The Dirty Dozen
May 31st 2022
There’s always so much to talk about in the news with regards to the antique world from high selling lots to the current ongoing ivory ban but I came across a sale in North Lincolnshire with a watch that was found in a drawer selling for £12’000. On further investigation I read that it was from the Dirty Dozen collection. While yes, the price dictates a lot in an item, but I thought it was more fitting to talk about the history of the Dirty Dozen, what they are and where they got their name. Its perhaps not what you would expect. I would imagine you have all guessed the easy part that it involves 12, 12 refers to 12 individual brands, 12 brands of field wrist watches designed specifically for the military during World War II. I think often when people think of military memorabilia they probably don’t first think of watches and yet watches were just as important as other pieces of a soldier’s uniform.
During WWII the British Ministry of Defence commissioned a new type of wristwatch to best aid soldier’s missions. They needed to be reliable, accurate, waterproof, shockproof, and a huge step up from trench watches which were their predecessor. The Ministry consulted 12 Swiss watch brands in the hope they could succeed. These were Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex. During the commission the Ministry specified exactly what they required for the watches as the correct or non-correct function could literally be a matter of life and death. They specified the watches had to have a black dial with Arabic numerals, Luminous hands and hour markers, a railroad minute track, shatterproof crystal, and a stainless-steel case.
Each manufacture delivered as many watches as their production lines would allow ending in a mixed release of each watch with an estimated total of 150’000 in circulation originally. Larger manufactures could deliver up to 25’000 watches while smaller manufactures only managed to deliver 1000-2000. The watches were classified for “general service” but issued to special units such as radio operators and artillery staff. Across the years of the war and the many years since, many of these watches have been lost leaving a very scare amount left especially those which were produced in such low numbers initially. This has created a huge demand for such important pieces of history and is the reason some manufactures can demand a massive price in auction with the right provenance. With collectors all over the world there are only a handful of complete sets known due to the scarcity of certain manufactures. Interestingly many of the brands mentioned above are still around today and have reproduced multiple versions of their original watches which are available at a fraction of the cost of the originals leaving behind a legacy of the Dirty Dozen. For more information, please contact us at Jacksons Antique.
Cover photo credit – Watches of Knightsbridge London.
Article photo credit – Production numbers based on estimates published by Konrad Knirim’s in his book entitled “British Military Timepieces”