In June 2010 a Panerai 3646 “Kampfschwimmer” with case number 260639 was sold at an Antiquorum auction in New York. The watch was accompanied by a very interesting letter from Rolex Germany.
The picture published by Antiquorum shows both, the letter and the watch. Parts of the letter were unfortunately covered by the watch. However, it was not a big deal to reconstruct the missing part of the letter.
The letter was written on January 9, 1984 by the official German Rolex Service centre in Köln. The recipient was Wempe, a renowned Rolex retailer in Germany who had sent the 3646 for an overhaul on behalf of one of their customers.
“Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren
es handelt sich bei der o.g. Uhr um ein sehr altes Modell mit einem Werk Kal. Cortebert 16″.
Ersatzteile für eine Rolex gemässe Instandsetzung stehen leider nicht mehr zur Verfügung und wir erlauben uns daher, die Uhr unrepariert zurückzusenden.
Es besteht vielleicht die Möglichkeit, dass ein Reparateur, der sich auf ältere Uhren spezialisiert hat, die Uhr wieder gangbar macht, ohne die übliche Reparatur-Garantie zu übernehmen.
Vielleicht sind folgende Angaben noch für Ihren Kunden interessant,
im Jahre 1943 wurden 720 Stück dieser für die damaligen Zeit aussergewöhnlichen Taucher-Uhren fabriziert. Die ganze Serie wurde nach Italien verkauft und an die italienische Armee geliefert, die ihre Froschmänner damit ausrüstete. Es ist vielleicht bekannt, dass die Italiener auf diesem Gebiet bahnbrechend waren.
Ein kleines amüsantes Detail ist noch anzugeben:
diese Uhren wurden von den Tauchern nicht etwa am Handgelenk getragen, sondern am Knie befestigt.”
English translation of the letter
“Dear Sir or Madam
Above mentioned watch is a very old model with a caliber Cortebert 16″ (Ligne) movement.
Spare parts for an overhaul according to Rolex standards are no longer available and we therefore have to return the watch unrepaired. There is perhaps a possibility that an repairer, who specializes in older watches, could be able to make it work again, without assuming the usual warranty.
Perhaps the following information could be interesting for your customer:
720 examples of these extraordinary diver watches were produced in 1943. The whole series was sold to Italy and delivered to the Italian army as equipment for their frogmen. Perhaps it is known that the Italians were absolute pioneers in this field.
An amusing detail needs to be mentioned:
The divers did not wear these watches on the wrist, but attached to the knee.”
Well, aside from the amusing detail at the end, the letter provides very specific information. The 720 pieces that were produced in 1943 could refer to the Type D,E and F group (case numbers 260400 to 261120). Type D was the first batch to have Oyster case numbers while earlier Ref. 3646 (Type A to C) watches had pocket watch case numbers.
Another interesting observation is the fact that Rolex described the movement as Cortebert 16 Ligne caliber in the letter. Rolex was neither a case nor a movement manufacturer in the beginning. Rolex Oyster watches were initially produced by Aegler S.A. in Bienne.
In 1913 Rolex became shareholder of Aegler S.A. and the company was later renamed in “Aegler, Société Anonyme, Fabrique des Montres Rolex & Gruen Guild”. Rolex S.A. and this “new” company remained legally completely separate entities. Aegler was movement supplier to Rolex and Gruen Guild. In 1936 Gruen ceased to purchase movements from Aegler and as a result, Rolex S.A. Geneva agreed to take up the whole production. Aegler S.A. was renamed in “Manufacture des Montres Rolex S.A.”, a company wholly owned by the Aegler family. This continued until 2004 when the company was sold to Rolex S.A. Geneva.
For pocket watches Rolex approached many different movement manufacturers like Cortebert, Montilier, Recta, Welta, A. Michel, etc. Obviously Rolex did not regard these as “inhouse” movements.
The official Richemont position
It is interesting to see Rolex confirming the production of military watches for the Italian army because in Giampiero Negretti’s book “Legendary Watches”, an official Richemont publication, it is written:
“The movement, caseback and winding crown were marked Rolex, a fact which, together with the design of the dial, gives the impression that this was a small series of military watches created by the famous Geneva house, rather than a product designed by Panerai. But it is clear that this was not the case.
In a letter of 11 January 1990 to Francesco Ferretti, a well-known Italian expert and collector of military watches, Rolex itself wrote:
“We would like to make it clear that Rolex has never made military watches. A single exception, if it can be so definied, is the Radiomir Panerai produced for the Italian Navy in the 1940s by our agents in Florence. This watch was specially created for the famous teams of underwater raiders and it was designed and made by the company mentioned above. Rolex limited itself to providing movements and for this reason the watches do not carry our name.”
Negretti continues: “Such a document removes any doubt: the Panerai watches were indeed made by Panerai but using Rolex movements, and in the beginning at least other parts as well, such as the screw-down winding crown.”
Considering the letter from Rolex presented in this article, Negretti’s assumptions are obviously wrong. The fact that Rolex produced these watches for G. Panerai e Figlio is not a secret among people who are familiar with historical Panerai watches, yet Richemont keeps insisting that Rolex only provided the movements.
Francesco Ferretti’s letter, in which Rolex denies having ever produced these watches, has never been published. However, a reason for such denial could be the fact that hundreds of watches ended up with the Nazis during WW2. As a world-class company, Rolex does of course not want to be associated with Nazis and their crimes against humanity.
Thanks for your interest!
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