How, when, where, who, but above all why? Speculation about an unusual, mystery Tudor.
He slapped the wad of cash on the table. “Four thousand euros. Take it or leave it.” Ordinarily, my penury would dictate that such a tempting sum, for a watch of questionable provenance, would be a case of doing a Steve Miller: “Take the money and run.” The offer, admittedly bolstered by much champagne, was made by one of the world’s leading watch experts. And while I am no poker player, I figured that if he was prepared to offer €4k on the strength of an image on an iPhone, maybe there was more to my Tudor 7928 “frankenwatch” than meets the eye…
There is no touchier topic in the watch world than fakery. Merely say the “f” word in the presence of some brands and you are reduced to leper status – even if you were doing an exposé. It’s almost a case of fingers-in-the-ears, nananana-we’re-not-listening denial. The watch brands have had enough, but the plague is now unstoppable, like the sale of narcotics.
Counterfeiters, in addition to being low-life conmen, have cost the industry millions. Buy a fake anything, and you’re firstly condoning crime and secondly admitting that you’re a phoney. “Frankenwatches”, however, although often unfairly grouped with fakes, are another story entirely – unless they’re being passed off as something “real”.
For this enthusiast, a frankenwatch is any timepiece made up of legitimate, factory parts, but which does not constitute something that left the factory. A purist, however, might even call any watch a frankenwatch if it no longer features, say, its original dial but a factory replacement – and that would include many of the world’s “Paul Newman” Daytonas, which may have originally worn standard dials.
Perfect examples of frankenwatches abound in my own collection. My IWC Mk X has a new-old-stock dial, changed because the original was decayed beyond legibility, yet Italian and Japanese enthusiasts would think I should be hung, drawn and quartered. I have a 100-per-cent legit 1972 Rolex Air King, yet the bracelet is a solid-link Oyster-type, which is not the correct one for the watch; it should have the version with folded-metal links. Even worse, the original, knackered silver dial was replaced with a black dial from the same vintage.
So is it still a Rolex Air King? Absolutely: it’s just not in the state that it left the factory. Without wishing to raise the subject of John Mayer’s Rolexes, vintage watches, like vintage cars, are bound to contain replacement parts. Any collector who expects, say, a 1929 Alfa-Romeo to contain the original tankful of gas needs his head examined. Same goes for the leather strap on a 50-year-old watch, let alone certain elements of the gear train.
Frankenwatches, like frankencars, are more common than you might think, and there are unscrupulous dealers who make up imaginary pieces from factory parts, which they then sell as “prototypes” or “transitional” models. This article deals with one watch that, thanks to this exposure, never can be passed off as anything other than what it is: a “bitsa”. But how it came about is hard to determine as it is unlikely that people faked Tudors in 1964. As a slice of watch lore, the tale is fascinating and it would be the kind of urban-myth-in-the-making that collectors love recounting if the particulars were not made available to prevent an unscrupulous vendor from claiming it to be some long-lost Tudor.
“Alleged” Tudor Oyster-Prince Submariner Model 7928, Serial No 736214, is a curiosity. I found it in April in a watch-and-clock jumble sale, sitting there looking forlorn. It was clear that the bezel was not of Tudor issue, but everything else seemed “correct” – to anyone, that is, who’s not a Tudor aficionado. Both the vendor and I had enough gaps in our knowledge to know something was wrong, but not quite what – its Plexiglas bezel aside. Blue dial with a Tudor rose emblem rather than the shield logo? Wrong crown? A mess.
Even so, with a price on it of only £750, when knackered Tudor 7928s go for at least four times that, it was immediately apparent that the dealer was just clearing it for parts. Aside from its wildly erratic running, his main concern was the hands: blue dial Tudors should have “snowflake” hands. But there was something else amiss, that transparent bezel notwithstanding: it was obviously and certifiably a 7928 according to the case numbers, but 7928s were never issued with blue dials, full stop.
Ah, what the heck. I’d take a punt on it. Money didn’t change hands. We swapped bits and pieces from my stall’s pile of straps and boxes and watches – a late 1970s Wittnauer in mint condition, some Seiko boxes, etc. The Tudor was so odd that I couldn’t resist. Should it prove irreparable, the case and back were worth something to a collector for restorations.
But why would I even look twice at what seemed to be a not-quite-kosher version of the 7928? Among Tudor enthusiasts, the 7928 is a much-loved precursor to the more familiar models with “snowflake” hands, and is far less distinguishable from its arguably superior Rolex Submariner sibling. It is therefore regarded as something akin to a “baby Rolex 5512/5513”. The irony is that the prices for 7928s are now commonly £5000-£20,000 – what you would have paid for a decent Rolex Submariner not so long ago. Some commentators have even argued that movement and dial logo aside, it is a 5513.
Irrespective of such wishful thinking, the Tudor 7928 is simply a handsome period diving watch. As bracelets often disappear from 50-year-old, professional-usage watches – or have simply worn out – the 7928 has also been something of a poster child for the over-under cloth strap brigade. And that’s how I wore this particular blue-hued freak until I found a mock Oyster bracelet.
