Time bandits

Rich people love them. Celebrities adore them. Adventurers won't leave home without them. Sadly, they're also the mugger's watch of choice. What is it about a Rolex?

The best unsolicited advertisement Rolex ever received was in 1927, when a London typist called Mercedes Gleitze emerged from the sea at Dover after becoming the first Englishwoman to swim the Channel. Waving to well-wishers, she revealed a Rolex Oyster clamped to her wrist, still ticking after 15 hours in the water. It was a marketing stroke to die for. Myriad virtues were embodied in the single image of Ms Gleitze's extended arm: among them youth, endurance, athleticism, coolness, precision under stress, waterproof-ness and the indefinable cachet of Venus-rising- from-the-waves. Rolex's reputation as the timepiece of choice for sportsmen, pilots, explorers and navigators was guaranteed. Unfortunately, more recently they've also become the timepiece du choix for another group: today's niche robbers, the so-called Rolex Raiders.

Indeed, if one of Ms Gleitze's descendants were to try to emulate her swim in 1999, two things would happen. An unknown assailant would dash up, just at the moment of triumph, grab her arm, uncouple the watch and disappear through the crowd. And an article would appear in the following day's newspaper saying how jolly naff it was for Mercedes to be wearing the thing in the first place.

What is it with Rolexes? In the last three years, street robberies in London have increased by 16 per cent. Since January this year, more than 160 timepieces have been whipped from the wrists of the rich and famous - and many of them have been the distinctive and sparkling Oyster Royal and Oyster Perpetual.

Former Page-three girl Jilly Johnson had her pounds 5,000 watch snatched as she sat in a Bayswater traffic jam. Caprice Bourret, the undies model turned singer, was relieved of her watch (and handbag and mobile phone) by a masked gang in Hampstead. Britt Ekland had her pounds 10,000 Rolex grabbed outside a supermarket in Chelsea. The chef Anton Mosimann was attacked in the street, outside his Kensington house, and his wife Kathrin's Rolex went west.

In June this year, Robert Robinson, the chortling radio quizmaster, lost his Oyster Royal when muggers beat him up in Chelsea. Only last week, the film director Ridley Scott's 94-year-old mother was burgled in Hampstead and her pounds 6,000 Rolex removed. More recently still, Anthea Turner, the television presenter, was sitting with friends in a Range Rover outside Stringfellow's nightclub when a man opened the door, lunged in, grabbed the eight-year-old daughter of millionaire businessman Ivor Jacobs, and forced him to hand over his pounds 20,000 Rolex Oyster Quartz Day-Date special.

The police are keen to stress the random nature of the attacks. Andy Trotter, the stylishly titled Head of Crime in Central London, said the muggers "are opportunistic thieves, they are disorganised and they will look around for likely targets. We see them wandering around, looking for targets, losing targets and finding another." Disconcertingly, different police reports variously suggest the bad guys are based in "south London", "the north west" of London and "east London".

All are agreed, however, that they travel to ritzier parts of town in search of jewel-dripping victims. The police have been tracking the watch thieves through surveillance cameras, and have sent plain-clothes officers on to the street, to stand around ostentatiously wearing Rolexes and acting dim. But why Rolexes? Surely their position as the top status symbol slipped years ago. Aren't they now about as up-to-date as an E-type Jaguar? Or have we missed something? Do they secretly possess a cachet on the international villainy market unguessed at by their watch-making rivals?

"For me, Rolexes are too flashy and too obviously trying to show your wealth on your sleeve - although there's a certain type of macho man who is perfectly at home with them," said Geordie Greig, the Tatler's new editor and arbiter of taste to the fashionable upper-classes. "If you're trying to show some style, you definitely wouldn't wear gold. A far better choice would be a Patek Philippe 5.35 with a silver or platinum case, a black strap and all its clever gadgets cunningly concealed."

The design guru Stephen Bayley couldn't disagree more. "I've been a Rolex wearer for ever," he said. "A steel Rolex is a perfect mechanism, self- winding, automatic, lasting for ever, utterly timeless. It's `the power of knowledge objectified', as Marx said about industry. It's very satisfying emotionally, poetically. It gives me pleasure every day. There was a moment, 10 years ago, when it seemed to be acquiring values quite alien to mine. But Rolex is still pre-eminent. Once you've graduated from a Timex, it's the only place to go."

