Last year, we experimented with a new type of story to replace the gifting stories of the past, and also the fun timepieces lists, that typically dominated our Festive issues. Needless to say, it worked out well enough that we are in sequel territory… fair warning, this title itself has a lot of silly options that the team and I are more than happy to inflict upon the world. That said, if you are new to WOW, here is the tl;dr. We had been unhappy with gift guides and such for years, because who amongst you is shopping for another person? The team here has only ever shopped for family, and that feels reasonable; I seriously doubt that anyone buys watches as Christmas presents for friends, colleagues and business partners.
Watches are intrinsically valuable, which is what makes cheap and badly made watches such an affront. Although it is certainly a cliched trope, time is priceless after all. On the other hand, watches make excellent gifts, if enough thought and research is put into it. Our solution is to simply present (no pun intended) watches the team itself bought, or are planning to buy, or narrowly missed in 2022. These represent the best of our thoughts and intentions, and are truly adventures in space and time. Now, if you know anything about watch writers, we live for this kind of thing. Usually, we focus on other people’s stories, because we are not that interesting! Once a year is just right, I think, to turn the spotlight onto ourselves, for a bit of light introspection and confessional essay writing.
Keeping this in mind, the stories are divided by author rather than by timepieces or some sort of clever categorisation we have come up with. There are no rules, other than authenticity of course. For the fuller explanation on what will become year-ending series for us, check out last year’s story titled Many Hands.
Before moving on, I will use this introduction to note a few pieces that did not make for this list, due to space constraints, brand conflicts or, most annoyingly, a lack of pictures. These include the Sinn 556 A RS, Longines Record Heritage, Tudor Heritage Advisor, Parmigiani Tonda PF, Boldr Freediver GMT and M.A.D. 1 Red. As you can tell from the image used here, the Christopher Ward C1 Bel Canto is also on this list — but more on that next issue… Before we move on, we will not be foregoing our fun with time lists or stories, unlike the gift guide which is (probably) gone for good. We just cannot resist the lure of good quirky and quixotic watches, such as the Omega Speedmaster Chrono Chime.
Finally, tougher economic times might be around the corner, which is really unsurprising given how much easy money was around due to emergency pandemic-related fiscal measures. This will not stop us from enjoying our little hobby, although purchase decisions may, invariably, be impacted and adjusted. We shall just have to wait and see how much the watch collecting market has really changed in the last five years, before making any decisions. For now, read on to discover our adventures in time for the year that was 2022…
For the second year running, I am writing about a Rolex I bought, but I humbly submit that my decision has little to do with current commercial realities — yes, that includes advertiser consideration. Ladies and gentlemen, this watch defies expectations because it should not have been available for me to buy. What you are looking at is the Rolex Cellini Prince reference 5443/9, also known as the Rayon Flammé de la Gloire by dint of its special aesthetic touches, and it was bought new in 2022. To be absolutely clear, so that you do not mistake me, this literally glorious example of fine watchmaking is new, not pre-owned. Let me explain, but for those who want the benefit of being able to decide if this missive is worth reading, my hook is in the visual, and the brand new state of the model. If you find this rectangular watch intriguing, or mourn its disappearance from the contemporary catalogue, then read on. If you did not realise that Rolex even made such a watch, then you should definitely pay close attention.
Objectively, this watch is at least one order of magnitude lower in the hype ranking than the Oyster Perpetual Milgauss that I wrote about last year. You see here reference 5443/9 in all its splendour and glory, as shot by our desperately overworked photographer, Jaya. Now, there are some peculiarities with this model, and plenty of history, but just the facts about this reference (and its variants) are fascinating.
First of all, you will have noticed that not only is this watch not in the familiar Oyster case, it resembles an A. Lange & Söhne Cabaret or a Lang & Heyne Georg more than it does any Rolex model. Some observers even call it the Rolex Tank, but they are being facetious, and you should ignore them. Like those German watches, and unlike the typical Tank, reference 5443 watches feature shaped manual movements. Actually, the three other variants in this series also use shaped movements; I will spare but a few words towards the close on the other three versions because each one is really a different watch, and I only own one. You can also admire calibre 7040-4 via the exhibition caseback… yes, there is an exhibition caseback, and I will return to that engine (and the -4 there) behind it shortly.
A Personal Treasure
Moving on, the watch is totally impossible to read in the dark, with the hands and markers (both in white gold) about as luminous as coal. The brand name and the model name are engraved on white gold plates while silver, white, black and red dominate the dial. Those rays, the signature of this model, are a sort of guilloche, and radiate from the centre of each half of the dial, acting to focus the eye on the hour and minute hands, and the small second hand. The other three versions of this model have a variety of finishes, mostly guilloche of some kind, but unique to the specific model. In another unusual move, the dial finishing is matched on the movement, but more on that later.
Water-resistance is a bit tricky here because the old specifications have it as 30 metres, but it is listed on a number of (unauthorised) dealer websites as either 50m or 100m. Regardless, this is a white gold dress watch with a bonded alligator leather strap so I will not be going kayaking with this guy. Both the strap and the butterfly clasp are unique to this model, and are no longer in use with any current production Cellini watches. They add further idiosyncratic touches to a watch already replete with them.
