Source: Bonhams

A Beautiful Rolex Submariner From the Commander of Sealab III

A well-worn diver from a genuine aquanaut.

Military provenance is one of the easiest ways to add tons of value to a vintage Rolex. While this Submariner didn't belong to James Bond himself, it was on the wrist of the commander of the U.S. Navy's Sealab III mission, and now it's hitting the auction block. 

Commander Jackson Maxwell Tomsky hailed from San Francisco and enlisted in the Navy during World War II. After the war ended, he bounced around a few diving-related Navy jobs before he ended up running the Sealab III mission in 1969. The third installment of a Navy research program placed a habitable capsule 600 feet below the ocean (note the 660ft depth rating on this Submariner) that aquanauts could live in for two-month stints.

Forget the provenance, this is one beautiful Submariner.
Forget the provenance, this is one beautiful Submariner.
Source: Bonhams

The watch comes from the family of the original owner, which vouches for its authenticity, though it doesn't come with government documentation or paperwork. Tomsky's granddaughter's word and the "Sealab 3" engraving on the caseback are all we have to go on. The U.S. Navy did not issue Rolex watches to combat divers during this era (unlike, say, the British Ministry of Defense), and a Submariner associated with U.S. military history is rare, indeed. 

The caseback engraving is the biggest indicator of this watch's history.
The caseback engraving is the biggest indicator of this watch's history.
Source: Bonhams

Even if we ignore the provenance entirely, this is an incredible Submariner. The bezel, which started as black, has faded to an almost-white shade of gray, which is called "ghosting" in vintage-Rolex parlance. This is one of the most evenly and drastically ghosted bezels I've seen. Subs at this time had gilt dials, with all-gold printing, and the Rolex logo at 12 o'clock and depth rating at 6 o'clock are the exact same color, one very similar to the creamy, custard color the luminous markers and hands have turned. There's some flaking on the black dial, but it's not inconsistent with the wear-and-tear seen across the rest of the watch. The movement inside looks almost brand-new. 

Inside, the watch looks almost brand-new.
Inside, the watch looks almost brand-new.
Source: Bonhams

It's worth noting that Sealab III encountered a few problems. During an underwater mission to repair the capsule in 1969, just two days after it launched, a diver died from of a mix of technical problems and human error, according to the Navy's assessment. Tomsky was formally reprimanded, though it didn't end his career. One has to believe that this blemish on the watch's history, by association with its former owner, will negatively affect the final auction price. 

This Rolex Submariner is lot 152 in Bonhams's upcoming Dec. 8 sale in New York. It carries an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. 

 

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