We are, as species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories. Who is a better story-teller though, than true history itself? Today, one –if not the most- legendary story of watchmaking will be unfolded, honoring the Rolex “Prisoner of War” reference 3525.
At the beginning of the 20th century, wrist-watches were considered feminine accessories and therefore were not widely popular among male customers who much preferred pocket-watches. The end of WWI though came to shift this mindset where soldiers appreciated the functionality and superiority of wrist- watches during a combat and this was a golden opportunity for the pioneer of watch-making (and Marketing) Henry Wilsdorf, creator of Rolex. By the time of WWII, it is said that the pilots of British Royal Air-Force would turn down the government-issued watches to buy with their own paychecks the much- sought, highly functional Rolexes. A new era had began.
When pilots of the British Royal Air-Force were shot down and held captive, the German troops would transfer them to camps following the regulations of the Geneva Convention. It is said that the watches of British soldiers would hide secret mechanisms with “escape tools” such as evasion kits with magnetized needles to work as compasses or even small silk maps to ease the way of an evasion plan. For this reason, German officers would retrieve all watches of British RAF. Henry Wilsdorf had soon heard of these events and decided to supply the British POW with new Rolex wristwatches for any soldier sending a letter of request. Each watch sent, was accompanied by a letter from Wilsdorf himself stating that the Prisoners should not occupy their minds with the payment but only after the end of the war. It is said that there were two reasons behind his honorary decision. At first, such move was a proof of confidence against the outcome of the war in favor of the Allies. Wilsdorf being a German himself, had early spoken against Hitler and Nazis and such move was an act of bravery and faith in Britain, the country where he first developed his success. The second reason had to do with the decision of Rolex to move its headquarters from England to the neutral country of Switzerland, for taxation reasons. Switzerland, was surrounded by countries occupied by the Axis, making it hard for any company within Switzerland to supply the Allies Countries. Therefore, selling watches to the POW of the Allies in the occupied countries did not only show tremendous support but also made sense from a financial point of view.
Diving into the more technical characteristics, the reference 3525 was produced in precious metals, following the trend of the era wanting mens’ timepieces to be cased in gold but the rarest references existing today are ,as expected, the POWs produced in steel. The reference had a diameter of 35mm, monoblock case, screw back, crown, chronograph pushers and two counters. The movement was a Valjoux 13 with manual winding screw with the engraving “Rolex Patent”. At the 12 o’clock position we find the “Rolex Oyster” writing in circular pattern and right below the word “Chronograph” while at the 6 o’clock position the word “Antimagnetic” . The references produced between 1940 and 1943 account for less than 200 pieces, each with a heroic and individual story to tell.
It is important to mention that ref. 3525 holds a special place in the history of Rolex since it was the very first chronograph to be placed inside an Oyster Case. Needless to say though, that this piece holds a a special place in our hearts by encapsulating the values of heroism, faith and victory to be transmitted to the next generations to come.
Author: Luca Balella