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
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game