There are watches so legendary, people who have seen them in the metal are haunted by them for the rest of their life. You read about it in oldschool watch forums where watch enthusiasts who have heard the stories shyly ask if they really exist. Watches that are single-handedly responsible for a whole new genre of watch customization. I am talking of course about the famous teflon coated South African Milsub. Nicknamed ‘The Shadow’, it is the only known factory blacked-out Rolex which happens to be a Submariner Ref. 5513 made for the South African Special Forces in the mid 1970s. A lucky bastard, I had the unique chance to spend some hands-on quality time with this metallic dream come true.
Made For The South African Special Forces
‘The Shadow’ was discovered by legendary oldschool watch dealer Tom Bolt aka The Watchguru (IG: @watchguru_) in early 2001. An incredible out of this world piece, Bolt immediately contacted the Rolex heritage department (Rolex Patrimoine at the time) to verify its existence. At the time, Rolex was still providing archive information on special request. Rolex replied via fax:
“The case number belongs to a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner, Ref. 5513, made in 1975. The watch in question was destined to the South African army and the feature of this model was to be completely black. We cannot disclose how many watches were supplied as the information is confidential.”
If we look at the history of South Africa, 1975 was a crucial year. Angola had just achieved independence from Portugal and the two superpowers United States and Soviet Union together with its ally Cuba were supporting the opposing groups fighting for power as part of their cold war. Fearing retaliation from communist groups, the Portuguese population, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Angolans from various ethic and political divides, fled to nearby Namibia and South Africa which resulted in one of the greatest exodus in Africa and led to a refugee crisis. Faced with a possible communist take-over of their neighbour and the spread of the idiology to their own country, South Africa sent special forces into Angola in a secret military incursion code named ‘Operation Savannah’. Backed by the United States and in mixed units together with anti-communist Angolans, the South Africans invaded deep into Angola with the objective of driving the communists, especially Soviet and Cuban forces out of southern Angola. Now, for South Africans it was naturally not easy to keep their presence in Angola secret due to their skin colour. To hide among friendly Angolan fighters, they painted their exposed body parts black. If we look at pictures of these men it becomes immediately clear why blacked-out watches were ordered.
Having a shiny and reflecting watch in the Savannah could not only give away your position but also get you and your unit killed. During the research for this article, I came across dozens of pictures of soldiers wearing black anti-reflective cases for their regular watches. In light of this, ‘The Shadow’ seems like a logical evolution.
Similar anti-reflective watch cases can also be found on the wrists of Portuguese soldiers departing Angola in 1975 after a leftist military coup in Lisbon overthrew the Portuguese government and the new regime ceased all military action in Angola, declaring its intention to grant independence without delay.
So far the military history. In the early 2000s, Tom Bolt showed the watch around at watch fairs in the UK and Italy. It was here where people saw ‘The Shadow’ for the first time and could not get it out of their heads. In a forum post from 2011, the famous dive watch historian Marcello Pisani (RIP) described his first encounter with the watch, how he immediately understood it was real without even having to look at the written confirmation from Rolex Geneva and his deep remorse for not pulling the trigger:
“the only watch I will ever regret ….”
Forum link: Which 5513 is rarer (TRF)
Short after, ‘Bamford & Sons’ and later also a newly established brand named ‘Pro Hunter’ started customizing Rolex Submariner with black PVD coated cases based on ‘The Shadow’. Kamal Choraria, founder of Pro Hunter once stated:
“For many years our hunting clients yearned for a Rolex designed for the hunting community. So we collaborated their ideas and it took me back to when I held a black coated Rolex Submariner in my hands especially made by Rolex for a few British Army officers based in Africa. Others have only come across stories or heard of this legendary watch but I have actually seen and held it and the design was embedded in my memory. This resulted in the design of a smart and exclusive timepiece that is both practical and pleasing to the eye. The Pro Hunter was born.”
