I was recently strolling down the Burlington Arcade, when my eye was caught by a replica watch in the window of George Somlo’s shop. Somlo is the only authorised dealer of vintage Omega, and has a strong line in vintage Cartier, Patek and 1960s/’70s Piaget…. But this was something I had not seen in a fashionable West End window, at least not for some years: a Rolex King Midas Cellini with gadrooned case and bracelet.
As a weathervane of tastes in vintage timepieces, Somlo is as good as any, and with West End rents being what they are, he’s not about to put dead merchandise in the window, ergo, this esoteric offering from the bowels of Rolex history must be enjoying a comeback and all I can do is ask why it took so long.
It is probably because the gold case fake Rolex King Midas has been the black sheep of the family overlooked and underappreciated for at least a generation that I like it so much. Even people who claim to know Rolex well will tell you blithely that the only numbered and limited series that Rolex has ever done is the fabled ref. 5100 “Rolex Quartz” that made its debut in the 1970s. Whereas in truth, Rolex had issued a numbered and limited series of watches long before the first clouds of the looming Quartz Crisis had even begun to gather on the horizon. Although its distinctive design suggests the 1970s, the King Midas appeared in Rolex catalogs as early as 1962.
One of the most daring pieces ever launched by Rolex, the Rolex King Midas copy with quartz movement was both far ahead and way behind its times, and so sui generis as to defy, or at least complicate, accurate description. As the name suggested, the watch was unabashed in its lavish use of 18K gold. Once worn, the Midas is impossible to forget; it weighs on the wrist like an 18K gold manacle rather than a watch. But there was much more to it than simply a large quantity of precious metal. The bracelet, composed of articulated ingots, was closer in appearance to the tracks of a tank than the conventional watch bracelet. The case and bracelet were not merely harmonious; it was impossible to tell where the head of the watch ended, and the bracelet began. Even in the 21st century, the King Midas looks idiosyncratic and unusual; in the early ’60s, it must have seemed like a UFO.
The Midas’s early adoption of the integrated case and bracelet design, along with the watch’s angular styling, has fueled speculation that Gérald Genta, who would become famous for integrated designs for both Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, was involved in the creation of the Rolex King Midas. Whatever the truth of this assertion, it was certainly a bravura exercise in detailed design: the winding crown with a sawtooth-style profile and the concealed clasp were not familiar from other models in the Rolex range. And just in case the wearer was unable to decipher the in Greek script on the dial, the angled case wall either side of the winding crown was deeply engraved with the words “Rolex King Midas.” Unlike later examples, the first series of the watch carried only the words “Rolex” and “.”
The key to understanding this watch lay in the name — using solid gold throughout, it was bruited about as the heaviest and most expensive men’s watch in production, not just at Rolex, but in the entire industry.
“Never before — a watch so daringly new, so outrageously different, so harmoniously classical. Named after the legendary king with the golden touch, sculptured from a block of solid 18ct gold, the King Midas is a watch designed for the most discriminating people in the world,” enthused an early advertisement. “Each top quality fake Rolex is a wonderfully solid mass of gold, very, very heavy and… very, very expensive.”
“You may not be able to afford one, but you can’t afford not to see one. Come and daydream. See Midas. Touch Midas. A real masterpiece in gold, to which no illustration can do justice.”
It is, unarguably, an extreme expression of watchmaking. Nobody needed the Midas. But then nobody needed a watch that would work at the bottom of the Marianas Trench 11 kilometres under the waves; the point was that Rolex could, and dared, to make it. It is fascinating to think that at around the same time that Rolex was developing its very special Deepsea model with the hemispherical watch glass for the Trieste bathyscaphe excursion to the deepest point on the planet, it was also working on a watch that was almost the diametric opposite.