NY Auction Highlight : The Rolex Milsub Ref. 5513/5517
It’s obvious why military watches are so collectible these days. They’re rare, and even more so in good condition. They’ve got incredible history. And they’re available, which of course was not the case while they were issued to servicemen.
Demand for these watches grew exponentially during the nineties and that’s true for all watches that fall into that category, irrespective of the make, model, and final recipient of the watch. Watches made in 1950s for French pilots and those made in the 1960s for British divers had something in common, military engravings that proved they helped men that served their country.
While military watches became wildly popular around the same time, some became more popular than others. As with every sub-genre in watches, one reference stood out above the rest, and in the case of military watches, that would be the Rolex Milsub.
The Milsub was made specifically for the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) and was used as official military equipment during a short period in the 1970s. Instead of building a new model, Rolex turned to reference 5513, a very capable diving watch and the perfect candidate for a military watch.
The British Ministry of Defence required a number of modifications to improve the watch’s legibility though, including using a unique hand set, using tritium on the dial, and displaying all 60 minutes around the bezel. The larger sword-shaped hands and extra indications made the watch safer to use, they felt, and it was a configuration the Navy was comfortable with, having already used Omega watches with similar features. To further comply with the MOD’s specifications, Rolex introduced fixed bars and presented the Milsub on a NATO strap, which the MOD deemed a little more secure than a stainless steel bracelet.
By the end of its transformation, the Milsub was noticeably different to Rolex’s civilian divers, but if the two are treated very differently by collectors today, it’s because Rolex made very few models for the military, approximately 1,200 we believe, and the majority ended up damaged or lost.
That makes the Milsub one of the rarest Rolex. It’s hard to find one with an original case which still displays a crisp serial number on the back, an unrestored dial, and original hands. It’s even harder to find one with „Henry Hudson” papers from Rolex Bexley confirming its manufacture and delivery to the MOD. And only in exceptional cases can you find one with all that and the watch’s original NATO strap. When that happens, you’re essentially receiving the watch as someone serving Her Majesty’s army would have back in the 1970s. And that’s what makes the Milsub truly special.
The present example produces that feeling. Made in 1979, it is one of the rare double reference 5513/5517 produced following Rolex's decision to issue a new reference specifically for the Milsub. The military reference 5513 would be known simply as reference 5517 but Rolex being Rolex, the company would use ref. 5513 casebacks during a short transitional period before all parts were stamped ref. 5517.
Adding to the appeal of this watch is its beauty. The dial has developed a wonderful patina. The hour markers and hands have aged gracefully and evenly and there are no blemishes on the dial. The case itself is in fantastic condition, suggesting this watch was barely ever worn. The inside case back on this watch features the repeated serial number, which is correct for a special order watch, while the case back identifies this as one of the rare W10 models delivered to the Army Air Corp.
The Military ref. 5513/5517 is Lot 48 of the upcoming Winning Icons auction, taking place in New York on Oct. 26, and it has an estimate of $100,000 to $200,000.