A former CIA agent talks about the iconic black ops watches

Ever since James Bond sported the iconic Rolex Submariner 6538 in 1962 Dr No, watches and espionage are linked in the popular imagination. But stylish and reliable watches aren’t just for fictional secret agents. In the military and intelligence fields, many watches go beyond being mere fashion accessories and have real-world utility. Coffee or Die Magazine sat with the former CIA agent behind Spy Watchesan Instagram page dedicated to highlighting the intersection between watches, espionage and military service – to talk about iconic tactical watches, why some special ops units favor certain watch brands, and the pitfalls of smart technology.

The WOE curator asked to remain anonymous. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

James Bond sporting the iconic Rolex Submariner 6538. Photo by Watches of Espionage Instagram.

COD: What inspired you to create spy watches?

MISFORTUNE: A little over a year ago I realized that no one was really posting about the relationship between watches and espionage. It was just a whim, but it really transformed over time. I started out by posting my watches with some historic photos, but that really morphed over time and turned more towards the wider community.

COD: What do you think is the appeal of mixing classic watches and espionage?

MISFORTUNE: It’s dual. The first is obviously Hollywood. You go back to Ian Fleming and James Bond, but really any spy movie you see has a watch in it – either a real watch, like an Omega or a Rolex, or some spy gadget of some sort. So the relationship between watches and espionage is truly perpetuated by Hollywood for the common man.

There is also a very long tradition – especially in the special ops and intelligence communities – of individuals wearing high-end watches for operational purposes. They were originally designed as tools for missions, not fashion statements. If you go back to the Battle of Normandy, you can find watches that these guys wore when they went to the beaches because they needed a sturdy tool to get to that beach. If you go back to Vietnam, SEALs and PCs wore Tudors and Seikos. It wasn’t a fashion statement; they needed these reliable tools.

SEALs and PCs began wearing Tudor watches during the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of Instagram Spy Watches.

Almost all major conflicts have corresponding watches. At the start of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, everyone used G-Shocks or Garmins because they needed a good tool – there was a practical use for it. At The Agency, you can’t necessarily carry a smartwatch or phone everywhere you go because of the metadata collected, so you need a good reliable watch.

COD: Choosing a watch doesn’t seem to be all about practicality. Why do some watches have such strong ties to military units? Is it part of their culture?

MISFORTUNE: Military units really develop strong cultures. For example, all the pilots in a squadron might really want a particular watch because all of their instructors wore that watch. Another good example is the Navy SEALs. They have a strong relationship with Panerai. A Panerai watch is no longer a practical tool. I imagine when the guys went on the bin Laden raid, they weren’t wearing Panerai. They were probably carrying a Garmin or a G-Shock or something. But they kind of identified with that brand the same way the special forces community identified with Rolex as a kind of part of their heritage.

To this day, SF guys want Rolex Submariners because three generations of members of that community bought them when they finished the Q course, or whatever it was called back then. So a lot of it is kind of sentimental value.

It’s the same with American pilots. I’m sure a lot of guys wear them CBI watches on a mission, but I think the underlying reasoning is that they want to put their unit’s emblem on it so that when they leave the military and go out to do something different, they can look at that watch and reflect at this time.

COD: What are the most iconic and established pairings between specific watches and units?

MISFORTUNE: Rolex is probably transversal to all the agencies and to the Agency. Panerai has a strong connection with the SEAL teams, but Rolex and the SEALs also have a strong connection. Less now, but You sleep – a sub-brand of Rolex – have a close connection to Vietnam’s SEALs. Seiko is another brand with deep ties to the military. They make cheaper tool watches and many watches designed specifically for diving. I think SEALs and Special Forces issued them in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. Breitling has pretty strong ties to pilots, although some Delta guys have had custom Breitlings made for them.

Seiko Watches
Seiko divers are popular for their sturdiness and affordability. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Now the Agency is different, because you normally work alone, so you see more individualism in the Agency. If every case officer in the world was wearing, say, a green Rolex Submariner, that’s obviously a problem. So there are no real trends. You see a lot of Rolex, Breitling, Panerai and Omega, but it’s not like everyone is wearing the same one.

COD: Are there any new brands entering this niche of mixing military tool watches with automatic movements typical of classic watches?

MISFORTUNE: There are plenty of micro brands that have popped up lately, made either by active men or by veterans. Blood Instruments – founded by Navy veterans – is probably the biggest you see. Rescue is another, founded by a SEAL. There are dozens of them. Bremont is another newer company with a strong military focus.

COD: Are there any watches you drool over? If money or supplies weren’t an issue, what watch would you put on your wrist?

MISFORTUNE: What I’m really interested in now are vintage watches, especially military Tudors – the ones that would have been issued to special ops units in the 60s, 70s and 80s. They’re actually not incredibly expensive in the watches, given that a new Submariner could cost $20,000. You can get these vintage Tudors – if you can find them – for half. I think it’s something important. There’s this tendency to want the most expensive watch, like those brand new watches you’ll never get Patek-Philippe. That’s kind of where things have evolved over the last two years, but I’ve sort of gone in the opposite direction. I’m more interested in finding the real tool watches you don’t need baby, watches designed and developed to be in the mud or to be used underwater. I’m more interested in that than a guy who just spent $5 million.

MACV-SOG members regularly wore the Seiko Automatic 6619-8060 in the field. Photo courtesy of Instagram Spy Watches.

COD: For people interested in owning a piece of history and getting into watches, what brands and models should they consider?

MISFORTUNE: Seiko has some amazing watches for under $1000 that are phenomenal. They are the Toyota of watches. They have very close ties to the military, intelligence and national security communities as a whole. The second part being that if you are a veteran I would look at some of these micro brands like Sangin, Resco and Bremont.

COD: How can people support your page?

MISFORTUNE: I wrote a few posts on the page and always donated every penny of that money to Foundation of the third option, which supports the Agency’s paramilitary officers. I always ask people who want to support Spy Watches instead donate to Third Option.

Read more : Why Navy SEALs in Vietnam wore bluejeans instead of jungle fatigues

About Robert L. Thomas

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