Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of new editorial columns by our senior editorial staff. Starting this week, every Monday morning, aBlogtoWatch aims to bring you a more personal, eclectic editorial expression than our usual news and experimental reviews. This new initiative gives our community a chance to get to know our aBlogtoWatch team members better as individuals and foster a new kind of discussion removed from the usual confines of the news cycle. As much as we enjoy creating these columns, we hope you enjoy reading and interacting with them as well.
As a largely solitary, inward-facing endeavor, viewing enthusiasm breeds cynicism. Over time, watch collectors often succumb to their beliefs and tastes, define a niche that suits them, and reflexively dismiss anything outside of their own preconceived notions. This is easy to think of as the weight of inertia and the natural human drive for validation convinces us that the way we are gathering is the “right way” and subsequently some other way. It must be “wrong” to watch the excitement of the watch. Until recently, I was slipping into this same line of thinking. After a decade of collecting through early eclectic phases from vintage Soviet watchmakers to classic Seiko, ’70s Omega and beyond, I’ve settled into a comfortable rhythm of collecting sports chronographs, vintage-inspired divers and the occasional outfit. See I’m taking fewer risks with my collection, and the mantra that guided my approach to watches from the beginning (previously pursued in a career in automotive media) — “Dare to be different” — is increasingly fading from view. A watch changed all that and reminded me that, in some ways, the most powerful part of a timepiece is its ability to connect people from different times and places around a simple, timeless machine. Enter this circa 1941 Rolex Oyster Flat Back.
I caught sight of this piece while exploring the aisles of the 2022 Las Vegas Antique Jewelry and Watch Show with ABlogtoWatch founder Ariel Adams, and despite every collecting habit and stylistic inspiration I’ve built up over the years in the watch business, I bought it on the spot.
Taken on its own, the Oyster Flat Back is a classic early Rolex price. Although accustomed to being only 30mm-wide enough for modern tastes, the stainless steel case still retains many of the features that define the look of Rolex case design. While the large 34mm-wide bubbleback line carries much of this era’s weight in Rolex enthusiast circles, this small flatback design is a clear expression of where the brand has gone, with clean no-nonsense tapering lugs, a raised flat polished bezel, and a gently rounded case side profile. The Oyster series has remained a staple for decades.
In fact, it’s the dial that really captures the imagination here. For an 81-year-old watch, the patina is remarkably even, aging the main dial surface to a warm cream tone, while the radium lume takes on a striking caramel khaki color that many manufacturers are looking to emulate in tinted Super-Luminova these days. . The 6 o’clock running seconds subdial is a wonderfully evocative display of early 20th century graphic design, with sweeping serif numerals and a Railway A dramatic blue needle level around the hand. With the main handset, the watch shows the trademark Rolex “Mercedes” handset in one of its earliest forms, with an elaborate tapering shape that makes this design impressive for such a small timepiece. What made it more than just another watch in a display full of vintage Rolex models, however, was the text at 12 o’clock. Jeweler-signature dials are popular in vintage enthusiast circles, and collectors like Tiffany & Co. Or seek out well-known jewelry dealers like Turler as a way to set vintage timepieces apart from the crowd. P. Orr & Sons, on the other hand, was not a jeweler I had ever heard of, and the two listed cities on the dial immediately blew my mind. For the uninitiated, no map of the modern world has Madras or Rangoon. Now known as Chennai, India and Yangon, Myanmar respectively, at the time, these two cities were some of the brightest jewels in the crown of British-controlled South Asia. With two simple lines of text, this timepiece opens the door to another world that has long since disappeared in the wake of world war, colonization and nearly a century of growth.
My first thoughts centered not on any romantic notion of the often brutal British Raj, but on something altogether more pulpier and less intellectual. If Indiana Jones wore a watch, I theorized, It will be. For a while, I was content with the notion of this watch on Harrison Ford’s wrist as he hacked his way through jungle undergrowth and taunted Nazi officials. Of course, truth is better than any fiction, and the focus quickly turned to discovering the real story behind this little Rolex.
Despite repeated attempts to reach P. Orr & Sons and its representatives, the brand declined to comment for this story, which is largely fragmentary but points to a potentially fascinating legacy. P. Orr & Sons still exists and was originally founded in 1846 by Scotsman Peter Orr. The first P. Orr & Sons retail showroom opened in 1879, on the fashionable Anna Salai Road in the heart of Chennai (formerly Madras), India. The original location is now a historic landmark in the city of Chennai and has a long and fascinating heritage associated with the British royal family – in fact, the first P. Orr & Sons store was inaugurated in 1879 by the future King George. V and Queen Mary. It also boasts of being the first Rolex authorized dealer anywhere in India. As for the exact history of this watch, the production serial number Oyster Flat dates to mid-1941. Given the time it took to transport the watch from Switzerland to a goldsmith in India or Myanmar (formerly Burma), this particular piece may have hit the shelf as World War II entered the region. Although it is far from a standard-issue military timepiece, it may have been purchased by some soldier or officer on the way to defend the region against an impending Japanese invasion, or to survive the long, bloody Burma Campaign that began in December. 1941 led to the end of the war in late 1945. Speculation also did not spread until the end of the war and the Odyssey carried the watch from South Asia to a vintage dealer’s shelf in New York and eventually lost to the sands of Las Vegas trade show time.
However, this kind of mystery is what gives this Rolex its power. It’s more than just a clock — it’s a timeless connection to a world that doesn’t exist, and a potential conduit for nearly endless stories. Is it perfect? Far from it. It’s still very small, the case has its fair share of scratches and dings, and the movement inside definitely needs servicing. But all these obstacles aside, this watch is a powerful reminder of the true joy of watch collecting. A beautifully designed, deeply expressive machine window. For that reason alone, it’s hard not to love this war-era Rolex Oyster Flat Back, and I’m looking to make a custom Bund strap to give it more presence on the wrist.