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Spotlight on: The Tiffany & Co. signed Rolex Red Submariner

Find out why a Tiffany & Co. signed Rolex “Red Submariner” is worth nearly £40,000 and what makes it suitable for the aspirational collector.

If there was one thing the watch community learned in 2017, it was that vintage Rolexes have finally taken centre stage at high profile watch auctions, nudging aside the age-old headliners, the Patek Philippe complications. But it had been a long while coming. When the hammer dropped on Paul Newman’s Paul Newman in November for a cool £13.5 million, the new record price for any watch ever sold, it was merely the curtain falling on a play concluded many acts before. 

The worship of vintage Rolex sports watches started building at the beginning of the nineties. From the outside, their cult community gatherings looked something like nerdy car boot sales, governed by people who spent far too much time idolising the world’s champion anti-nerds, like Newman and Steve McQueen. But when they were given a platform, aka the Internet, and more recently Instagram, their hobby started to attract a wider audience. All the while, their “grail watches” were getting rarer. 

As the dust settled on the Newman sale, which made headlines around the world, we discussed what it meant for watch collecting across the board, and served up my best guesses for the next top sellers. As a follow-up, we thought we’d take a look nearer the other end of the watch-collecting ladder. While in the Editor’s Pick series we have touted many pieces as future stars, the piece I’m focusing on today is already halfway there, known by the Rolex faithful as a gateway to serious collecting. 

The “Red Submariner” is one of the most talked about watches on the vintage scene. It rears its head at every major auction and its value has been climbing steadily over the past few decades. There is, of course, no watch officially called the “Red Submariner” as far as Rolex is concerned; it’s a pet name assigned by the community, something they do for any reference that charms them. The term is spoken for the watches produced over the first few years of the Ref. 1680, which ran from 1966 to 1979, when Rolex printed the word “Submariner” in red, before changing it to white in the mid-seventies. 

Tiffany & Co. signed Rolex “Red Submariner”

In the crazy world of Rolex collecting, nuance and rarity are key. The “Red Submariner” was not exactly made sparingly, but given its age, numbers are on the dip, especially those with all-original parts and service papers. The best examples also have a strong patina on the dial, which in the vintage Rolex game is pretty much essential. What you’re looking for is an even cheddar-cheese colour across the tritium-filled hour markers and hands, and a dial that has faded or turned a shade of dark brown.

But this model has another string in its bow. In the late 1950s, Rolex struck a deal with Tiffany & Co. in New York, which allowed them to print their name on the dials of Rolexes that they sold through their shops. The agreement turned out to be lucrative for both parties and it carried on for 30 years. Rolex explored this concept with a number of other brands, including even Cartier, but Tiffany & Co. was the biggest seller. Still, Tiffany & Co. signed Rolexes only accounted for a small percentage of those ever sold. 

Tiffany & Co. signed Rolex “Red Submariner”

What we have then is an extremely rare watch, made interesting by the now-unusual “Tiffany & Co.” label, the red writing and the benefit of the genuine aged look, which all top brands have been rushing to replicate over the past decade. What’s more, the 1680 is 40 mm and its style still perfectly suits modern tastes, so this can be worn regularly, although admittedly given its value it’s best used as an occasion piece.

This example is special for its quite remarkable condition. It has the original “Mercedes” hands, bezel insert and dial. The case has not been overly polished and the bracelet has held its form. Finally, it has the all-important box and service paper history, proving its authenticity inside and out. So while this doesn’t have the direct celebrity connection, it does have the rarity, nuance, condition and authenticity, which means it’s likely to have many more decades of auctions ahead of it.

Tiffany & Co. signed Rolex “Red Submariner”

For more information, pictures and buying options check out the Xupes Rolex page. For news, reviews and style guides on vintage watches, follow our magazine.