Most likely, you’re at least passingly familiar with the fact that Rolex made a practice of selling watches to British officers held in German POW camps during World War II, with payment not expected until after the war’s conclusion. The Brits were singled out as it was generally believed that their word was bond, and Hans Wilsdorf had a soft spot for England, as he had originally started up his business there.
In this day and age, the practice of selling a watch now and asking for payment at some undisclosed time in the future (and relying on the watches owner to remain true to the bargain) seems like a far-fetched ideal. Yet it was a practice that worked – a great many servicemen came home from the war sporting Swiss timepiece (while other brands weren’t quite as generous in their offers as Rolex, they did indeed work to cash in on the literally-captive audience).
Let’s get back to the specific Rolex at hand, a Rolex Oyster that was purchased by a Clive James Nutting, Corporal in the Royal Corps of Signals, who was a prisoner in Stalag Luft III from 1939 to 1945. With the help of Alan Downing, a fuller picture has been painted of some of the things that Nutting went through at the camp (including pictures from his diary), as well as correspondence between Nutting and Hans Wilsforf. While this is centered around an Antiquorum Geneva auction that happened in 2007, the story is a great illumination of how things worked to get these Rolex watches into the hands of POWs. Head on over to TimeZone for parts one and two.