When Rolex debuted this model, almost 20 years ago now in 2005, it was greeted with guffaws and disbelief; I was certainly one of those who could not believe that the Geneva watchmaker would have gone in this Art Deco direction. On my wrist, it gets the same reaction today…, mainly from me, but not only me. Then again, this is not a watch to impress — most people would not even know it is a Rolex. It is purely a personal pleasure. This is a somewhat bold claim, to be sure, but I can back it up.
This brings me to the real story here, which is how I finally scored reference 5443 — and brand new from an authorised dealer at that. In 2005, when I saw pictures of the watch, it immediately struck me as something special. I did not know at that time that this was the first and only time that Rolex had used an exhibition caseback in a regular production watch. Given my track record of falling for watches that are, shall we say, low-key, I figured that there was a time limit here; true enough, Rolex discontinued this entire series in 2014/2015. Despite being in production for longer than a number of other references (notably several iterations of Oyster Perpetual models, including the GMT Master II, Explorer and Sea-Dweller), it might be less common, which I would put down to both the shape of the case and the movement.
Reference 5443 was only ever produced in gold, putting it out of reach for me for most of its run because I could reasonably get complications at that price point. The watch retailed, in white gold, for about US$12,000 in 2014/2015, although you could get it for under US10,000 pre-owned — auction house Christie’s recorded a sale of reference 5443/9 in 2011 for HKD60,000. That price is a bargain, and is probably unlikely these days, but it is plenty gettable below US$15,000, pre-owned. For the record then, I will not reveal the exact price I paid (since it is discontinued anyway) but I will say that I was in the US$10,000-15,000 ballpark, and you can find pre-owned examples for less. Being a magazine editor, I have to be careful with my discretionary spending (see The Conversation series with WOW Thailand Editor Ruckdee Chotjinda for more on that) so extravagant three-handers are not really feasible. To add reference 5443/9 to my collection, I had to use what I had saved for the A. Lange & Söhne Cabaret; you should not expect a story on this superlative watch from me anytime soon. So, what swayed me? Allow me to take you through it…
At the close of Watches & Wonders Geneva 2022, I spent a few weeks working and on holiday in Switzerland to catch the tail-end of the ski season. Like many of the visiting watch journalists last year at the fair, I wanted to see if Rolex watches were actually available for sale in the brand’s home country. Of course, nothing new appeared to be available, although I witnessed a steady and embarrassing stream of tourists wandering into stores with just one question on their lips: ‘Are there any professional or sports Rolex models for sale?’ Not only is this enervating, but it makes one feel like one is trying to buy a Yeezy or something similarly abhorrent.
On my final stop before hopping onto my return flight to Singapore, I found myself at the airport watch and jewellery store in Munich… and lo and behold, there was the reference 5443/9, just minding its own business in a display case. Not only that, it was sharing space with its arguably more handsome sibling, reference 5441/9. My immediate thought was that this store, operated by Juwelier Hilscher, had gotten into the pre-owned business, but the very accommodating specialists told me that both Prince models were new. Not LNIB (like new in original presentation box with papers) but actually new, with a full warranty from Rolex — the five-year contemporary kind. Needless to say, I was astonished; I will give you a moment to be astonished as well, but more surprising turns are coming…
Given that I had found both references entirely by chance, in an airport that I was transiting through (had it been Frankfurt, this would have all turned out quite differently), I decided that such an opportunity must be seized. The rest would have been history, but since this was not a planned purchase, my credit limits were not up to the task. Yes, I failed to buy either reference, much to my chagrin and also that of the two very game chaps manning the store. Obviously, the story does not end there…
Ordinarily, we do not dwell too much on the buying process but, as the editor, I get to make exceptions. I was inspired by none other than Swatch Group supremo Nicholas Hayek Jr, who made public comments about how searching for a watch can be an adventure. He was referring to the MoonSwatch phenomenon, and musing over would-be buyers possibly going from store to store in various different towns just to seek out the MoonSwatch that they are after. While I have said all I have to say on this frenzy, Hayek’s words spurred me on to simply not give up on reference 5443 — and got me thinking that this might make for a good story. Well, you can be the judge of that.
A Dark Turn
After my failure in April, I tried to contact the store again, via email. This proved difficult because there was no direct contact; all enquiries had to be funnelled through the Munich airport customer communication contact. Functionally, this meant that replies to emails took a minimum of 24 hours; no doubt messages had to be relayed back and forth between multiple parties. To summarise here, the store was unable to hold the watch for me, with or without a deposit. It was also against their policy to allow me to pay for the watch and then ship it to me. Instead, the advice was that the watches might yet be available if I was in Munich again later. This sounded improbable given that my next Europe visit was to be in July — three months is exactly three months too long to expect a Rolex to remain available. But the rectangular Cellini Prince is no ordinary Rolex.
