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Talking Marine Nationale watches

Talking Marine Nationale watches with Watchistry

© WATCHISTRY

“All watches have a story, but it’s rare to know what those stories actually are once they leave the original wearer’s wrist. When it comes to military watches, those stories seem even more tantalizing,” author and watch collector Watchistry writes in the introduction to his book, Marine Nationale, dedicated to telling the story of 34 timepieces of the French Navy (Marine Nationale in French, or MN).

In the book’s introduction, Watchistry tells the tale of his now “terminal” obsession with Marine Nationale watches: it all started when he came across an article and subsequent video, “The Thirteen Milsubs of Grahame Fowler”. Through the camera, he felt Mr. Fowler double-dog daring someone to be as focused a collector as he.

Eight years later, Mr. Fowler may have finally found his match. Marine Nationale is as fun a read as it is scholarly. It seamlessly weaves together the horological history of the Marine Nationale through the stories of 34 timepieces from the author’s own collection. Throughout its pages, you begin to understand the lives these magnificent tool watches lived; just as interesting, you also begin to piece together a portrait of the author, himself a passionate collector just as likely to chat you up about his Porsche 912 (also featured) as he is the period-correct M.N. case back engraving for a Tudor Submariner.

Marine Nationale is also filled with legit horological history. For example, did you know that Abraham-Louis Breguet himself was named by King Louis XVIII as Horologer de la Marine in 1815, right when Louis rose to the throne? This is back when timekeeping was absolutely essential for marine navigation, and a competent navy was essential for protecting a country (notwithstanding the fact that France’s biggest enemy during this period was probably itself).

I had the chance to chat with Watchistry about collecting, telling stories through watches, and his book dedicated to the timepieces of the Marine Nationale.


Q: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into watches?

I liked watches as a kid. One of the first, I got around my 13th birthday when I was visiting San Francisco. I came across an old silver pocket watch that I loved. I bought it on layaway and then had it shipped to me. The interest stayed pretty dormant until about 2012, when I had a landmark birthday and thought to myself ‘okay, I need a watch now’. So I started looking around.

That watch was a Rolex Explorer reference 1016. I thought that was what I wanted when I started looking around, but it was a big investment and unlike anything I had done before. So I bought a Smiths Everest first. It’s a great homage to the Explorer, a nice ‘let me try this and see if I like it.’ As soon as I got it, I knew I needed the real thing.

And after that Explorer 1016, you ended up acquiring a Space-Dweller too?

It’s a bit of a story. I got that first Explorer, then I was in the watch sphere all of the sudden. Shortly after, I saw a Hodinkee post with a French Navy Tudor Submariner and it was like lightning struck. That led me down the path of Tudor Submariners issued to the French Navy.

Eventually, I saw a listing for a Tudor Submariner Marine Nationale on an obscure website from a small dealer in France. I was traveling to France a few months after that and [the dealer and me] agreed to meet at Charles de Gaulle Airport. I brought the cash, he brought the watch. When we’re parting ways, he says ‘you might like this’, and he pulls up his sleeve and shows me a reference 1016 Space-Dweller. After that, he was difficult to contact, so it took three years of patiently working with him and eventually meeting him again in person to get that watch.

During those three years, I emailed what little info I had to some of the top dealers. I was concerned about originality, but they all said that the dial is what matters. Eventually, I came across some Sotheby’s auction results for loose Space-Dweller dials that were sold awhile back, and it looks like my dial came from one of these lots. That’s how I am as a collector: I go really deep on everything I collect.

© WATCHISTRY | A Tudor Submariner ref. 7016 on top of its decommission papers. This particular example was issued to the attack submarine La Praya, a fast-attack sub built by France in the 1970s.

Why Marine Nationale watches?

It was all that article: “Just Because: A Tudor Submariner Issued by the French Marine Nationale”. It showed this beautiful Tudor Submariner with a black dial, on top of its decommission paper. Military watches are so cool because you get to play dress up and pretend you’re in the military, but you don’t often know the full story.

This decommission paper accompanying the watch was unlike any provenance I had seen before. French military watches are more likely to have provenance to tell you about its history — what submarine it was on, what commando unit, when it was serviced or where. You don’t necessarily get the whole story, but you fill in the gaps and get some of it.

The other thing is that the French Navy watches seem to be quite varied. They seem to be civilian watches that they’d buy 100 at a time and then put into circulation. Whereas with the traditional British Mil-Sub, there’s only a military version of that; with the French they were just buying off-the-shelf civilian watches.

© WATCHISTRY | “You can get a sense of all the different dials. They’re all classy in their own way.”

Being able to access the watch’s story has to do with how the French kept records?

The French records seem to be slightly more accessible than other militaries. For instance, when [the Marine Nationale] would auction off its watches, they would sometimes include a decommission paper. On those papers, it specifies things like what base it came from, the serial number, the make, and when it entered and left the military.