Forum link: Is there any truth to this? Rolex Pro Hunter statement.. (TRF)
Tom Bolt sold the watch to an important collector in the UK where it remained for nearly 20 years. Now, the watch is back with Tom Bolt and on my recent trip to Europe, he gave me the unique opportunity to experience the watch firsthand. A watch of this calibre, considered by many to be the ultimate MilSub, needs to be shared with the watch community before it disappears again for decades.
Wearing ‘The Shadow’
Having arrived in London, I am sitting on Tom’s sofa in his office browsing through a bunch of watch books lying in front of me on the coffee table. Tom is busy with his personal assistant. Packing watches, making phone calls. A business man doing business. Suddenly a “Hey, check this out!”, and what comes flying across the room? Of course, ‘The Shadow’! I react quickly and catch the watch mid flight. When I look at what landed in my hands it is love at first sight. Cold, dark, hart, menacing… Gunmetal! Then I notice the strap. Color and material wise a perfect fit. Tom put it on the watch 20 years ago. For someone who loves military watches, strapping ‘The Shadow’ to my wrist feels immediately right. This is what a true military watch is supposed to look like.
Of course I compare it immediately to my own Submariner Ref. 16800 from 1985 which gives you an idea of how dark ‘The Shadow’ is.
The next day, we drive to Tom’s countryside home. In the car my thoughts are laser focused on ‘The Shadow’ and how to appropriately present it to my audience. I got an idea! I want Tom to film me shooting a classic double barrelled shotgun wearing ‘The Shadow’. I learn it would be illegal to fire a gun on his property. Pity, a picture must suffice.
‘The Shadow’ out in the wild. Despite being a high end collectible, the watch feels incredibly light on the wrist. A nicely worn piece, one does not have to worry too much about it. That is what I love about vintage watches.
The combination between the dark and well-worn, yet incredibly well-preserved case, the beautifully patinated dial and the amazing strap makes ‘The Shadow’ the ideal adventure watch, or as some put it, the ultimate MilSub.
Up Close And Personal
The most stricking feature of ‘The Shadow’ is of course its teflon coated case. The color is not black but gunmetal. An interesting observation is that the bezel appears to be lower than usual.
‘The Shadow’ features a so-called ‘Serif Dial’, nicknamed after the serifs found on the rectangular hour markers at 3, 6 and 9 o’clock. The patina the tritium lume has developed on dial and hands is simply breathtaking. Pictures do not do justice to this dial.
An interesting detail are the engravings between the lugs which were applied with a different typeface than was usual at the time. As you can see in the comparison below, ‘The Shadow’ clearly features Typeface B between the lugs whereas other Submariner models of Ref. 5512, Ref. 5513 and Ref. 5514 (Comex) in close case number proximity all feature Typeface C instead. This is a clear indication that ‘The Shadow’ was a special production.
In addition, with 4.093 million, the case number of ‘The Shadow’ is situated exactly between two known batches of Ref. 5514 made for Comex. So far, there are no other Rolex watches in that range.
I would like to thank Tom Bolt for letting me wear this amazing watch for a few days. It sure was an experience like no other to wake up next to not one but two absolutely amazing military watches on the bedside table.
Thank you for your interest. Please give Tom Bolt a follow on Instagram: @watchguru_.
Btw, ‘The Shadow’ is a relatively new nickname given to the watch by Tom Bolt who incidentally invented many cool nicknames now used in everyday watch terminology – ‘The Beast’ for AP, ‘John Player Special’ Paul Newman, ‘The Great White’, ‘The Albino’, to name but a few.
Excellent essay as usual, enjoy the read out!
Great post Jose, still gasping for breath… what a cool watch. Wasn’t known to me before and if it had additional sword hands, a circled T, a ’60s inlay and military engravings on the caseback, I couldn’t sleep anymore. Thank you for your work and research on this grail of grails.
What an amazing watch thanks
And if you want a present day military issue manual watch made to the same standards of robustness look at a Russian Kommandirskie from Vostok.
For about 110 dollars US.
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