Once home, I photographed it and sent the images to some online Tudor mavens. One dismissed it outright; the other was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt because the engraving on the back seemed utterly correct, right down to the distorted “I”s. I continued to surf and found the exact same watch on an Asian collectors’ website, but in near-perfect condition, on a bracelet and with its bezel in unfaded condition. One other difference: its bezel had silver numbers while mine has copper/gold. The translation of the text deemed that one a fake, or questionable at best.
Handing mine to the watchmaker I use, I was told that the back had been cross-threaded. His deft work released it to reveal an ETA 2452 automatic movement – absolutely not what was found in 7928s, nor in the model that would replace it, but at least it was genuine ETA of the correct period. He, too, was adamant that the case and back were absolutely genuine. A full service later, and I had a Tudor-of-sorts running perfectly. And I had fallen in love with it. As you would a stray mongrel mutt that captured your heart – to hell with Crufts winners.
Waiting for the inevitable
I continued to research the watch while anticipating the report from the watchmaker, one who knows his Rolexes intimately. After he had it apart, discretion dictated that he would not commit to its origins, beyond the aforementioned feeling that, at the very least, the case and case back were genuine parts.
Next I spoke to industry expert Justin Koullapis of The Watch Club, who agreed that it was peculiar for someone in the 1960s to go to the trouble of faking a Tudor when there would have been no market for it. “To come up with something like that would have required a considerable investment in somebody’s time and resources, not to mention that the work appears to have been done to a good standard,” he said.
“When I play through possible scenarios, there are a few that seem plausible. What if a client had presented their local watchmaker with a flooded watch, ruined by seawater ingress? It is possible, even likely, that a resourceful watchmaker might have found a suitable movement in order to get the client’s watch back to working order. But it still seems like a lot of trouble to go to for a comparatively low return, if the watch were a modern product set out to deceive.”
In the detail
Koullapis added to my hopes that the watch could possibly be an unusual or out-of-character prototype. My suppositions were based on a few salient points, not least being the unusual bezel. Were one to take a few dozen watches with rotating bezels and identical diameters, there’s a very good chance that some would be interchangeable. This bezel could have come from anything. It wouldn’t rotate, but we couldn’t find out if it was merely stuck or deliberately glued in place because experience taught my watchmaker that releasing an aged plastic bezel would most likely shatter it.
That begged more questions: why would anyone glue a bezel in place? The simple answer is that it would only be done so if the bezel was there solely for looks, possibly to see how blue worked on that model. But what about that dial? It’s simply too “right”, as these images show. If some faker produced it, his skill was peerless.
Its condition further suggested a trial run to test the colour: there were no locating pins on the back of the dial, which would be the case if one didn’t know what movement it would be protecting. Instead, five perfectly positioned dots of adhesive located the dial.
As for the ETA movement, a 7928 would have been fitted with Tudor Calibre 390. The 7928 watch’s successors in the 1960s used ETA movements, but nowhere could I find one fitted with an ETA 2452. That said, the ETA calibres of that period were related and in many ways similar, so could this too be a case of trying out the 2452 for size?
As Rolex is known for its reticence when it comes to dealing with vintage watches, I can only imagine their horror upon learning of this miscreant, but they were forthcoming in their response. From Tudor, the company perspective on the watch is:
- The caseback with recessed fluting (poorly defined) is not correct for this model type. This type is used on the 7016/0 model.
- The movement is incorrect (Tudor calibre 390 should be fitted in 7928 models) and this is not a Tudor movement as can be seen by the use of Incabloc (Tudor use Kif) balance shock settings. The dial side of the base plate should have “Tudor Genève” and the calibre reference engraved. Calendar components would not be left in place on a non-date calibre.
- The dial looks correct for a 7928 but the dial feet have been removed as they would only align with the correct Tudor 390 calibre.
- The winding crown would have been a Rolex item but of an earlier type.
- The bezel insert is fake for a gold Rolex Submariner (Steel and gold model Subs did not exist at this time in Rolex or Tudor models) and the font is incorrect with a low set glued-in luminous dot.
It was summarised: “The conclusion must be that this has been made up from bits and is not the quality construction of a Tudor prototype or pre-production mule.” Basically confirming some of what I already knew, they feel that it did not come from the Tudor works, and they later stated that the serial number was not theirs. As Rolex serial numbers are mysteries to rank alongside “Who was Jack the Ripper?”, I will leave it to Rolex and Tudor enthusiasts to ponder Serial No 736214.
Regardless, this attention grabber has given me more pleasure than any “genuine” watch I have in my arsenal. Three further Rolex/Tudor experts are convinced that it is a prototype, which – again – Rolex categorically denies. It now wears the correct period bracelet, found in New York.
But I simply say, to people who ask about it: “This watch doesn’t actually exist.”
© 2015 Ken Kessler
All photos © 2015 Andrew Morgan at Watchfinder