The other big source of information with Marine Nationale watches is “The Register”. It’s this mythical book: the French Navy’s main base is in Toulon, so when they would take their watches to get serviced, the watchmaker in Toulon would write down exactly what he did in this book, mark his initials on the case back, and date it. When the watchmaker died, The Register made it into the hands of collectors.

Toulon, near Provence in southern France is the French Navy’s historical home base. About 100 yards from the main gate of the base is where the shop of a watchmaker named Yves Pastre used to stand. From the 1950s through the 1990s, when the Marine Nationale needed its watches serviced, they’d take them to Mr. Pastre, or ‘YP’, as he’d engrave on the case back of the watches he serviced.

French watchmakers and jewelers have to keep a meticulous ledger so that the government can inspect it in case there is a theft. Collectors call it The Register. So he’d write down for every watch he serviced: the name, serial number, where it was issued, and then what he did with it.

What’s in the book?

Marine Nationale is very story-centric. It’s not just ‘here’s this watch that was issued to this submarine,’ but it’s telling you about that submarine too. It’s more a collection of stories of these watches, based on what I understand after learning from passionate collectors before me. Right in the middle, I also drop in some personal stuff about me and other things I’m interested in — there are pages dedicated to my Porsche 912, vintage Goyard trunks — to show that this is as much about a collection of watches as it is about a collector.

© WATCHISTRY | The “bars and dots” dial layout on the Tudor Submariner ref. 9401/0 (Submariner at top right, above) is especially rare. This example is engraved M.N. 80 on the case back and was issued to the Agosta submarine, the flagship of France’s Agosta class of submarines (of which the La Praya, above, was its sister ship).

You seem to be one of those collectors that gets focused on one thing and goes super deep.

There’s a certain satisfaction to appreciating the nuances in a given genre. When I find something I’m interested in, I like finding out everything I can about it. Then I want to put this knowledge amassed during diligence to use more than just once.

What’s next for you in collecting?

I am very fortunate to be able to collect, and I aim to give back to the collector community by sharing what I’ve learned from them and from my own collecting. I have a number of eBay alerts that will hit and suddenly spark or re-spark a passion. Right now it’s more about waiting for that next spark.

© WATCHISTRY | Spirotechnique was a diving equipment brand founded by Jacques Cousteau; its Triton watch was developed in the early 1960s to professional diving and military standards. This particular example was issued to the RHIN, a submarine support vessel in service from 1964-2002; during a service, this Triton received a replacement Rolex crown.

Do you have tips for new collectors interested in military watches or French Navy watches?

I often say ‘be a sheep.’ When it comes to MN watches, there’s always more to learn or discover, and I’m at the front of the line thinking I’ve found something completely unique. But it’s incredibly risky to think that way. When I say ‘be a sheep’, I mean that there’s more risk the further you stray from the herd. Assemble all the circumstantial evidence you can: the serial number, engravings, ensure the papers all match up, consider the patina - ask yourself how all of that compares to the vast majority of other examples. If something doesn’t match, your alarm bells should go off.

The other thing is: don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you find a legit seller, they’re going to welcome your questions. If you get the wrong vibe from them, they’re probably not the right seller for you. One last tip: don’t hesitate to ask the community. In my experience you’re often just one Instagram DM away from a passionate collector willing to share their knowledge.

Because these were tools, you’ll see all kinds of weird things. You’ll see a Doxa with snowflake hands, and it’d be kind of cool to have that. Anywhere else it’d be sacrilege. Where you need to be careful is telling yourself a story when things don’t match. You can lower the bar for total originality when it comes to military because things may have been changed in the field, versus what may have been done after it left the military. For me, if it left the military a certain way, I have a strong preference for keeping it that way.

What’s next for you?

I have been exploring YouTube as another outlet to share—back to the collector community—video can convey the feeling of a watch much better than one photo. I also have a book about the Type 20 chronograph in the works.

© WATCHISTRY | Next up: Type 20 Chronographs

You can (and should!) purchase Marine Nationale online. Follow @Watchistry on Instagram and see more of his collection on his excellent YouTube channel. Additionally, Watchistry will be speaking virtually to Redbar Paris on Nov. 10 — as someone who’s seen his presentation, I recommend tuning in if you can.

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Through the Wire

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Jerry Seinfeld’s on his ‘62 VW Beetle. Blackbird Spylane talks to Jerry Seinfeld about a unique & cherished possession, his recently acquired VW Beetle:

We want our possessions to charm us — if you have a relationship with an object that works, it always works. If you have a relationship with a human, it works as long as you can keep it working [laughs] but it’s always a bit of a rope bridge in the wind. But an inanimate object that you fall in love with and it does what you want it to do? You want that relationship.

📚 10 must-have books for any horological library. 😅 I spit out a press release about the upcoming sale of Paul Newman’s ‘Big Red’ ref. 6263 and a McQueen Monaco. 🧳 Rimowa introduces a watch case; at $2,000, you could also buy two Rimowa carry-on suitcases instead and toss your watches in there.

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Okay ciao! - Tony

Meme of the Week:

Leica not included:

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October 25, 2019

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