If I had to choose between two vintage Rolex, one a little worse for wear, but with proven provenance, the other in top condition, but its ownership history unknown, in most cases, I’ll take the former. I value knowing the story behind a watch more than I do sharp lugs or original hands. That story, especially when told by someone close to the watch, makes a watch shine in my eyes, by giving it a soul to go along with its body full of scratches and patina.
Which brings me to Tom and his vintage Milgauss. If you don't know, it’s a reference 1019, in production from the early 1960s through the 1980s. The Milgauss was originally conceived with scientists and professionals in mind who worked around magnetic fields. Its selling point was its dependability in environments where magnetic rays often threw a watch’s movement out of whack, adversely effecting timekeeping. The Milgauss had an iron “cage” protecting the movement from those invisible, damaging emissions.
While the Milgauss made complete sense to its lab coat-wearing target market, it seemed to be a tougher sell to the masses. I could picture this scene in the 1970s: a suit-and-tie businessman, or parent looking for a graduation gift, ruling out a Milgauss after comparing it to a Datejust, which looked similar, was svelter and had a date function. And when it came to selling a specialized watch, I think more people could relate to say a Submariner - its waterproofness being a more practical feature. (If you don’t know, the Milgauss would end up being discontinued in the late ‘80s.)
Enough history, time for present day. Tom and his wife Colleen are customers of mine. When I first met Tom I didn't initially peg his watch (shame on me). I pride myself in my watch-spotting abilities and I know about 1019s. But I’ll be honest, on first glance, I thought he was wearing a Datejust. Part of my miscalculation had to do with the fact that a vintage Milgauss is a rare sighting. (Even within the watch community 1019s seldom make an appearance.) So you can’t totally blame me that it was the furthest watch from my mind. It wasn’t until my eye caught it in just the right light - at just the right angle - that the 38mm case, with its extra-wide, smooth bezel, glinted back at me. And then the red, uppercase, sans serif font came into focus. I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by. I had to talk to Tom about his watch…
As cool as Tom’s Milgauss is, he and his wife are even cooler characters. That day, they graciously entertained my excitement about his watch by sharing a quick backstory about it. (It turned out Colleen played a big part in it becoming Tom’s…) The couple did business with me that day, but it was hearing about Tom’s watch that really made my day. As these encounters usually go, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. So later, when I sent a follow up email, I added that I’d love to write about Tom’s Milgauss. You can imagine how thrilled I was when Tom replied back, “I’d be happy and honored to sit down for an interview.” The only problem was Tom didn’t live in Chicago. But he did travel here on business from time to time. So, we kept in touch over email through the spring and summer, until finally, he was coming back to town. We set a time and place to meet.
Unfortunately Colleen didn't make this trip, so it was just Tom and I sitting down for a chat. It was a perfect Indian summer day in September, so we sat outside just off the Magnificent Mile with the Wrigley Building as our backdrop. I prompted Tom with a few questions and turned the mic over to him. I was all ears listening to his recollection of the watch’s life, told through the lives of people in his life.
This watch’s story picks up in 1968, when it was purchased brand new, in of all places, Switzerland, by a man who would become Tom’s father-in-law. That man, Bill, a veteran of WWII, was buying it for his father, Bill Sr.
Tom couldn’t tell me the occasion for the gift (for a birthday?, to celebrate retirement?). In the end, why it was purchased wasn’t that important. What was important, was the fact that it was a watch being given to one family member by another - the theme of this watch’s story.
Another question Tom didn't know the answer to was, “why a Milgauss?” I’m always curious about the decision process behind the selection of a watch, especially models we hear were slow sellers back in the day. Tom speculated that maybe Bill ultimately decided on the Milgauss because the jeweler offered him a discount on it… Of course, this is totally plausible given what we’ve heard about the lack of demand for the model. Better to move it along than have it sit in a display case for years, which we’ve all heard was the case with many oddball, funky Rolex.
I gather Bill Sr. wore his gift up until he passed away. It was at this point that his son inherited it, but not in the traditional way. Despite his father willing it to him, Bill ended up purchasing it from his father’s estate. You see, many of his father’s personal effects (antiques, paintings, etc.) were going up for auction and Bill decided to treat his father’s watch like one of those items. He came to terms with his siblings to purchase it for what he originally paid back in 1968.
So this Milgauss ended up staying in the family, now on the wrist of Bill Jr. who wore it in an unconventional way. Instead of the case balanced atop his wrist, he wore it off-center, the dial tilting inward at a 45 degree angle.
It was this unusual, slanted-styling that caught the attention of Tom, not the fact that his father-in-law wore a Milgauss - or a Rolex for that matter. He explained to me the reason Bill wore it askew was a throwback to his days in the military as a bombardier. Back then, high in the sky, wearing it off-kilter allowed him to check the time at a glance, without having to remove his hand from operating the bombsight.
It seemed Tom and Bill always had a good relationship. I imagine all the conversations the two had over the years while sitting on the couch or across the dinner table, especially when the family would get together for the holidays. I can picture all the photographs taken at parties, and outdoors, this Milgauss on Bill’s wrist, but out of focus. The focal point of the picture was capturing the occasion and time the two spent together.
Other than knowing the lineage of Bill’s watch - how it was first a gift, then was passed down - I don't think Tom gave it much thought. (He certainly didn’t think of it the way us watch nerds think about watches.) Tom’s daily thoughts were centered around matters of the family, like helping raise three children. And when his children’s grandfather wasn’t in the best of health, Tom’s thoughts turned to doing what he could to help care for Bill in the last couple months of his life. This is how Tom came to be the next owner of this Milgauss. When Bill past away, his wife gave her late husband’s watch to her son-in-law as a memento. With Tom’s newfound ownership of the watch, essentially three generations have worn it.
It’s been twelve years since Bill passed. Twelve years that Tom has been wearing this watch. It’s turned out to be an object that connects the men of this family.
It goes without saying this watch is special to both Tom and Colleen (after all it was Colleen’s dad’s watch before it was her husband’s). But only recently have they learned about how special it is to watch collectors. Likely visits to the their jeweler in recent years has revealed to them the extent of what he has. And you’ve probably noticed, to go along with this beautiful, honest watch is the original box and stacks of crisp paperwork. I like to think that the Bill’s careers - in the Insurance business - explains why all the records for this Milgauss were saved.
Before I had a chance to question Tom about his plans for his Milgauss, he let it be known that it would eventually be passed down to one of their children (or one of he and Colleen’s nine grandchildren). Whether it be this watch, or the Shinolas he’s been collecting of late, Tom plans to carry on the tradition of gifting and passing down watches to men in the family…