Tudor and the French Navy – A Quarter of a Century of Collaboration…

by bulang - May 29 2014

Tudor and the French Navy – A Quarter of a Century of Collaboration…

The story of the French Navy’s relationship with Tudor can be traced back to the late 1950s. Rolex were experimenting with different Submariners under the Tudor moniker and from the earliest days of the Tudor Submariner’s life, the Marine Nationale was an important test-bed for the watches. This relationship lasted for over a quarter of a century and is arguably one of Rolex’s most enduring and valued collaborations.

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The first watches delivered to the MN were the 7922 ‘Big Crown’ watches and then the 7924 ‘Big Crown’ watches. These watches were an important step for Tudor; the development of professional tool watches. Since its early days, the Tudor brand utilised the same Oyster cases, crown, bezels and other parts as the Rolex watches, albeit stamped with Tudor reference and serial numbers. Interestingly, the earliest 7922s actually utilised cases intended for Rolex 6538 watches; they have serial numbers that fit Rolex timelines (and, chronologically, not Tudor) and case-backs that had 6538 crossed out and 7922 engraved below the original stamping.

(the Tudor reference 7922, credits to Philipp from Rolex Passion Report)
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(the Tudor Big crown next to my former Rolex 6538)
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(and the 6538 compared with its successor, the reference 5510, only produced for about 1-2 years)

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However, the rigours of military diving life took their toll on these watches and it became apparent that the MN would need a more robust watch, in terms of the case and crown. The next watch delivered was the 7928 with the square crown guards.

(the Tudor ref. 7928 square crown guard (credits to Philipp from Rolex Passion Report) and pointed version on the right)
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These watches had a thicker case and the screw down Oyster crown was protected between two crown guards (for more info on the 7928 chronology, read my previous article here). Throughout the life of these watches to date, none had featured any identifying military engravings and so MN collectors rely on two main points when identifying these early MN issued watches. The first is the serial ranges; these watches fall into reasonably clear batches of watches. The second is NATO strap ‘rub’ on the case back. The 7928 was a successful watch and stood up well to the strains that military service puts on equipment and so Tudor wished to continue utilising Tudor Submariners. In line with Tudor’s refinement of the Subs, at the end of the 1960s the 7928 had a facelift that gave birth to a watch with a more robust and easily serviced movement by ETA and a new model reference, the 7016 and the now infamous “M.N.” case back engravings…

 

The Tudor Submariner ref. 7016 snowflake MN

The 7016 was introduced in 1968 and the earliest examples used by the MN housed dials with the round hour markers that were very similar to the Rolex 5513 maxi dials. In1974 a batch of black dialled 7016 watches were delivered from Geneva to Rolex in Paris. These watches were the first watches to receive the MN engravings and were inscribed ‘MN 74’. They were also the first MN watches to feature the snowflake hands. The snowflake hands were the result of requests from the navy to develop handsets that were more legible for the divers. These first series MN watches are the most desirable of the engraved watches. In fact, a very small number of these watches were sent over to South Africa for use by the South African Navy. I have written about this topic extensively for Hodinkee.

(the 1974 issued black Tudor Submariner, ref. 7016 Snowflake)
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The blue snowflake dial Tudor MN’s

The black dials in the MN74s were, however, very prone to moisture damage and many of them developed what has become known as ‘dial rot’ and so in 1975 Tudor provided a batch of reference 94010 Submariner watches to the MN that had switched to blue dials and bezel inserts. These watches featured the case back engravings, but interestingly for this year only, the full year was used i.e. ‘MN 1975’. I have owned and examined a number of these watches and they all are from a very small serial batch and a good number of these watches appear on the Marine Nationale watchmakers’ ledger books.

(early blue snowflake with ‘dial rot’)

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(the 1975 issued Tudor MN, featured on the website and this article)

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(2 casebacks of this special 1975 batch)

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(another 1975 Tudor MN, image by Laurent Boigey)

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The blue snowflake dials continued to be used until approximately 1982, when the so-called triangle dials and mercedes hands were introduced. These dials were delivered in both blue and black configurations. It is worth noting, however, that the MN watchmakers were more concerned with the functionality of the watches than the aesthetic or ‘originality’ and so we often see watches straight from the MN with strange combinations of hands and dials. I recently was offered, from a good source, a blue 94010 with a blue snowflake dial and lollipop hands as seen on the 76100 Submariners!

(my former 1976 issued Tudor MN, blue snowlflake submariner)

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(1977 issued Tudor MN, blue snowlflake submariner, image by Scott H.)

