Diving Off the Shelf
Tudor’s mark in horology is unique, not because of its association with the reigning crown of Swiss watchmaking, but rather that it has managed to pave its own identity, despite this affiliation.
In 1926, when Hans Wilsdorf established the Tudor Watch Company, the idea behind the company was to produce watches that his agents could sell at a more affordable price range. He added a caveat, however, by also saying that Tudor watches would bear the same uncompromising reliability. What we have then are watches that are more accessible, and made valuable by Wilsdorf’s assurance of dependability.
As it built its name through the course of the 20th century, there have been many instances where Tudor has exceeded expectations. But to fully appreciate the worth of what Tudor was offering, there is perhaps no greater case study than that of the Tudor Submariner.
Tudor’s own Submariner came into being a year after Rolex introduced its very first Submariner, the ref. 6204. It is important to mention here that in the same period Rolex did release two other references of its Submariner: the ref. 6200 and the ref. 6205.
This is why when we look at the 1954 Tudor Submariner, the ref. 7922, we find that it’s almost a hybrid of all these early Rolex Submariners. The ref. 7922 has the ref. 6204’s bezel and dial furnishing, save for the hands, which seem to have been brought over from the refs. 6200 and 6205.
Some mention-worthy details on the ref. 7922 include the slightly domed, black lacquered dial, along with the gilt print text. Inscriptions on the dial read “Oyster Prince” at 12 o’clock under Tudor’s logo as well as four lines at six o’clock that read “100m = 300ft”, “Submariner”, “Rotor” and “Self-Winding” — a brief summary of the watch’s features at a glance.
The bezel on the watch was a bidirectional one with a domed Plexiglas crystal to improve its pressure resistance. The case shape and other design details are highly reminiscent of the watch’s more illustrious family line, right down to the winding crown which incidentally did bear the famed crown logo — as did the rivet-linked bracelet.
The movement used for the watch was the cal. 390, which was developed based on a self-winding Fleurier movement. Appropriately, the movement was signed Tudor. The cal. 390 was, as a matter of fact, such a reliable workhorse, that up to the late 1960s the only significant updates that were made to the Tudor Submariner were on its case design — the movement remained virtually unchanged.
For collectors of such rare early pieces, perhaps the greatest detail of pleasure is the particular logo borne on the watch’s face: the original gilt Tudor rose, an emblem of the once royal House of Tudor that ruled over England through the better part of the 16th century.
As with Rolex’s initial Submariner iterations, it didn’t take long for Tudor to also produce variations as early as in 1955 with the ref. 7923. The great fascination with this particular rendition of the Tudor Submariner is that it is the only one in the brand’s portfolio to have a hand-wound movement. The movement used was an ETA cal. 1182.
Other points of interest include the “pencil hands” and the peculiar lack of curved endlinks. As a whole, along with the dial treatment and the distinctive hands used in the ref. 7923, the watch seems almost to be a direct descendant of the Rolex ref. 6204.
The thing to point out here is that Tudor has always been taking cues from its older sibling as a means of striving for continual progress. In the same way that three successive versions of the Rolex Submariner were produced upon its introduction, Tudor, too, took to creating different versions to improve on its Submariner at a pace that suited its own plans.
Therefore, a year later in 1957, they reintroduced the ref. 7922, which, while deceptively similar to the original, is set apart with the introduction of the one-minute divisions between the 0 and 15 on the bidirectional dive bezel. Almost everything else on the watch is similar to the original, even the movement, but this simple new introduction meant that divers could measure dive times and decompression stages a lot more accurately.
1958 saw yet another update to the watchcase with the new ref. 7924, which was essentially an overhaul of the case construction to make it far more robust. The new case design doubled its depth rating from the earlier 100m to 200m. And as a means of providing potential customers a choice, the 100m depth rating was also retained with the introduction of the ref. 7925. Both the ref. 7924 and the ref. 7925 had remarkably larger crowns than seen before, earning them the “Big Crown” nickname.
From 1959 onwards, further development was made on the case with updates such as the square crown guards on the ref. 7928, followed by pointed crown guards on the same reference in 1961. As the ’60s progressed, the next update came to the dial itself, as Tudor did away with gilt printing in favor of silver printing. 1964 saw yet another revision of the crown guards, which were now more rounded. These proved to be vastly superior to Tudor’s initial attempts at crown guards and followed subsequent versions of the watch into the 1990s.
From as early as the late 1950s, there was great demand for Tudor’s Submariners by organizations looking to outfit divers with robust dive watches. Of these clients, the biggest and most notable ones were no doubt the Marine nationale française (MN) and the US Navy (USN).
What further testified to the quality that Tudor was offering was that neither the French navy nor the US Navy worked with the brand to develop specialized watches for their divers. The timepieces that were picked up from Tudor and put on the wrists of both navies’ servicemen were selected directly from the catalog.
Perhaps the only mark of difference in these watches was a stamping on the caseback, which helped identify these as military issues. The earliest references that the French navy received included the ref. 7922, as well as ones from the ref. 7924/7925 “Big Crown” generation. These can be identified by the inscription “M.N.”, followed by a two-digit year stamp on the caseback, signifying the year in which the watch was delivered to the client. Likewise, the ones that were delivered to the US Navy can be identified by the “U.S.N” stamping coupled with the year of delivery.
