivid technicolour.
007’s Taste for Rolex
Ian Fleming was a bonafide Rolex wearer and was known for owning a Rolex Explorer ref. 1016. Even so, it is clear that this was not his first Rolex considering Fleming’s death in 1964 — just one year after this reference was released. As an alter-ego, 007 was also very much a Rolex wearer too yet, as with Fleming’s choice, there was absolutely zero prestige in that decision.
The first mention of Bond’s watch appears in Live and Let Die (1954) when we are introduced to the agent’s diving equipment. This kit is then used in a decidedly exciting display of derring-do as Bond makes his way through barracuda-infested waters under the cover of darkness. Interestingly, we still learn very little about Bond’s watch apart from the fact that, being a Rolex (Oyster), it can resist the immersion to which it will be subjected. Of course, given that the novel was published in 1954 and researched over the preceding 18 months, I doubt that Fleming had a Rolex Submariner — released publicly in 1954 — in mind for 007.
Nonetheless, the mere mention of the Rolex name as one of the watches of the 007 books presents the rugged side to the character. This was a discreet and unpretentious watch to be used to within an inch of its life — something far removed from the modern Rolex experience. Such a feeling was also given to Bond’s second watch-related scene.
This scene, a favourite of mine, takes place in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963). In this novel, Bond travels to Piz Gloria in Switzerland to investigate and identify Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his accomplice Irma Bunt. Finding himself trapped in Blofeld’s lair masquerading as a health clinic, Bond must fight his way out. With his razor in his left hand and his Rolex wrapped around his right hand as a knuckle duster, he proceeds to bludgeon a guard out of action. Bond later states that he will probably buy another Rolex due to this very toughness.
Through these examples, it’s worth noting that Bond didn’t wear a Rolex for the brand but rather for the durability. On this basis, I wonder what Fleming’s Bond would have chosen today?
Hugo Drax: A Portrayal of Wealth
Hugo Drax in Moonraker (1955) is a thoroughly different character in the novels than in the 1979 movie of the same name. Living as a German soldier and saboteur during the Second World War, he is disfigured in a botched attack. Misidentified as a wounded British soldier after the Second World War, he becomes Hugo Drax: a successful businessman, philanthropist and agent of the USSR.
First introduced to the reader as a cheat in the fictional London gambling club “Blades”, Drax is presented as a crass, impolite brute with immensely deep pockets. He is also described as being a truly hideous man to behold: all contributing to a thoroughly unpleasant image for the reader to imagine. With this picture already in the mind, Fleming used his watch as a final touch. By contrast to Bond’s truly functional choice, Drax wears ‘a plain gold Patek Philippe on a black leather strap.’
This choice presents the perfect background to the character as a man whose primary concern is displaying his wealth and status as a means of hiding his true aims. Of course, we will never know which Patek Philippe Fleming had in mind but I would hazard a guess that a post-war Calatrava would be the best choice for this character and the description provided.
Tiffany Case: Tiffany by name, Tiffany by nature
In the 1956 novel Diamonds Are Forever, Bond goes up against “The Spangled Mob”: a major diamond smuggling ring in America. On this journey, he meets Tiffany Case — a lady with a less-than-luxurious background in brothel ownership. Even so, named after the shop from which her deceased father bought perfume for her mother, there is more than a little luxury to this lover of Bond.
Incidentally, she is also the only female character to whom Fleming assigns a watch: ‘a small square Cartier watch with a black strap’. Of course, the most obvious choice of model would be the inimitable and truly stunning Cartier Tank. With youthful simplicity and a much more elegant demeanour than the Rolex worn by Bond, the Tank seems a delightful choice for a lady involved in a landscape of casinos and diamonds.
Donald Grant: A Complicated Watch for a Complicated Man
Appearing from the very beginning of From Russia, with Love (1957), Donald Grant was an unusual villain. Originally a Briton with severe psychiatric issues, he was enlisted by SMERSH as a ferociously brutal assassin. Within the first few pages, we are introduced to this mysterious man naked and lying face down beside a swimming pool. Beside him rest a money clip stuffed with banknotes, a gold Dunhill lighter and a gold Fabergé cigarette case — all loot from previous kills.
Most importantly for this article, there is also a watch. It is described as ‘a bulky gold wrist-watch on a well-used brown crocodile strap’. Most importantly, the description continues as the most complete description of all of the watches of the 007 books.
Fleming continues: ‘It was a Girard-Perregaux model designed for people who like gadgets, and it had a sweep second-hand and two little windows in the face to tell the day of the month, and the month, and the phase of the moon.’. From this, we can be sure that Grant wore a gold triple-calendar Girard-Perregaux. Curiously, however, I have never seen a Girard-Perregaux from this period with these complications although I am certainly open to being shown one if such a watch existed.
From this description, the choice of watch is an interesting one. In personality as in profession, Grant is presented as a brute and yet his watch, stolen from a victim, is a very elegant piece. The result is an ambiguous feel as the watch has a significant effect on our view of the character, something rare in these novels.
Guiseppe Petacchi: The Ultimate Rolex
If you’re familiar with the film adaptations of 007, Guiseppe Petacchi may be an unfamiliar name. However, his role in 1961’s Thunderball is roughly that of Angelo Palazzi (masquerading as François Derval) in the film as he crashes a Villiers Vindicator (replaced with an Avro Vulcan on the screen) in order for Emilio Largo, an agent of SPECTRE, to collect its bombs.
Whilst undeniably short-lived and never a direct opponent for Bond, Petacchi’s watch is one of the most memorable. It captures a mix of Italian style and a need for mechanical reliability as the pilot which this character is. The watch chosen is ‘a solid gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual Chronometer on a flexible gold bracelet’. From this description, we can all picture the watch as is so often the case with the unique styling of a Rolex.
Fleming’s Overall Picture of Watches of the 007 Novels
Ian Fleming’s Bond novels are, for many, the reference for exciting and adventurous books about espionage. By the same token, James Bond and his general image (with the possible exception of George Smiley) is just what comes to mind when one thinks of a spy. However, through the watches worn by this character and by others in the franchise we are given a deeper insight into what Ian Fleming pictured when he put pen to paper.
Which is your favourite watch to appear in the 007 franchise?