Gift of a Lifetime: Andrew’s Vintage Sub

Gift of a Lifetime: Andrew's Vintage Sub

“I’d love nothing more than to pass it on to you…” Edwin’s words took Andrew completely by surprise. The two had only known each other for a short time – they belonged to the same church. And they had only talked about watches once. Andrew knew Edwin had a miltary background – he called fellow parishioners, especially those younger than him, his “troops.” So one day Andrew loosely inquired if he had any old Marine Corps buddies who might still have their watch… Edwin listened to Andrew talk passionately about watches – not letting on whether he or anyone he knew had ever owned – never mind still had – a watch issued or bought while they were a member of the armed forces.

That was the extent of their conversation about watches. So it might seem strange – or rather the stuff watch dreams are made of – that Andrew, all of a sudden, came to inherit this watch. After all, he wasn’t a blood relative or even a lifelong friend of Edwin’s. And here was Edwin wanting nothing more than to give Andrew his “old watch that he used in the ’60s,” which just so happened to be a Rolex Submariner.

Edwin had a straightforward reason for gifting his Submariner to Andrew: He “[didn’t] know anyone else that likes watches…” To us – even to Andrew – Edwin’s decision to give his Submariner to him – over family, a close friend, or even selling it for a huge windfall – sounds crazy. But Edwin’s rationale begins to make sense once you learn about his background, which was told to me in bits and pieces by Andrew.

5512 Edwin

Andrew described Edwin as a “larger than life Kentuckian” who, after college, felt a calling to serve his country. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines and throughout his career was singled-out as a leader among men – entrusted to train specialized regiments. In 1962 Edwin was stationed in St. Thomas where he worked closely with scuba diving units conducting various drills in preparation for reconnaissance missions and the possible outbreak of war. While on the island soldiers were encouraged to invite family members and loved ones, and as such, Edwin’s Mom paid him a visit. During her stay she wished to buy her son a present. As a diver in the 1960s, Edwin had a need for a wristwatch. Once it was settled that she’d purchase Edwin a watch, he just needed to decide which one…

Edwin was somewhat familiar with a variety of dive watches from the men he commanded. Andrew relayed the story to me that – if Edwin’s memory serves him correctly – he was debating between a Rolex Submariner and Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms. He preferred the 10-minute demarcated insert of the Submariner to the more spartan, quarter-hour-labeled bezel on the Blancpain. This was a time when watches were used, or rather, depended on – when the “tool watch” moniker was earned. Knowing precisely how long he’d was underwater was vitally important. The utility – not the aesthetics of the bezel or dial – is what mattered most.

Having decided on a Submariner, Edwin needed to select which one. I can only imagine the choices laid out before him: “Big Crown,” “Small Crown,” “Eagle Beak” – all brand new, with razor-sharp bevels and tight bracelets. From the perspective of a collector, he couldn’t have made a bad choice. In hindsight he should have bought them all – even the Blancpain. But I digress, this was a different era – a time when watches were not collectible, but rather practical. Since Edwin intended to use this watch he wanted a newer model – one with the greatest depth rating. The model he chose – the one his Mom gladly paid for – was a ref. 5512 Rolex Submariner with pointed crown guards and a glossy Mark I 2-line dial.

5512 Depth

This Submariner became part of his uniform – a part of his life. It was Edwin’s daily wearer up until about ten years ago. One glance at it and you can tell it’s been to battle – both literally and figuratively – and survived. He wore it through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. Leading up to his tour in Vietnam Edwin held various officer posts, including an assignment training parachute squadrons. Edwin would rise to the rank of Major, was awarded numerous medals, and received letters of commendation for his exemplary service and leadership. He also became a master parachutist – jumping 127 times – each time with this Rolex Submariner clasped to his left wrist.

5512 Pointy Crown

Needless to say, being in the military and experiencing war firsthand profoundly influenced Edwin: When the time came to enter civilian life Edwin attended a seminary, followed by becoming a mentor to troubled young adults – helping them turn their lives around. Even hearing the abridged version of Edwin’s life from Andrew, I quickly understood Edwin to be a selfless man – a man not motivated by nor defined by material objects, but instead, preferring to leave his mark on the world through his actions. This is why Edwin’s recent decision to gift his Submariner makes sense.

But why Andrew? Surely Edwin has met other young men who exhibit traits worthy of such a gesture. Perhaps this is the first person he’s come across that mentioned an interest in watches – someone he knew would appreciate it? Maybe he caught a vibe from Andrew that he would do right by his watch (i.e., never selling it and passing it on himself someday).