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(an 1981 issued Tudor MN, blue triangle dial submariner)

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(an 1982 issued Tudor MN, black triangle dial submariner)

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(some images of the famous Grahame Fowler collection MN’s)

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An commando issued watch

The MN, like most military organisations, issued a range of watches to its personnel. They are known to have issued, as well as Tudor, watches by Zodiac, Doxa, Luxia, Auricoste, Tag Heuer and others. These watches were worn in combat situations and like all diving tools, were an essential part of a diver’s ‘kit’. One of the most well known Marine Nationale units is Commando Hubert, which is the unit of commando divers. There are many entries in the MN ledger books that illustrate that Tudor watches were utilised by this special unit of combat divers. It is this history of the watches use that makes them so desirable to some collectors.

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(some of the combat gear of these commando’s, goretex suite, fins, knife and re-breather. Also an MN issued depth gauge >> be careful when you drink and collect. Passion Meeting guys do strange things ;-))

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(another set of vins from the MN and MN Spiro and compass on self build board. As often seen with commando’s they used what worked best for them)

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The Tudor MN compared to the Rolex Milsub

It would be cheaper (and a lot easier) to find a nicely patinated non-date blue Submariner and wear it on a grey NATO strap; the civilian watches look identical in some respects to the military watches. The heritage of the MilSubs is what makes them so sought after, however, and they have so much more to them than just a small engraving on the case back. The Rolex MilSubs are much more easily identifiable – the ‘circled T’ on the dial, fixed case bars, sword hands, the ’60 minute’ bezel insert and the case back engravings. Rolex MilSub collectors, also had the expertise of Mr Hudson (Rolex Manager) who would provide written confirmation of a watch’s delivery to the British forces. With Tudor MN watches, it requires a little more detective work! The fonts of the case back engravings are a good start. And then there are the watchmakers’ records…

(the 1974 Tudor MN next to an Rolex 5513 Milsub and the 5513 Milsub next to the rare Rolex ref. 5517 Milsub)

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(the Hudson letter, confirming serial number and beeing issued)

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The MN’s Watchmakers Ledger Books

A team of appointed watchmakers maintained all these watches for the Marine Nationale. As part of the servicing process the watchmakers recorded the serial number, brand and which ship or unit the watch was issued to in large ledger books. Over the years these books became a record of a good number of watches that were used by the MN. Extracts (photocopies) from these books are in circulation. There are two ledger books from the watchmaker who looked after the Toulon arsenal watches – these are currently owned by a French dealer, based in Paris. When wishing to authenticate MN watches, amongst other small detailed ways, the serial number can be cross referenced with the ledger books and if it appears (and it can be a big if!) then it can be safely assumed that the watch is an authentic, MN-issued watch.

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The other way that these watches are generally authenticated is the presence of decommissioning papers. At the end of a watch’s active service it was ‘retired’ and sold at a Government auction. Each auction lot (i.e. watch) was accompanied by a small card with the serial number, model reference and any service history. These papers are kept with the watches as further proof of the watch’s military history. The issue with these papers is the relative ease with which they can be counterfeited. There have been cases of unscrupulous dealers selling blank fake decom papers at European watch fairs.

(a depth gauge with the decom papers)

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Like many things in life, collectors and dealers are divided on which they prefer – ledgers or decoms and at the end of the day, it comes down to personal choice and research to ensure that a watch is what it purports to be.

 

Watches with a story

There is a feverish clamour, in vintage Rolex collecting, for super mint condition pieces, which are difficult to find and command ultra premium prices. The military watch collector, looks for very different things however. A true connoisseur of MilSubs will look for signs of active service of a watch. The Military Submariners I have bought from the original sources have shown signs of heavy use and sometimes, unorthodox watch making methods!

(Rolex 5517 Milsub as found from original owner and years of missions and Tudor MN 1974 as found)
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(and an MN watch as found)

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The Tudor 1975 issued MN Submariner

And so finally, on to the watch offered here. This is a very nice MN 1975, model reference 94010. As mentioned earlier, this is one of the watches from the small well-known serial batch all of which have this style of engraving. There is arguably no more iconic Tudor watch than the blue snowflake MN issued and this example will not disappoint! The hands match the dial plots perfectly, which makes the watch pop and gives it a very balanced look. The insert has aged nicely with even fading and a warm patina that only come from many years’ exposure to the elements. As you would expect (and hope!) this watch shows signs of having been worn and has an honesty that appeals to collectors of these desirable military issue watches.

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The watch comes with a custom handmade watchroll from Grahame Fowler New York. One of the biggest Tudor MN collectors in the world. Who made this watchroll special for this watch. Thanks mr. Cool!

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Thanks for watching and all the help from our passionate watch friends.
More article and up-dates will follow soon. Mail us for questions…

Ross Povey and Bernhard Bulang