Setting out on a journey from my home just north of London to my mother's home sixty miles south of London, it struck me that I could ignore the sensible orbital route, plough through the whole of London, north and south, and go via Silvermans' premises in London's East End.
In retrospect, it might have been better if I hadn't decided to do this a couple of days before the Olympics. Silvermans is a few minutes from the Olympic Stadium. A few minutes at any other point in the area's history that is... Sitting in traffic did give me the chance to take a long look at the Olympic venues, soaring out of this once scruffy, post-industrial corner of London. They're an uplifting sight, I have to say.
As most will know, Silvermans is the curious emporium that embraces the Cabot Watch Company, better known as CWC. Silvermans say that their business had very humble beginnings in the East End at the end of the 19th century.
The East End, incorporating the old docks, has experienced successive waves of immigration, from Huguenots to Bangladeshis, but the people who helped define the character of the area in the twentieth century were the Ashkenazi Jews, who arrived in the late 19th century following persecution in Russia. Silvermans can probably trace their origins to these entrepreneurial refugees, striving to lift themselves above the general deprivation of the East End. Silvermans were around the Mile End Road in the late nineteenth century, and that's still their location today. The company in its current form was established in 1946.
By the late twentieth century, Silvermans were the most prominent supplier of watches to the British Ministry of Defence, but their core business has been in general military supplies and military surplus. Along the way, they have been awarded a Royal Warrant for supplying footwear to Her Majesty. Not the person of Her Majesty, of course - I don't think I've seen Her Majesty in 8 eyelet heavy terrain combat boots...
In the not-too-distant past, Silvermans' name sometimes came up in debates about the quality and suitability of equipment issued to British troops. In preparation for the Gulf and Iraq wars, it was said that 50% of deployed troops were choosing to equip themselves privately, rather than rely on Government issue, and that most of them were shopping at Silvermans. It was also suggested that some items, said by the MoD to be unavailable, were in fact available from Silvermans. Questions were asked in Government. So they say...
One further nugget about Silvermans: in the late 1970s, they were selling issued IWC Mk11s for £20 (around £98 today, allowing for inflation).
CWC was originally created in 1972 by Ray Mellor, who had been managing Hamilton's UK division, including their MoD contracts. When Hamilton went out of business, he created CWC to bid for the same contracts. In 2002, or thereabouts, Mellor retired and sold the company to Silvermans. Ray Mellor has been quoted as saying that he chose the name 'Cabot' at random. He chose well, really - a renowned fifteenth century navigator and explorer with a Royal Warrant from an English King isn't a bad association for a watch company, and the palindromic initials make for a good logo.
In recent years, Silvermans' role as watch supplier to the military has been eroded by the MoD's current practice of buying standard low-cost watches off-the-shelf from importers (mostly Seikos and Citizens). DEF standards for watches have been cancelled and not updated, meaning that the days of defined standards for British military watches are pretty much gone. If it's cheap and more or less fit for purpose, it's fine for the cash-strapped MoD! CWC's watches are anachronisms really. They're still in production, but they're mostly of interest to enthusiasts like us.
picture from Google street view
Silvermans is in an unlikely street for a shop, but it's not so much a shop as a nineteenth century warehouse with a retail area. Not all of the stock is on display (it couldn't be), but if you entered in a suitably frivolous mood, you could find yourself leaving in a Guardsman's red military tunic or a Russian sailor's hat. I wasn't in the mood for a surreal transformation, but I was tempted by a monocular. I didn't need a monocular, I was scarcely aware that monoculars existed, but I was briefly taken with the idea of owning a monocular. As it happens, the following day I was sitting on a beach and would have welcomed a monocular to help identify a curious-looking ship. Ah well...
I made my way past the monoculars, tactical socks and emergency ration packs to the watches. Actually, you can't avoid the watches - they're under the glass of the counter. The staff were helpful, but even so, I didn't feel there was much point in asking, "So, who makes these, then?" It was the standard quartz RN Diver that I was interested in, but I also had a look at the reissue chronograph (very nice, that one, but too much money), and the issued quartz chrono that never was (always liked those).
Royal Navy Divers
In the 1950s and 1960s, Royal Navy divers had been issued with Rolex Submariners and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. MoD-modified Omega Seamaster 300s were issued in the late 1960s. Together, the Submariner, and particularly the Seamaster, became the basis for the MoD standard for dive watches - DEF STAN 66-4 (Part 1) Issue 3. Not surprisingly then, the CWC is visually part of the Submariner-Seamaster family, with the accent on Seamaster.