Andrew’s not entirely sure how a gilt dial Rolex Submariner went from resting in a “little box” in Edwin’s drawer to becoming his. A part of him thinks it’s “still not mine.” He surmises that maybe it’s a form of watch “karma”: Last month he purchased a watch as a gift for his dad – and then this happened. And for the record, Edwin was aware that his watch was valuable and Andrew did make attempts to compensate him for it – although his efforts were all in vain. Edwin would entertain none of his pleas.

5512 angle

Andrew received the watch only two Sundays ago on his names day – an Eastern European Christian holiday celebrating the commemoration day of the Saint you’re named after. Ironically, this is the same holiday that Andrew inherited an Omega pocket watch from his grandfather, which got him interested in watches in the first place.

When Andrew received this Sub it was truly “head only.” As you can tell, the bezel and insert are missing. He did ask about the whereabouts of the Submariner’s most-recognizable feature: Edwin recalled it popping-off and being lost in Vietnam… He never opted to have it replaced because once he left the Marines he had no use for it (again choosing functionality over aesthetics). Remarkably the original dial is perfectly preserved. Even after being submersed in countless bodies of water and hurdling to earth from planes and helicopters, it remains glossy and chip-free. Andrew plans to source a time period correct insert, a Twinlock crown, and most-likely a new crystal.

A watch’s dents and scratches – its patina – are unique to how each owner wore it and where they wore it. Many vintage watches are bought secondhand by collectors, without factual knowledge of the life their watch led – only speculation… Even though Andrew has owned his Submariner for just over two weeks, he’s fortunate to know the details of its 50+ year life: He can speak of some of the continents it’s traveled to and the events it’s witnessed. But even more so, he can talk intimately about the man who wore it. Andrew not only has a relationship with a new watch, but its previous owner as well, which is what Andrew is grateful for most.

5/7/16 STORY UPDATE:

When we last left Andrew it was the end of 2015 and he was mentally processing how he all of a sudden came to be the second owner of a much-coveted gilt dial Sub – without having to pay for it. Five months later, he’s more comfortable with being a custodian of the watch, but doesn’t for a millisecond take this gift he received from Edwin for granted.

And as badass as the Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando-style, sans bezel look is – from the moment Andrew received it – he knew a proper restoration was in order. He also knew sourcing time period correct parts wouldn’t be easy – or wallet friendly – for that matter. But if there was ever a watch deserving of being brought back to its former glory, it was this Submariner variant.

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Before Andrew could set off hunting for parts he needed to figure out his Submariner’s birth year. Unfortunately the serial number between the lugs was worn off. The only other clue as to its approximate production year would be a marking on the inside of the case back. So, he found a local watchmaker who unscrewed the case back, revealing “5512 III 1959” engraved in the steel.

Knowing the precise date of the manufacturing of his Sub, he was able to pin down the likely insert it originally came with: a fat font “kissing 4.” He actually found one rather easily and proceeded to buy it – not knowing if/when another one would turn up. He shared his score on a popular watch forum only to be told by several “experts” that a slightly later “long 5” insert may be more correct. Andrew will be the first to admit he’s learning about vintage Subs on the fly, so he naturally second-guessed his decision after Rolex “scholars” on the forums weighed in. But his confusion was put to bed after a well-regarded vintage Rolex dealer told him: “who the f*ck cares what people are complaining about… wear it and don’t worry about the haters sitting in dark musty rooms giving you their ‘opinion.’”

Andrew’s devotion to turning back the clock on his Submariner necessitated that he not sleep until he found a set of gilt hands. Now, finding an insert is one thing, but tracking down a set of matching gilt hands – that’s a whole ‘nother ball game. As one dealer he consulted put it: “[he’d] have a terrible time finding them.” But Andrew was determined to stop at nothing to land a radioactive handset – even trading an organ was not out of the realm of possibility. Lucky for him, he was able to spare his liver and/or kidney. “After a few false starts I ended up buying an awesome set of radium hands,” said Andrew.

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After acquiring these crucial components – including a Twinlock crown – he next needed a referral for someone qualified to do the procedure. It would be a travesty if the 50-year-old, glossy, chapter-ring dial – which miraculously survived Vietnam without as much as a scratch – was nicked by a watchmaker with an unsteady hand. After vetting his options, he chose Bob Ridley to do the transplants. And just like when a family member goes under the knife, Andrew nervously awaited word of how his beloved Sub responded to the operation… In the end, his Sub pulled through with flying colors thanks to Bob Ridley and his son. Andrew praised the duos bedside manner from the initial consultation all the way through the recovery process – the tenor of his endorsements always that “they’re WIS’s and really love repairing/servicing vintage Rolex.”

The final stage of the transformation is a post-op visit, in the form of a reuniting with its original owner. Andrew can only imagine what Edwin will say when he sees his old friend’s makeover…

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To see real time, behind-the-scenes footage of Andrew acquiring parts and the Ridley’s expert servicing, visit and follow Andrew on Instagram @t_swiss_t.

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