When vintage revival is the design direct du jour for so many brands, sending even those with the most un-evocative back catalogues digging through their archives, there is one brand conspicuously absent from the fun: Rolex. Models like the Submariner and Daytona have certainly evolved since their introduction more than 50 years ago, but the approach has been iterative improvements, rather than radical redesigns or homages to the past.
Fortunately Rolex has its sibling brand, Tudor, for these sorts of exercises, allowing them to indulge in a bit of nostalgia, and to recreate some of their great models of the past. The Rolex Explorer has a brother in the Tudor Ranger, which was revived in 2014, while the Daytona stands next to the Monte Carlo, which came back in 2010, and the Submariner has always shared a lot of DNA between the two brands, with Tudor’s version coming back as the Black Bay Heritage in 2012.
What historically separated the dive watches from the two companies was the movement; while Rolex used their own in-house calibre, Tudor sourced theirs from ETA, using such workhorses as the 2483 to keep costs down and allow the brand to compete at a lower price point. Today, things are rather different, with the current Black Bay range containing calibres that are designed and manufactured in-house.
What does differentiate models produced by the two manufacturers today are the aesthetic and technical directions; Rolex are producing what they consider to be the best dive instruments available, with materials that are designed to last virtually indefinitely, such as the ceramic bezel, with Tudor making something with a clear homage to a bygone era, where design details such as a crown guard and dive extension link are sacrificed to ensure that their watches wear like vintage pieces.
Previous iterations of the Black Bay have conveyed the emotion of a historic piece through the aforementioned visual elements, but not in the overall sizing, with the most popular version coming in at a rather modern 41mm. This changed at Baselworld 2018 with the introduction of the Black Bay Fifty-Eight, which is much closer in scale and proportions to the original Tudor 7924 from 1958.
While the diameter is still slightly larger (39mm for the Fifty-Eight vs 37.5mm for the 7924), the lug-tip-to-lug-tip dimensions are extremely close and the thicknesses are similar, so on the wrist, they feel very comparable. What does change the wearability is the weight; on a strap it’s not so noticeable, but the bracelet on the Fifty-Eight has links that are solid steel, whereas the vintage version is hollow inside, so significantly lighter. If you are feeling enterprising, then an original 7205 bracelet with 65 end links can be fitted, as the Fifty-Eight has the same 20mm lug width, but given the price of vintage bracelets, it is not a fiscally responsible decision.
The dial is really well executed, mixing a consistent matte black base, reminiscent of an original gloss dial that has been burnt by the radium luminous material over the years, with warmer, gold-coloured print designed to evoke memories of the original negative relief gilt printing method used by Tudor in the 1950s and 1960s. Relatively spare text, together with applied gold-plated hour markers filled with Super-Luminova make for excellent legibility.
There have been some concessions to modernity; as well as the bracelet which has been machined to make it look like the rivet link version, but is actually with solid links, the rivet being purely decorative, and the applied hour markers with the greenish-hued luminous material that have been mentioned already, the design of the crown has been revised, perhaps to aide more consistent water-resistance, or possibly to make sure there is no confusing it with the Rolex version. The bezel is ratcheted and uni-directional so that timing can be done accurately, but the insert is still anodised aluminium, like the original, and the shade of the red triangle has been carefully chosen so it is not overwhelming and matches the gilt and black nicely.
Perhaps the most enjoyable feature to the vintage enthusiast is not only the dimensions of the case, aided by the lack of a crown guard, but also the generous bevels to the lugs. They are made even more pronounced by the gentle brushed finishing to the top and the contrasting polishing to the sides. It is topped by a semi-domed sapphire crystal with a profile similar to the original’s acrylic version, but with the bonus of scratch and impact resistance. The overall attention to detail allows for the dial, case, and bracelet to work in harmony to provide a bit of nostalgia, while still allowing the Fifty-Eight to stand on its own as a modern watch.
With all of this glowing praise, there are perhaps just two small criticisms from a hardcore vintage enthusiast: the dial would probably look better with the rose insignia, as used by the brand up until the late 1960s, and again on the earlier versions of the Black Bay Heritage, rather than the shield design (a matter further confused by the presence of the rose logo on the crown), and a set of “pencil” hands, similar to those fitted to the unique piece sold at the 2015 Only Watch auction, might be more appropriate. But these are minor critiques to a watch that is so well-balanced aesthetically.
Could the Fifty-Eight be the solution for someone who wants the look and feel of a vintage watch, but without being worried about waterproofness when it rains, whether it can be serviced without too much difficulty, plus a crown that screws down nicely, a bezel that clicks in place and costs virtually 1% of the price of a good example of the iconic “big crown” Submariner? Absolutely.
Is it really a substitute for the romance, allure and historical context of the original, especially those preserved in wonderful condition and have continuous provenance? Possibly not for those who really value those things and have the means to acquire them. But it won’t be a big surprise to know that there are plenty of collectors with important vintage Submariners who have put their name down for a Fifty-Eight, which can be worn day-to-day, with little concern.
The Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight is available now and is priced at HK$26,000 on the steel bracelet, and HK$23,700 on the leather or fabric strap. With thanks to the collector who was kind enough to loan his original reference 7924 Submariner to be photographed.