Having no other recourse, I decided to simply try again at Munich in July, and hope against hope that the steady stream of Rolex hunters marching into the Hilscher store would miss my targets. I had to make special arrangements to route myself through Munich, and all that extra cost was on me (meaning I had to add it to the cost of acquiring this watch, or writing it off if I failed). As my business trip wound down, I emailed Munich airport again, to be sure they knew when I was arriving. I was pleased to learn that reference 5443 was still sitting pretty in the store; reference 5441 had been sold some time in May or June. This worried me but I was still upbeat about my chances. I was already all-in on buying the watch but I will not try to fool you about my state of mind right up to the moment I touched down in Munich. Basically, I was riven by anxiety, and plagued by the thought of someone beating me to the watch right before I got to the store; perhaps I would even witness the sale, which would have been the ultimate humiliation.
Arriving at the store, I was elated to see that reference 5443 was still where I had seen it last. My pulse literally quickened as I asked the staff about the watch, introducing myself as the interested party who had been emailing them incessantly; the two people on duty that day were not the ones I dealt with in April, but I was not concerned. I had all the relevant email exchanges on this subject, and the names of those whom I engaged with. As the staff sorted things out, I looked around the store, basking in the warm afterglow of relief. Then the Hilscher people dropped a bombshell: no Rolex Watch was for sale, and that the airport customer service staff had erred in telling me that I could purchase reference 5443.
All’s Well That Ends Well
Even now, I cannot quite put my feelings at that moment into words. I suppose I felt something like Charlie Brown must have, after failing to kick the football for the umpteenth time. It seemed cruel that fate had put the watch within my grasp, only to engage in a last-minute rug-pull. I was dazed as I wandered around the store pondering my next move. I had a day in the city before my connecting flight to ruminate and wallow in misery.
That night, I decided to write about this adventure, even though the outcome fell short of expectations. I am hardly too shy to admit defeat, and I felt that getting a story out of this was still worth something. For the sake of closure, I emailed the Munich Airport customer service again, expressing my disappointment and hoping that I did not sound whiny. The consolation in all this, of course, was that the Cabaret was once more on my collecting radar; the irony of this series of unfortunate events unfolding in Germany was not lost on me. On the other hand, Hilscher had an interesting range of unusual watches from other brands that intrigued me, including a number of discontinued Tudor watches. Armed with the thought of buying something, and taking one last look at reference 5443, I returned to the airport the next day and made straight for the store…and then the story took another turn.
While surveying the Tudor display cases, the Hilscher specialist — there was only one at that time, but the same as the day before — approached me and asked if I was seriously interested in reference 5443. At first, I thought they wanted to profile me or something — the different Hilscher specialists all asked if I was trader — but I was told that I might be able to buy the watch after all. I was perplexed at this point, as I waited for another (presumably more senior) person to arrive on the scene. When she finally did, which did not take long, we had a short chat about my dealings with the store in April, and subsequent exchanges with the airport staff. For whatever reason, she concluded that I could indeed purchase reference 5443, if I wanted to… The rest is now recorded in the pages of WOW, and online at Luxuo. com, for posterity. On that note, we had to take pictures of my own reference 5443/9 for this story because Rolex does not supply images for watches that are no longer part of the current collection.
The story does not quite end here though, and in fact has not yet ended. You will, perhaps, notice scratches, in the photos of the watch here. I do tend to be fastidious about my watches, and scratches take years to accumulate. The ones on reference 5443 were already present when I looked at the watch back in April; in addition, the leather strap looked pretty, well, shopworn. Given that I had all the original paperwork for the watch, I sent it to Rolex in Singapore to check on the state of the movement, and tell me if they still had the strap in stock, if I wanted to replace the existing one. While Rolex did supply me with a fresh version of the same bonded leather strap — showcasing a rigorous commitment to servicing even discontinued models and parts — I may yet opt for more strap options.
Movement wise, I am assured that all is well, and I have not noticed any running issues. Now calibre 7040 is quite special, as mentioned earlier, and is also a rare example of Rolex creating a calibre just for this series of four watches. In fact, there are four versions of calibre 7040, each with finishings to match the dial and case decoration. In addition, as Tim Mosso of WatchBox noted, the movement is mainly machine finished but does feature noticeable human touches too. In the version seen here, calibre 7040-4, the bridges and plates are lavishly decorated with the same style of rays as the dial, and mirrored right down to having two centrally emanating rays, one on the upper half and one on the lower half. Particularly impressive are the gear teeth of the rachet wheel and the crown wheel, each of which is polished. This calibre did not get a Parachrom hairspring, but it did receive the then-new Paraflex shock absorber, which Grail Watch reports was the first time this system was applied to a Rolex calibre. Yet another first for this important timepiece that has since been largely and unfairly forgotten.
Whoever dreamed up the idea of revisiting the rectangular Prince this century was very ambitious indeed. Just producing one version at scale would have been tough, given the very specific nature of all the details — Rolex does not even use the same style of dagger hands gracing reference 5443 anymore. I will conclude this very long essay (our longest on one watch that is not the cover watch) with a note about all the idiosyncrasies of the Cellini Prince. In addition to not being for everyone, it is also really only for collectors who already own Rolex watches; the entire range is discontinued so it is likely that only true collectors will bother trying to get one. If you do, you will feel the compulsion to try to complete a set of all four pieces. I shall report back on how I am faring on this front later in 2023.
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