But this cannot be reiterated enough: including the ref. 7928 (and beyond), all the Submariners that Tudor supplied to its military clients were basically watches that the average buyer could pick up from any of the brand’s retail distributors. Argue all you want about how there isn’t a sense of romanticism to the story here and we’ll argue back fervently, reminding you that Tudor had the formula for their Submariner so spot-on, that these watches withstood the most grueling of real-life tests — in the hands of navy servicemen, straight out from the factory.
This isn’t necessarily a romantic story, but it is a great lesson in effectivity and the reliability that Wilsdorf had hoped the brand would come to be known for. Here again the case for romanticism can also be made, because in terms of horological heritage, specifically horological military heritage, Tudor’s is an outstandingly unique tale.
The boon that the prominent partnerships provided Tudor with is that the two navy organizations were, in a way, conducting research and development for Tudor. The brand didn’t have to carry out experiments itself to figure out the next point of improvement for their Submariner. In fact, it was the partnership with the French navy that provided the largest leap from the 7900 series of watches into what is termed as Tudor’s second series of Submariners.
By now, Tudor had been supplying various versions of their Submariners to the Marine nationale française, well into the late ’60s. And as one of its largest clients, the French navy provided feedback to the brand to better the watches that they were issuing to their servicemen.
The culmination of these requests gave rise to the most recognizable of Tudor’s dive-watch features in this day and age. The ref. 7016, introduced in 1969, was a Submariner with a face that was new from the ground up.
Circular indices at one, two, four, five, seven, eight, 10 and 11 o’clock gave way to square ones. In general, the indices also became a lot beefier, making for better readability under water. The hour, minute and seconds hands were changed to what are now Tudor’s unmistakable “snowflake” hands. The logo used on the dial was changed too; the first instance of Tudor’s shield logo being used on the Submariner in replacement of the more classic Tudor rose.
Yet the most significant of changes made to the watch wasn’t on the outside, but rather on the inside. The Fleurier-based cal. 390, which had been Tudor’s choice movement up until the ref. 7928, was finally replaced by the ETA cal. 2483. Although the new movement had specifications that were point for point similar to the cal. 390, the decision for the replacement probably came as a matter of ease of serviceability on the brand’s end.
The same year also saw Tudor introduce the ref. 7021. Using the ETA cal. 2484, which had a date wheel, this was the first Tudor Submariner with a date function. Other than the movement and the cyclops lens placed over the date window on top of the watch’s Plexiglas, the ref. 7021 was identical to the ref. 7016 in terms of all other case characteristics and dial furnishing.
The next major update to the Submariner would come in the form of yet another movement change in 1976 with the ref. 9401/0. This time the ETA cal. 2776 was fitted into the watch, which promised a higher degree of accuracy over its predecessors. The ref. 9401/0 is particularly intriguing, because with it, Tudor provided four different versions. The watch came in an all-new blue color; the black remained as well. The other options made available were choices between round versus square hour markers, as well as the “snowflake” hands versus the more-traditional Submariner hands that were offered in the earlier 7900 series.
The Swan Song
After the ref. 9401/0 was introduced, there was little new development on the Submariner, save for a few attempts at smaller case sizes. The next reference that would be introduced only came in 1987 with the ref. 76000, which looked more like the Submariners from the 7900 series in terms of the hands used on the watch.
The ref. 76000 came in both blue and black, with circular hour markers and triangle indices used for six, nine and 12 o’clock. The movement used was the ETA cal. 2824-2, with a date function. However, what was particularly odd about this reference was the case size — markedly diminutive at 35mm. It is also here that we lost the “Oyster Prince” nomenclature, replaced by the “Prince Oysterdate” name.
The last in the line of Tudor’s Submariners were the ref. 79090 (1993) and the ref. 79190 (1995), which was also incidentally renamed as the “Prince Date”. And with that, Tudor ceased producing watches in its Submariner collection.
A New Hope
It is possible that Tudor’s older sibling simply reclaimed the “Submariner” name for itself so that it might establish a definitive identity for the dive watch. For whatever reasons, Tudor ceased producing Submariners in the mid-’90s.
But the heritage entrenched in the lengthy timeline of Tudor’s Submariners continue in its present-day dive watches — that is, the Heritage Black Bay and the Pelagos. For those who are drawn to the earlier 7900 series of Tudor Submariners, the Heritage Black Bay is a brilliant option, with its vintage-styled gilt printing along with the Tudor rose logo. But to stay in line with its modern identity, the watch uses the iconic “snowflake” hands as opposed to the more-classic Submariner hands found on the 7900 series.
The Pelagos is a decisively contemporary dive watch, presently in production. With its all-titanium case and a highly innovative, patented auto-adjustable buckle system on the titanium bracelet, this is a watch that truly builds on Tudor’s know-how in producing excellent dive watches. Not to mention that, as of 2015, the Pelagos is fitted with Tudor’s first-ever in-house manufactured movement, the cal. MT5612.
However, if you happen to be the sort who wishes to collect actual vintage Tudor Submariners, due caution must be exercised. You see, owing to the price point at which these watches have always been offered, and also because of the purposes for which the watches were meant, they were never exactly treated with the reverence we accord to vintage watches today. Therefore, few probably remain in existence, especially ones from the ’50s and the ’60s.
As for the military-issue pieces, again, because of the nature of the field where they were utilized, chances are, extremely few remain to be put up at auctions or on the shelves of respected vintage-watch dealers. So, if the opportunity ever presents itself, and the price is right, do your homework, conduct your due diligence and make the purchase. This good fortune might not present itself again in a long time to come, and if it does come around, it will most likely bear a much, much heftier asking price.