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Cary Grant’s Watch Collection Shows Why We Need to Bring Back Vintage Classics

Cary Grant

Let me start this article by saying I grew up on a film diet of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers and mid-century black comedies. So, while I’ve enjoyed delving into the watch collections of Hollywood heroes like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as well as more modern stars like Robert De Niro, there’s one icon’s watch collection I’ve always wanted to dig into. I’m talking about the ultimate leading man, Cary Grant. It’s particularly relevant following a new dramatization of Grant’s life in the new TV series Archie, with Jason Isaacs in the role of Grant showing his enduring popularity and of course, that immaculate sense of style.

Grant is a giant of the industry with a filmography that includes North by Northwest (1959), Charade (1963), Destination Tokyo (1943), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Suspicion (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and Bringing Up Baby (1938) – to name a just few! When looking at his wristwatches, three of those films are particularly relevant because Grant can be seen wearing some fabulous timepieces in them. There’s his Cartier Tank in North by Northwest, Rolex Oyster Royal in Charade and the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Bubbleback in Destination Tokyo.

Cartier Tank

Cary Grant Cartier Tank

Cary Grant wearing a Cartier Tank (1923)

The watch most associated with Grant is without doubt the Cartier Tank, which he wore throughout his life from as early as 1923 when he was about 20 years old. The Tank itself had only been designed a few years earlier in 1917, making Grant’s one of the earliest references. It features a beautifully understated time only display with Roman numerals in a sleek rectangular case. One of the leading Art Deco designs ever produced.

It perfectly suits Grant’s character as well in that it simply oozes charm without being ostentatious or overt. It is the tailored suit of watches – something that fits so seamlessly and elegantly that it’s almost easy to overlook how perfect it is.

Cary Grant Cartier Tank North by Northwest

Cary Grant wearing a Cartier Tank in the Alfred Hitchcock classic North by Northwest (1959)

In terms of the watch’s film history, Grant wore his own Tank during the filming of North by Northwest. In the film Grant portrays Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive mistaken for an international spy. So, the use of a Tank makes thematic sense in that it’s a very nice watch for a businessman but a poor watch for an action hero. In many regards it’s a shrewd bit of watch casting even though it’s the most obvious watch Grant could wear, ie. his own.

Rolex Oyster Royal

Cary Grant Charade Poster

When it came to finding a wristwatch for the 1963 comedy flick Charade, there was one very important requirement that Grant’s Tank sadly couldn’t meet. It had to be water resistant. The reason for this is that during the film Grant’s character, Brian Cruickshank and his many aliases, is seen wearing his watch in the shower. He actually makes the remark “waterproof” pointing to his watch, highlighting its importance.

Rolex Oyster Royal

Cary Grant wearing a Rolex Oyster Royal in Charade (1963)

Water resistant watches were by no means a new concept in the 1960s, Blancpain had been developing the Fifty Fathoms throughout the 1950s and Rolex had been at it for decades with the Oyster. In fact, it was the Rolex Oyster Royal that Grant wore in the film, a watch first produced in 1933. Interestingly, the Oyster Royal was originally developed for doctors and was an early adopter of a large central seconds hand so that doctors could more easily take a patient’s pulse rate.

Rolex Oyster Royal

Rolex Oyster Royal, image credit: Antiquorum

What this means for the film is that anyone wearing an Oyster Royal is regarded as a trustworthy professional. Something that the film uses to its advantage by giving it to an undercover agent who uses multiple identities throughout the course of the plot. The Rolex shows who is trustworthy in a film full of double crossing and missing money.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Bubbleback

Cary Grant Destination Tokyo

Cary Grant wearing a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Bubbleback in Destination Tokyo (1943)

I will admit that Destination Tokyo is a Grant film I am less familiar with. A film produced in 1943 during the height of World War II and that, if we’re being honest, screams of being war propaganda. It’s a thinly veiled recruitment drive for the U.S Navy Submarine Service. But that’s not to say that the film doesn’t have some merit as a piece of cinema – it’s based on a story written by a former submariner, Steve Fisher, adding a sense of authenticity to the piece. It’s also regarded as the predecessor to a wealth of submarine films that would be produced in following years including 1981’s Das Boot.

Of course, a war film needs something a little more robust than Grant’s preferred Cartier Tank. The solution once again is the Rolex Oyster, but this time the Perpetual Bubbleback, one of Rolex’s earliest automatic watches. The nickname Bubbleback comes from the fact it has an extended caseback to accommodate for the bulky rotor – although that doesn’t stop them from having svelte proportions with a diameter of 30-32mm depending on the reference.

Rolex Bubbleback 2764

Rolex Bubbleback Ref. 2764, image credit: OC Watch Guy

References like the 2764 from the 1940s feature many of the design elements that would eventually be encapsulated into the Rolex Explorer. The sleek steel construction, smooth bezel and highly legible display with large Arabic numerals for precise timekeeping. With its robust construction and military association through films like Destination Tokyo, the Bubbleback is Rolex’s equivalent to field watches like the Dirty Dozen that were being produced around the same period.

Cary Grant Wristwatch
Cary Grant Wristwatch

Really we should be seeing more of these vintage beauties in film and media. Looking at the wrist of Jason Isaac in Archie, it looks like they haven’t gone with a vintage Cartier Tank, opting for a round dial timepiece instead. Which is a shame because Grant’s choice of the Tank is one of the best examples of understated sartorial elegance in the history of Hollywood.

In fact, vintage watches are becoming ever more popular in the current zeitgeist so they shouldn’t be limited to the screen, they should be in your collection as well. And if you’re not sure what to look out for, Cary Grant’s watches in life and film are a great source of inspiration. The Rolex Oyster Royal in particular is an often-overlooked piece in Rolex’s repertoire and is much more accessible than some of the bigger ticket items on the pre-owned market.

Watch Archie on ITVX.

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About the author

Michael Sonsino

As Digital Editor for Oracle Time, Michael needs an eye for detail, which makes it a good thing that his twin joys in life are miniatures and watches. He's a lifelong fan of fine timepieces, especially those of a more historic nature - if it has a twist of Art Deco, all the better. Recent purchase: Seiko Prospex 1959 Alpinist Modern Re-Interpretation. Grail watch: Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921.

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