Amid such discussion, it's easy to forget that Rolex started life not as a style object but as a serious chronometer. It was the brainchild of Hans Wilsdorf, a Bavarian-born horologist living in London. He and his brother-in-law formed a clockmaking firm called Wilsdorf & Davis in Hatton Garden in 1905, just as the first wristwatches were starting to appear on both sides of the Atlantic. They experimented with various models and gave them names: the Unicorn, the Marconi, the Rolco and Tudor - then, in 1908, hit on "Rolex" as an all-purpose word suggesting perpetual motion. When the First World War broke out, and all things German were suddenly anathema, Rolex became the company's name.

Wilsdorf was the first man to bring the technology of the testing laboratory (the screw-down winding crown, the automatic-winding rotor, the water-resistant cog) into a box strapped to your wrist. In 1926, he produced the first completely waterproof watch (a year before Mercedes went on her historic swim). In 1945, he invented the Datejust, the first wristwatch to show the date on the dial; then in 1956 trumped it with the Day-Date, showing the very-easily-confused traveller which day of the week he was in.

Rolex was less about telling time and more about precision - about being reliably accurate in extremes of altitude, depth, heat, cold, dryness and humidity. They were an absolute must for anyone venturing into a jungle, a desert, a trek to Antarctica, a scuba-dive or a transatlantic flight. The fact that 99.99 per cent of Rolex wearers would never be faced with any such eventuality did not dent their desirability. They were devices cognate with extreme elements and extreme behaviour, while being simultaneously emblems of perfect accuracy. That was their dual charm.

It was in the Sixties, though, that the Rolex image hardened into tough- guy territory. The black-faced Oyster Perpetual, with its huge white dots and red second hand became an emblem of sporty prowess and masculinity. Edmund Hillary's sidekick, Tenzing Norgay, wore a Rolex Explorer on the summit of Everest (Hillary himself wore a boring old Smith's). Donald Campbell had an Oyster on his wrist when he broke the land-speed record in Bluebird, the same model worn by Chuck Yeager when he broke the sound barrier in 1947. In the near-disastrous flight of Apolo 13, when the spacecraft was behind the Moon, out of touch with Houston, and the astronauts had to time to a split second the instant when they fired the scuppered rockets, Jack Swigert was gazing at the sweep hand of his Rolex GMT Master.

But it was James Bond who fixed the name in the public's mind as the essence of hard-man chic. Fleming was the first popular writer to pepper his text with real-life brand names, in an early literary version of product placement.

Along with Bond's favourite marmalade (Frank Cooper's Vintage Oxford) and cufflinks (Cartier) went the watch - "a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Chronometer on an expanding metal bracelet". Fully equipped - by Q, of course - the watch features, at different times in different movies, as a bullet-deflecting "intensified magnetic field" (which Bond uses to unzip the back of a woman's dress from the other side of the room), as a miniature buzz-saw and a garotte.

The Bond connection took the Rolex message to the ends of the earth - and 007's continuing appeal may partly account for the fact that Rolex watches remain phenomenally popular among Asian businessmen. In China, Hong Kong, Japan and Malaysia, a gold Rolex Datejust is still an instant and immediate sign that you're a big fat success. The best Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong throb to the combined tick of 200 Rolexes. In Yakuza [Japanese mafia] circles, the favourite tough-guy ticker is the Rolex Daytona - of course you've seen it: it's the one with three mini-clocks on the face, recording the passage of seconds, minutes and hours, accessorised by a pair of sunglasses and an amputation saw.

Look at the Rolex catalogue today, and you feel dive-bombed by luxury of a slightly ludicrous, old-fashioned nature. The serried ranks of 18- carat gold watches, with gold hands, gold faces and gold straps, many of them edged, trimmed and studded with diamonds, leave you feeling overwhelmed by excess rather than sick with longing. Who, bar some extra-flamboyant fan of the Emperor Bokassa, could warm to the Oyster Perpetual Day-Date with diamonds encrusted all round the bezel and set into the strap, let alone want to pay pounds 39,350 for it? Elsewhere in the catalogue, you can find some handsome models in steel and "white metal" that are an absolute snip at pounds 1,390.

As you read on it becomes clear that the point of all the assaults and muggings and burglaries by the Rolex Raiders is, pace the police analysts, more than random opportunism. We have to consider the possibility that, somewhere in Catford or Hoxton, a gang of sneering and criminal style- fascists are plotting to relieve the aesthetically-challenged and the insanely rich of their most conspicuous consumer mistake, like a tax on stupidity.

For it is surely self-evident that anyone who walks around, in the 1990s, with a guaranteed minimum of pounds 2,000 to pounds 20,000 in show-off yellow gold and look-at-me white diamonds lightly attached to his or her arm is taking part in an aggressive preening ritual - one that is now an object of wonder only to Pacific Rim millionaires and the nasty modern Dick Turpins who wish to emulate or serve them.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker