If I have to choose between two vintage Rolex, in most cases, I’ll take the one with proven provenance over the better condition example. For me, (these type of) watches offer a lot more than just peace of mind that I’m not dealing with a frankenwatch. They offer a story, which is something I value highly. That story, told by someone close to the watch, gives it a soul to along with its body of full of scratches and patina.
As someone who bought his first Rolex twenty-years ago and still wears it, when I happen upon someone who still has their watch after thirty, forty, fifty years, the experience reinvigorates my passion for watches.
Which brings me to Tom and his vintage Milgauss. If you don't know, it’s a reference 1019, in production from around 19XX up until 1989 or so. Originally designed for scientists and professionals working around magnetic fields, all Milgauss have an iron core protecting it’s movement from the adverse effects of x-rays, etc. The name Milgauss means …. Most people’s day job didn't necessitate this over-engineering and therefore it stands to reason would-be customers had a hard time justify the extra cost and increased case size that came with this accuracy safeguard. Needless to say, the Milgauss was a bit of a tough sell, eventually being discontinued for almost two decades.
Enough history, time for present day… When I met Tom I didn't recognize he was wearing a Milgauss (shame on me). I pride myself in my watch-spotting abilities, and I know about 1019s, but I think I mistook it initially because it’s such a rare sighting (even in the watch community it seldom makes an appearance). So you can imagine it was the furthest watch from my mind when I approached Tom. He was a customer, walking into my off the street, accompanying his wife shopping. On first glance (and second glance) I thought he was wearing a Datejust. It wasn’t until I caught it in just the right lighting at just the right angle that the 38.5mm case glinted back at me. All of a sudden the red capital letter font hit me. And boy did it hit me. I couldn’t let this rare opportunity pass me by. I had to talk to Tom about his watch…
That was back in February. And lucky for me Tom put up with my geekiness and rambling and told me a quick backstory about it - with some details filled in by his wife, Colleen. It turns out she’s a big part of the watch’s story... Tom and his wife did business with me that day, but it was hearing about Tom’s Milgauss that really made my day. The rest of the day I couldn’t get my lucky interaction off my mind. So when I send a follow up email thanking them for shopping and taking the time to share his watch, I added that I’d love to write about it if he was up for it... I was thrilled when he replied back yes, “he’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. We kept in touch through email over the next several months, until finally, our schedules aligned and we set time and place to meet.
I was excited to meet with Tom and get a little more than the CliffsNotes version of the watch’s history. I prompted Tom with a few questions and turned the mic over to him. I was all ears listening to his recollection and personal experience with this Milgauss…
The watch’s story starts in 1968. It was purchased brand-new in Switzerland, of all places, by a man who would later become Tom’s father-in-law. That man, Bill, who served his country as a bombardier in WWII, was buying it for his father, Bill Sr.
Tom doesn’t know the occasion for the gift (for a birthday?, to celebrate retirement?). After hearing Tom’s story, I came to realize why it was purchased wasn’t that important. What was important is the fact that it was a watch given to one family member by another. This would become a theme to the watch’s story.
Another question Tom didn't know the answer to was, “Why a Milgauss?” I’m always curious as to the reason behind selection of a model, especially models we hear about being runts of the litter. What drew someone to see something, in say a Paul Newman, before it became a “Paul Newman”…? Tom speculated that maybe his father-in-law bought it because he the jeweler offered him a discount. This is plausible given what we’ve heard about the salability of the model. Better to move it along than have it sit in a display case for years, which we’ve all heard was case with many oddball, funky Rolex.
I gathered Bill Sr. wore the gift from his son up until he passed away, at which point his son “inherited” it, but not in the traditional way. His father did leave it to him in his will, but Bill Jr. opted to purchase it from the estate. A lot of personal effects of his dad’s (antiques, paintings, etc.) were being auctioned and Bill decided treated the watch like one of those items. He came to terms with his siblings to purchase it for what originally paid in 1968.
Bill took over ownership of the watch he originally intended for his father. Bill usually had the watch on in the presence of Tom, who became part of the family when he married Bill’s daughter, Colleen. He fondly recalls seeing the watch adorning his father-in-law’s wrist. He didn't know it was a “Milgauss.” What he paid attention to was the way his father-in-law wore it, which was on an slanted angle, the dial turned in at a 45 degree angle. He explained to me the reason for the cockeyed styling had nothing to do with style, everything to do with Bill’s tour as a bombardier. His important duty demanded focus and that his hands be gripped, ready for action on the turret. Even removing his hand for a second, rotate his wrist to check the time, could lead to a missed chance to bomb a target. So the angling of the watch enabled him to glance without disturbing his grip and readiness. I imagine his preference is similar to how Pilot’s wore their watches outside their jacket for easy reading while maintaining handling.
It seems to me that Tom and Bill have always had a good relationship. I can imagine all the conversations the two have had during family dinners at holiday time. I can picture all the family photos taken - with both men ever-present. Tom has been happily married to Bill’s little girl for XX years. In that time, they had three children. No doubt he’s taken care of his kids and wife by by way of his career, but like many a husband and father, the more important role he’s played is supporting by way of his love for them, especially when times are tough, like when Bill wasn’t in the best of health… Tom helped to take care his wife’s father, his children’s grandfather. This is how Tom came to inherit the Milgauss. Bill’s wife gave it to him as a memento of her late husband - as a thank you to Tom for being a good “son.” With Tom’s newfound care-taking of the watch, essentially three generations have owned and worn this Milgauss.
It’s been twelve years since Bill passed. Like the men before him, Tom has worn this watch. It’s a solitary object that connects the men of this family and serves to traces their lives.
It goes without saying this watch is special to Tom and Colleen. But only recently have they learned about how special it is (in terms of its collectibility). Likely Tom’s visits to the their jeweler revealed the extent of what he had. As you may have guessed, the watch has been serviced. Luckily the important stuff remains intact: the dial and hands. You’ve probably also noticed theres a nice box and loads of crisp paperwork that accompany it. I’d like to think Bill’s career as an insurance agent is a big reason why all this documentation was saved…
Tom wears this watch a lot. When he’s not wearing it, like on the weekends, he grabs one of his Shinolas. He’s been buying them here and there to hand out to his grandkids someday… As for this Milgauss, he likes the idea of being owned by five generations…