By the late 1970s, CWC and Cyma divers had replaced the Blancpains and Omegas. Submariners were still being issued to the Royal Marines and the SBS. Quartz replaced mechanical, and the CWC RN Diver you can still buy today became the standard navy issue.
A couple of Precista divers were also issued, but mainly to RAF Search and Rescue and the Naval Reserve. Black versions of the CWC ultimately replaced the SBS Submariners. Simplifying things a little, the lineage of standard RN divers goes: Submariner > Submariner & Seamaster > Submariner > CWC. Today, in the 'post military watch' age, the MoD buys off-the-shelf Suunto dive computers and (somewhat gawky) Citizens.
The RN Diver case
The dial design comes from the MoD standard, but where does the case design come from? There were probably dozens of watch companies using the case before it was adopted by CWC, but the company mentioned most often is Heuer.
Heuer was in some financial difficulty in the mid-1970s and wanted a piece of the lucrative diver market dominated by Rolex and Omega. To lessen the financial risk of developing a new product, they went into partnership with a casemaker. One version of this story has Jack Heuer recalling that the casemaker was M.P.R. in France. A second version says that the watches were built by G. Monnin in France (and indeed early Heuer divers have that name on the inside of the case back).
It seems likely that both versions are essentially correct, in that M.R.P. made the cases and G. Monnin assembled the watches. What is undoubtedly true is that both companies provided cases, or assembled watches using those cases, for a large number of brands. Similar things happen today with casemakers. It is probably not possible to say who first designed the case, or who first used it. There are watches with the 'Heuer' case that appear to predate the Heuer (1979), and there are suggestions that Heuer rebranded an existing Monnin, so all we can reasonably say is that the case is a generic item, and that the earliest examples almost certainly came from M.R.P.
The Hueur picture comes from 'Heuerville'. The Adura was in a dealer's catalogue, described as 'circa 1960s'.
One further thing - there is little doubt that M.R.P. was (and is) Swiss, not French. Some sources give its full title as 'M.R.P. S.A.', and there is today a casemaking company by that name in the Swiss Jura. It is classified as a company with sales of €10 - €20 million per annum, employing 100-200 staff. It's in a French-speaking canton close to the French border, and it would be no surprise if it supplied cases to G. Monnin.
Monnin itself seems to have disappeared without trace, although there was a Gaston Monnin operating at the right time on the French side of the border (in Charquemont, 63km from M.R.P. in Alle). There is also a Monnin company operating in today's Swiss watch industry. It manufactures high quality watch parts, and is one of those obscure but significant firms whose services to the industry aren't generally acknowledged by watch enthusiasts (who prefer to genuflect before the deity of 'in-house', despite the fact that the industry hasn't often operated in that way because it brings few benefits).
In reality, these French-speaking companies were probably part of the same watchmaking community regardless of the border. They may have had family or other close connections, and they needn't have been large concerns. They may even have moved their businesses from one country to the other. It's not inconceivable that the 'Heuer' Monnin simply went out of business in the quartz crisis, or was absorbed into another company. It would have been a footnote in a history never written, but for the fact that it once assembled some watches for Heuer.
CWC, like many companies before it, simply used what had become perhaps the standard non-Rolex, non-Omega diver case. The case that restored Heuer to financial health went on to provide some pretty tidy business for CWC. You can't erect a metaphorical plaque to it as you can with some watch-cases, but it's notable, nonetheless. Maybe M.R.P. makes the CWC case to this day. Unlikely perhaps, but who knows?
I don't think anyone knows who makes the current CWCs. Silvermans have never shown any interest in providing the information, and I can't say I blame them. The only reliable information I have seen (from Ray Mellor) is that Breitling made the early chronographs, but after that it's anyone's guess.
Anyway, after all that research and sitting in traffic on the hottest day of the year, I inevitably bought one. So...
What's it like?
- It has more quality than I was expecting. Whoever makes them makes them well. When the navy boys went from Sub or Seamaster to CWC (if the modern version is anything like the original), they were losing a name, but they weren't (movement aside, perhaps) getting a markedly inferior product.
- It's not shiny. Internet words and pictures had led me to expect a sparkling magpie lure, but it has a misty satin gleam, no more. Silvermans' current and limited stock is non-standard, apparently. What a stroke of luck...
- It's nice and flat. Not dress-watch flat, obviously, but decidedly low-profile when compared with the caricature styling of some modern divers.
- It's curvaceous, in a swoopy sixties kind of way.
