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The History of the Radioactive Rolex with One Complication

My family and I have a tradition when we visit the beach. We search for sea glass. When jagged and sharp shards of broken glass land in the ocean the constant sluicing of sand changes them. Over decades or more the edges soften. Clear glass becomes cloudy. Given enough time the entire shape of the glass can morph, from rectangular to ovoid. Each piece of sea glass is inherently unique due to imperceptibly small forces which slowly accumulate, resulting in major changes.

We know this is also true of vintage timepieces. After decades lume changes in hue. Dial faces crack, craze and fade. An object which was often mass produced consequently becomes a “pi├Ęce unique.” Watches are engineered to accurately and unchangeably mark the passage of time. We love and value vintage watches for the fact that they are altered by time itself.

The story I offer here underwent similar changes. It began as an effort to understand more about an unfinished chapter in the history of Rolex. It became something else. A mystery emerged and was solved. In the process, a family also learned more about their history and each other, opening a new chapter in this unfinished story. I will return to this later.

I received a news alert on my phone a few weeks ago. It directed me to an article from an eastern European source which had been recently translated into English. Dated from the early 1960s, the article describes a lawsuit which had been filed against Rolex in England. In 1959 the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) discovered that thirteen watch companies in the United States had imported strontium 90 in the luminous material of timepieces. Strontium 90 is a waste product from nuclear fission. When a nuclear bomb explodes or fuel is spent in a nuclear reactor it is left behind. It has serious health effects. If ingested it integrates with bone and can cause cancer. It emits beta particles which can burn the skin. Due to these health hazards the AEC issued letters to the thirteen watch companies instructing them not to transfer, process or dispose of any watches or parts containing strontium. You can read the AEC report to Congress here.

The seal of the Atomic Energy Commission
Rolex was one of the companies notified by the AEC that a GMT-Master purchased in Singapore contained strontium. It embarked on a nationwide search to reclaim this reference. The AEC licensed Rolex’s headquarters in New York City at 580 Fifth Avenue to receive watches and, under supervision of a commission inspector, test them for strontium. Out of 250 watches received, approximately 185 were hazardous and required replacement of radioactive parts.

An excerpt from the Atomic Energy Commission Report to Congress, 1959
To their credit, Rolex advertised this process and encouraged owners to participate. Some time later, in Tokyo, Japan, news of this hazard reached a GMT-Master owner. Michael Williams was a British diplomat. At the time he served in England’s Tokyo embassy. He had bought a GMT-Master, also in Singapore, in 1960. Michael was fastidious about time so he appreciated the accuracy offered by a fine Swiss watch. The GMT complication also allowed him to keep track of time in Manchester, England, where his family resided while he was working abroad. He grew concerned that his family of five may have been exposed to radioactivity while he was home for an extended period of time during the holidays. I learned that Michael was not fond of attorneys but, given the potential harm to his wife and young children (two sons and a daughter), he contacted a lawyer to learn more about his options.

Michael’s lawyer had a reputation for charisma. If one of his cases made it to court he inevitably swayed judges and juries to his view. My research revealed that he filed a £3.85 million ($11 million) lawsuit against Rolex alleging that the GMT-Master had caused health complications for the Williams family. Around this time a local newspaper in Manchester visited the Williams family.
The "Williams" family in their newspaper photograph from 1961.
The older children were dressed up and told to look dour in a posed photograph, as if something was wrong. It is unclear who offered this instruction but it is possible the attorney was somehow involved.

Existing, published, knowledge of this episode largely ends there but this is where the new chapter begins. I was curious about the lawsuit and its outcome. Lawsuits are detailed documents and I knew I could learn more if I obtained a copy. But my search in legal databases yielded nothing. I reached out to Tony Traina, an attorney who publishes the Rescapement newsletter. He, too, came up empty handed.

Then I caught a break in the story. I located Williams’ obituary, he had passed away a few years ago. With a little online sleuthing shaped by the obituary I found the web page for an interior design business in Kensington, England. It appeared the business was owned by Williams’ youngest son, Edward. I sent an email introducing myself and asked if we could talk about his family’s experience. I figured it was a long shot but, lo and behold, Edward replied and we arranged a phone conversation.

The Rolex GMT-Master did occupy significant space in the family’s collective memory. Edward shared that one day in his youth he was playing with a small plastic airplane in his room and he decided to try to melt it with a lighter. Hot plastic landed on his leg, resulting in a scalding. The round burn was blamed on the radioactive Rolex and Edward avoided revealing his toying with fire. It is fair to say, though, that the family always wondered if the source of a particular illness or ailment in a loved one was connected to the watch. It was a psychic burden which was always there.

I’d assumed that Rolex had somehow gained possession of the GMT-Master in question and asked Edward if this was the case. “No,” he said, “I know exactly where the watch is.” I think my heart skipped a beat. A vintage watch’s value is determined by a set of factors. One is rarity. Because this particular reference was “recalled” and altered, examples in original condition are undoubtedly hard to come by. Another factor is provenance: does the watch have historical significance and a documented connection to the original owner? It sure seemed like this was the case.

Edward explained that after his father’s death the family gathered in Manchester for the funeral and the reading of his father's will. At some point the family emptied a storage unit and, Edward related, “we found the watch in the very back in a box.” Later, after the reading of their father’s will, Edward’s older brother Andrew offered to drive to their next destination. They had placed the watch in the car. Andrew abruptly announced, “I know what I’m going to do with that watch.” Without consulting Edward, he pulled over the car after crossing a bridge over the River Irwell. He grabbed the watch and they both exited the car. Andrew threw it into the river.

