In 1952 a team of scientists, servicemen and huskies were preparing to set off from Britain to chart the geology of the North Greenland ice cap. Hans Wilsdorf, the boss of Tudor, a watch company, saw a marketing opportunity. He arranged for Tudor’s new model, the Oyster Prince, to be given to all the members of the expedition. They were asked to test the accuracy of the watch by measuring it against the BBC’s radio signals and recording the results in a logbook. The Oyster Prince passed with flying colours, proving it could survive temperatures as low as -50 degrees and being submerged in icy water.
Wilsdorf milked the story with ads about how “The Tudor Oyster Prince roughs it in Greenland”. It was a fantastic coup, enabling a relatively unknown brand to step out of the shadow of its more established parent company, Rolex, and plant a flag for tough yet simple design.
Swiss watches currently have a serious problem. Exports in the luxury-watch sector were down 10% last year, according to The Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. But compared to other brands, Tudor is in a good place to withstand the storm in the market. Its models cost up to £4,000; Rolex watches sell from £4,000 upwards. When pricier models stall, Tudor still sells.
The downside is that Tudor has sometimes been called the “poor man’s Rolex”. Certainly, Tudor’s design pays homage to Rolex, but – thanks to Wilsdorf and the Greenland expedition – it has a strong identity, and the brand has a freedom and informality of its own.
The Heritage Black Bay Bronze is a particularly fine example of the quirky Tudor mentality. If Rolex had made this collection, it would probably have been solid gold. Tudor opted for bronze, a dense metal rarely used in watchmaking which changes colour with age so that each timepiece takes on a unique patina. I only wish it also came in a size suitable for the female wrist. At 43mm, this heft of bronze might just work for a shot-putter. But I do long to wear this chunky, bronze men’s watch – evidence, if anybody needed it, how much the business of buying watches is not about reason but about feelings.
Still, in these market conditions, manufacturers need to push costs down and demand up. Tudor is attending to costs by sharing technology with other watchmakers. It has partnered with its fellow watch brand Breitling by modifying the Breitling B01 chronograph movement with its own patented regulating organ (and finishes) to power the latest Tudor Black Bay Chrono. Breitling in turn are using a version of Tudor’s in-house MT56 calibre in their B20 movements. This is rare in an industry as paranoid and secretive as the watch industry but will set a precedent for others looking for new ways to bring down prices.
Tudor is pushing up demand by offering its own mechanical movements at very competitive prices, enabling it to boost market share. It also needs to get more watches onto wrists. To draw attention to all this cut-price creativity, it has recently employed David Beckham, an enthusiastic Rolex wearer, as its new ambassador. It also needs to balance the hyper-masculine branding with marketing that appeals to the sizeable contingent of women who like their watches on the manly side. Not all of Tudor’s designs are as chunky as the one I tried on. Tudor has hired Lady Gaga, who embodies the brand’s risk-taking funky persona. I can just imagine a wildly dressed Gaga, galloping through the frozen wastes on another Greenland trek wearing her steel Tudor with huskies in tow. I might just tag along.