- In some lights, and at some angles, the steel chapter-ring catches the eye, but not to the extent of creating the frying-pan look of some Marathon models (for example). As I've become accustomed to the watch, the chapter-ring has come to look like one part of a harmonious steely whole.
- The dial has exemplary clarity and is a testament to the design skills of whoever was wielding a pencil on behalf of the MoD (cribbing more than a little from Omega). The dial printing is neatly done, as is the lume application.
- The bezel seems to be well-engineered and it's nicely unobtrusive (but still prominent enough to be used in anger).
- The lume is effective. Despite the circled 'T' on the dial, the lume is pale green superluminova. The misleading 'T' is an error, apparently, and future production runs will have an 'L'. I'm regarding the error as fortuitous...
- The fixed bars limit strap choices. I'm not over-keen on NATOs (fussy, fiddly, and a bit of a lash-up), so tried a black one-piece Zulu. That was OK, but it was clear that the NATO was a better fit. Cutting the loop from the NATO has provided the ideal solution for me. The colour is perfect and the 'drape' is neat. I was thinking of trying a braided 'perlon', but they don't come in grey, and the butchered NATO looks like a natural combination.
Satin sheen, classy low-slung profile, seductive curves... whisper it quietly, but this watch is almost glamorous. How toolish is that? In practice, this is a watch that will look smart when new, and will then take on a different but equally appealing character when it's taken a few knocks. A watch for all seasons, ageing gracefully.
- The seconds hand hits most of the markers bang on. Those it misses, it doesn't miss by much. It would be unreasonable to ask for more.
- The crown screws down with satisfying precision, but not with a great deal of travel (neither a good or a bad thing). It couldn't be better protected and it's easy to grip.
- The crystal is mineral, which is arguably appropriate for the watch (shatter resistance having a higher priority than scratch resistance). Some will find this disappointing, even if it might be 'right' for the watch.
- It's not cheap at £339, but neither is it outrageously expensive. Looking at CWC prices in general, I can't see that there's any shameful profiteering going on. Anyway, if a watch sells in reasonable numbers, which I believe CWCs do, then the price is about right.
Issued or non-issued?
You could, if you wished, haunt eBay looking for an issued example. My interest in military watches is to do with design, rather than with who has worn them, and where. I would prefer a shiny new one to one that has been banged up against a rusty hull in a harbour. Others will come at things from a different angle, and they won't be wrong.
As it happens, the markings on mine suggest that it was issued to a Royal Marine earlier this year. He kept it very clean, I must say, but then he can't have had it for long...
CWC aren't known for playing fast and loose with issue markings, so the batch from which mine comes was probably intended for issue. Maybe the current cuts in troop numbers have something to do with it. A limited number of non-standard matte models become available, seemingly intended for the Royal Marines, and at a time of economy-driven defence cuts? You can speculate, but that's all you can do.
With box, papers and sales receipt, mine isn't 'issued'. Without these indicators of origin, it would appear to be, at least to the extent of having reached the shelves of the Quartermaster's Store. Naturally, I will always be happy to say that mine came from a shop.
You could, if you preferred, buy the black PVD version issued to the SBS (Special Boat Service), which was eventually issued for general use as well. Personally, I prefer the look of the dial without the day-date of the PVD version - and I have a bit of an aversion to coated surfaces, and to 'stealth'.
Or, you could buy an automatic version, with or without a date. It was the non-date version that replaced the Submariner before itself being replaced by the quartz version. I'm not sure that the automatic with a date was ever issued at all. I prefer the quartz version to both of the automatics because, as the issuing history suggests, it can reasonably be regarded as the 'ultimate' version - and it's cheaper.
It's a cracker. It's a working watch, but it's an elegant working watch. It has the best kind of retro appeal - contemporary relevance allied with historical design features and an interesting back-story. It's not (and this might be what I like best about military watches), in the first instance a consumer product, even if it has become one to a non-military, non-diving watch enthusiast like me. Most important of all, it says 'wear and enjoy - you've got a good watch'.
Finally, it is only fair to say that much of the information in this post comes from other sources - probably more than a hundred. I did a little research of my own, but anyone can Google this stuff, given time and patience. When Google led me to other forums, it most often deposited me in MWR (Military Watch Resource), and sometimes in TZ-UK. As well as Watchuseek, of course.
I would welcome corrections, as I don't want to inadvertently add to the internet’s store of dodgy data...
Now then, let's look at the 'issued chronograph that wasn't' - you know you like them. Or is one CWC enough? And what to sell to pay for it?