I was crestfallen upon hearing this. While the watch was a health hazard, it was also an important, and likely valuable, artifact in the history of Rolex and in the history of the Williams family. I tried to offer some options for Edward. I told him that there is a hobby called “magnet fishing.” In order to clean rivers of metallic debris, magnet fishermen and women attach a rare earth magnet to a rope and drag it along a river bottom.
Magnet fishing kit
Perhaps the Rolex could be recovered. Edward offered that he knew exactly where the watch was, we talked about how there might be recovery companies that could help. We also talked about how this probably compromised the condition of the timepiece, another important value factor, and perhaps the effort wasn’t worth the cost. I told Edward I would hold the story close so that he and his family could evaluate their options.

I asked Edward why his brother discarded the watch in this way. Edward said that it was a source of ongoing health concern for everyone so getting rid of it was the responsible choice. I asked Edward about the resolution of the lawsuit and he said it went nowhere. If the family had received a significant payoff from Rolex he almost certainly would have known.

The next morning I continued my research, mostly looking for more articles on the lawsuit. And then everything changed. On the web page of a prominent watch dealer I found a Rolex GMT-Master of exactly the same vintage as the Williams watch. The picture, from late 2015, revealed that the watch was in outstanding condition.
THe watch in question on the dealer's wrist
The dealer claimed to have bought it from one of Williams’ sons and related details about the radiation controversy and the lawsuit. He further claimed that the watch had been stored in a lead box in order to contain radiation.

And hence the mystery. Something wasn’t right. I believed there was deception somewhere. I didn’t know Edward, really, at all. But he was very open, earnest and credible. The dealer is highly well regarded. I’ve seen him talk about vintage collecting as part of panels at industry gatherings. When I once visited a Sotheby’s preview we rode in the same elevator and, upon arrival, he inquired about the the auction house watch specialist by first name. He could be lying in order to enhance the provenance, and value, of random GMT-Masters. For all I knew he could be cycling multiple GMT-Masters through the same story and selling them all at inflated prices. Or, perhaps a third party deceived him and misrepresented a watch which he then bought. I’m not a detective but that’s exactly what was required in these circumstances. I was at a loss regarding my next move.

I decided that, ethically, I must share my discovery with Edward. I needed to honor his generosity in offering so many details about his family history. He had trusted me. So I sent him a link to the dealer’s web page thinking “the plot has thickened.” Edward quickly replied and employed exactly the same phrase. He wanted to know if the dealer had the name of the person he’d purchased the Rolex from and the location of the dealer. I told him the dealer was located in Gibraltar but that I didn’t want to contact him just yet. Edward and I agreed to talk again.

In our next conversation Edward said he knew what happened. I listened closely, I needed to figure this out. He acknowledged a vague memory that his father did, in fact, keep the watch in a lead box. The dealer’s picture also resonated with him and he was particularly struck by the blue and red colors of the “Pepsi” bezel. He remembered turning the bezel during his youth. As an interior designer Edward is extremely attuned to colors. And the watch his brother Andrew threw into the river did not have that colorway. Edward explained that his mother had passed away a few years before his father. His brother, who lives in Gibraltar, had travelled back to England for the funeral. Gibraltar was the first connection between Andrew and the dealer.

After the mother’s funeral the siblings took some items from their parents’ house. Edward’s father was a bit of a “pack rat” and they were trying to reduce the volume of items in the home. Edward figured that it was then that Andrew took the Rolex from the house, without telling his siblings, brought it back to Gibraltar, and sold it to the dealer. Edward had texted Andrew about our conversation without revealing this theory. He told Andrew that the watch he’d allegedly thrown in the river was of some value and good naturedly goaded his brother a bit. Andrew’s reply seemed off. He didn’t ask for details, he simply replied “who knew.” According to Edward this was out of character. Edward believed that Andrew had taken one of his father’s Seikos and thrown it into the river while pretending it was the Rolex to “throw us off the scent.”

I still wasn’t sure who I should believe until Edward said “I just received a text from my daughter.” It read “there is the *expletive*.” Edward had shared the dealer’s web page with his daughter, who then scrolled through the long history of the dealer’s Instagram profile and found a picture of her Uncle Andrew shaking hands with the dealer. Both had wide grins and were standing on the sidewalk in the pleasant Mediterranean sun.
"Andrew" and the watch dealer after completing the sale
The dealer held the GMT-Master in the picture and the caption read “another satisfied customer sold to me.” Edward said, “yup, that’s my brother.” The timing of the picture perfectly aligned with the timeline Edward had described for the disappearance of the watch. Case closed.

I told Edward that the ball was now in his family’s court. I expressed some regret that this probably complicated their relationships. I felt obligated to tell him that this watch now had all the features of a significantly valuable timepiece. The condition was amazing because the watch had lived, unworn due to health concerns, in a closed lead box for almost its entire life. It had not resided at the bottom of a river. It was rare. And the provenance, which was already significant, was now even more significant in light of what we’d learned. Research into auction sales over the past few years suggests that a conservative estimate for the value of this timepiece would be something like $200,000.

As of this writing the story continues. Edward reached out to the dealer under a pseudonym and learned that he’d sold the watch. I believe I found its new owner. Now the Williams family must decide how they will proceed with each other.

For me, this story encapsulates so much of what makes watch collecting and the watch community so compelling. Luxury watches are amazing pieces of engineering and design. They are coupled to history and lives in extraordinarily complicated and varied ways. Each watch has a story and each story is important. I am grateful to have, ever so briefly, entered and now shared more about the story of the radioactive Rolex GMT-Master. It is a story which will no doubt continue.

Author’s note: certain facts in this article have been changed to protect the identity of the Williams family.


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