Back in the day, we let our kids go off to play for hours at a time, with only the admonishment to “be home by supper!” There were no parents hanging out at the school bus stop. Hockey players didn’t wear helmets or face masks. Not even the goalies.
And tool watches didn’t have crown guards. Say it with me now, in a high male falsetto voice… “WHAAAAAT??”
Some folks love ‘em, some folks hate ‘em. Some wonder why they’re necessary. So let’s take a closer look at that most common feature of tool watches. The crown guard.
Now, before we go any farther, I’m going to answer that question up above – why are they necessary? The short answer is, you really don’t want a glancing blow to skim your watch and sheer off the crown at the same time it’s taking a chunk of your flesh, do you? After all, the flesh will grow back.
But say you’re at depth on a working dive, or you’re in the wilderness in a situation where you’re counting on your watch. With the catastrophic damage to your watch that comes from losing the crown, your watch may well have just become dead weight. In that case, you’re probably toast and the flesh won’t ever have a chance to grow back.
So let’s assume that, way back when, either a watchmaker had an epiphany or some poor guy had the crown knocked off his timekeeper and suffered some nasty consequences. Either way, somebody somewhere along the way decided crown guards were a good idea.
And frankly, my money’s on the boys at Rolex. You see, while Panerai was the first to patent their bridge-style guard in 1956, Rolex was apparently the first to produce crown guards integrated into the case in 1959, after five years of Submariner production.
In fact, much has been written about the Rolex and Tudor “square” crown guards. Watches with these highly desirable features were produced in such small numbers (~100 each is one estimate), that they’re a grail to some collectors. The production quantities were so low because the guards actually did their work too well. The wearer had a tough time getting his fingers on the crown at all, to unscrew and wind or set the watch. So Rolex case designers had to “loosen” the clearances some, just so a guy could get at the crown.
These days, crown guards come in a lot of different configurations. The classic, and the one we suspect you think of then you hear the term, is machined right into the profile of the case. This is certainly the case with Rolex and the Omega Seamaster.
Others are bolted on. Panerai is a great example of this, and you see it with some boutique divers too, like Ancon. I guess it saves costs in manufacturing. But it leaves me a little squeamish – I hope they used plenty of Loctite®).
Panerai Radiomir from 1955 (photo courtesy of John Goldberger)
Still others either recess the crown into the side of the case (Tutima) or do a combination of recessing the crown and having low profile crown guards in a non-symmetrical case (the iconic Speedmaster).
So crown guards serve a useful, even vital purpose. And done well, they’re attractive, unique, or iconic (in the case of Panerai).
Rolex Submariner 6538
However, you will note, the Rolex 6538 from the late 1950s was definitely pre-crown guards. In his escapades in Dr. No and Goldfinger, Commander Bond was quite successful without them. Which puts us in mind of that line from a climactic scene in the old Hugh Grant movie, Notting Hill, “James Bond didn’t have to put up with this shit!”