When the Black Bay Pro was announced there were, as you might expect, a number of different reactions and many views expressed, one of which was that the Black Bay Pro – a GMT watch, made by Tudor – bore more of a resemblance to the Explorer II – a watch made, obviously, by Rolex – than was good for it. In short, it felt at least to some enthusiasts that what Tudor had done was copy, not one of its own vintage models, but a vintage model made by another company, albeit one with which it has close ties, and that the BB Pro was essentially trying to dress itself in borrowed glory. In this, the latest Point/Counterpoint, Danny Milton argues that the resemblance is indeed too close for comfort. I dissent from this view and as always, like Don Corleone refusing Virgil Sollozzo, I will give you my reasons.
First of all, there is absolutely no denying that one of the first things you are apt to think of when you look at the Black Bay Pro is in fact the Explorer II. Moreover, you don’t just think of the Explorer II in general as the resemblance is not a generic one – you think of the very first Explorer II, the reference 1655.
The 1655 was produced from 1971 to 1984 and of all the Explorer II models, it’s the one you’re most likely to think of when you think of vintage Explorer II watches. The 1655 had a steel bezel with an engraved 24-hour scale, a very large 24-hour hand (not independently settable; the Explorer II would not get an independently settable 24-hour hand until the introduction of the 16550, in 1984). The watch had stick hands – the Mercedes hour hand wouldn’t show up until 1985 – and a very prominent, arrow-head 24-hour hand, as well as enough tritium on the hands and dial (including at the five-minute and two-and-a-half-minute markers) to prime a fusion reactor. The 1655 was not a dual time zone watch – the 24-hour hand cannot be independently set, and the bezel doesn’t rotate (today’s Explorer II does, of course, have a 24-hour hand that can be independently set, and retains the fixed bezel of the original).
It’s a funny watch – as most enthusiasts will remember, the Explorer II was originally marketed as a watch designed for cave explorers – speleologists, in other words, which is about as niche a market as I can think of. Rolex seems to have realized this fairly early as their ads for the watch went from billing it as a speleolgist’s speciality, to being a watch for explorers and exploration in general. Their ads showed the watch being used by everyone from hot air balloonists to volcanologists to, somewhat more mundanely, skiers – but the 1655 never really shook its niche status during its entire production run, although it has, in recent years, become, like virtually anything that’s vintage Rolex, collectible. I think it’s worth noting that the tritium lume on the 1655 is actually better-suited for prolonged spells underground than Super LumiNova/Chromalight, as it doesn’t need to be charged by exposure to a light source in order to glow.
The modern version of the Explorer II, like most Rolex watches, has changed both a lot since it was first introduced, and almost not at all; the fixed 24-hour bezel, with its black engraved numerals, and the prominent 24-hour hand are recognizably and directly descended from the original. What Rolex doesn’t do, and apparently never will do, are reproductions or re-editions of vintage models – a stock in trade for many brands but not for the Crown.
And this is where the Shield comes in. Tudor has a history of overt appeals to vintage design cues – the riveted-style bracelet on the Black Bay Pro is a case in point – and the fact that the Pro is so directly reminiscent of the 1655 is exactly the point of the watch. It’s worth noting that there are not, in fact, all that many features from the 1655 which have made their way unchanged into the Black Bay Pro. The Pro’s snowflake hands, snowflake 24-hour hand and for that matter, snowflake-style seconds hand, as well as the shape and distribution of the lume plots, are all different from the 1655 – it’s really just the bezel that’s a direct shout-out. You could argue that the color of the 24-hour hand is a shout-out to the 1655, but the 1655 originally came with a dark red 24-hour hand, or so it seems from vintage Rolex color advertisements.
So here we have a watch that if you actually break it down, feature by feature, actually bears little resemblance to the 1655. It reminds us of the 1655, thanks partly to its functionality, and partly due to its having borrowed what’s arguably the 1655’s most recognizable feature, which is the 24-hour bezel with the vertical dividers between the hour markers. But a borrowed feature doth not a slavish imitation make. I can put on a ten-gallon hat any day of the week, but that doesn’t make me the Lone Ranger (or, perhaps more relevantly for today’s reader, Woody from Toy Story.) Certainly, it’s a Black Bay (Pro … I am not sure why “Pro,” although the lineage of the Explorer II is certainly oriented towards professional explorers) with a 1655 bezel, but I think that’s as far as it goes.
If the question is whether or not Tudor should be allowed, either by Rolex or by enthusiasts, to play with vintage Rolex design cues rather than vintage Tudor design cues, I think the answer is, who if not Tudor? First of all, they are sister brands to put it mildly and second, Rolex is never going to do it (although after this year’s crown-left GMT Master, maybe we should be a little more inclined to expect the unexpected), and if in the Black Bay Pro we have a watch pleasantly reminiscent of the 1655 without slavishly imitating it – and, moreover, at an almost absurdly low price; $3,675 on a strap – it looks like a win-win situation for Tudor and its customers.
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