On November 25 2016, Cuban state television announced to the rest of the world that; former politician and revolutionary, Fidel Castro has died at the age of 90. I’m going to quickly say that I acknowledge my words are treading thin ice, but I’m going to say that describing Castro any further without stirring sentiments to either his critics or worshippers, is an impossible task.
I do my best to keep this blog free from any talk about politics or any current affairs relating to such. However, if said current affair can be interlinked with the world of horology, then an exception can be made. This is one of those exceptions.
It’s fair to say that the infamous/famous [choose your word] Cuban ‘politician’ has quite a portfolio to his name.
These merely include being the thorn in the backside of 11 US presidents, bringing the conflict of the Cold War to the far Western hemisphere (briefly causing the world to contemplate the brink of a thermonuclear war, mind you) and serving as Cuba’s absolute leader for 50 years.
I’m going to add an additional, lesser known note to his profile: He was also one of the most significant figures in the history of horology.
There are two habits of Castro that have been noted down by historians. The First was his passion for smoking fat Cigars, and the Second was often wearing 2 watches on the same wrist. The watches in question happened to be Rolexes.
In all honesty, there aren’t any definitive sources to explain why he did this. The most common and plausible explanation for him doing this, was to be able to view multiple time zones at the same time. One of his pieces was a GMT, the other one a Submariner. It is often said that the watches were set to local time in Havana, Moscow and Washington. (As an additional side note, Washington D.C. and Havana are currently part of the the same time zone (UTC -5), but between the years 1960 and 1964 Havana used the time zone UTC -4) Source
“How is a communist leader able to put one of the world’s most iconic luxury brands on his wrist?”
Now, those who are up to date with their history might pick up on this supposed discrepancy. It doesn’t get much more ‘bourgeoisie’ than wearing a watch that most common people wouldn’t be able to dream about affording. It incites the infamous phrase: “Capitalism for the bosses, communism for the masses”.
Well, that’s what you’d believe at first: wearing a Rolex is the symbol of hypocrisy for Castro. Or is it? This is where it gets interesting; you’ll need a bit more context before jumping to conclusions.
There have been obscure claims that the watches worn by Castro were looted from jewellers, or confiscated from political opponents. Others have said that the watches are mere counterfeits. These claims are somewhat dubious and I will dismiss them for the reasons I will outline in the next paragraph.
In terms of current image and reputation, associating oneself with the name “Rolex” draws imagery of wealth, success and personal accomplishment. This wasn’t the case during the peak of Castro’s reign. Throughout the lifespan of the brand, Rolex has always been known to produce high accuracy timekeeping devices. It has to be noted however, that the watches coming out of the Rolex factory were historically viewed (at best) as high-end tool watches, rather than the prized luxury items they are seen as today Source. I have to say that Rolex watches have never been considered “cheap” by any standards. They did however; occupy what can be described as a much more “accessible” price range. To give you an idea of what i’m talking about, a Stainless Submariner Date (1680/16610) retailed for $180 in 1957 Source. Adjusting for inflation, that would only be equal to roughly $1,600 today. To put that into modern perspective, a brand-new, stainless steel Submariner Date now costs $7100 (A rough average given the various models and demand). Simply put, it would have been a lot more feasible for the common working man to have a Rolex on their wrist during the 60’s, than today.
Another fact I’ll point out is that having a precise timepiece (Especially in the era before quartz watches) was a necessary piece of equipment for field commanders. Worn by personnel from every continent, an accurate watch was crucial for coordinating and synchronising military operations. Castro would often gift a Rolex timepiece to his advisors and close friends. It is said that fellow revolutionary, Che Guevara received at least two different Rolex watches from Castro during the late 1950’s and 1960’s (The story behind that will be mentioned in a future article)
Just to further ‘hit home’ the scale Rolex and communist relations, the father of the Communist Party in China Chairman Mao Zedong , owned two yellow gold Rolex Datejust watches as did Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Taken on the 27th of April in 1963. Here Fidel Castro is seen smoking a Cuban cigar and wearing two Rolex watches in the Kremlin while he chats with Khrushchev, in front of a Karl Marx picture. There are a lot of fascinating elements to this picture. The point of interest is everyone smiling and looking at Castro smoking a cigar. The watches are a nonchalant accessory. Having briefly studied history at UNDERGRADUATE level, I have to appreciate how images like this would have either been censored or outright banned to the public. Source
The death of Castro will stir up emotions for countless people. This article was not intended to be insensitive to said people. Being a politics student, this news entails an abundant amount of things. But as a horologist, the reason this topic interests me so much, is that this is a testament to how deep horology is ingrained in our history. To think that some of the most interesting and unexpected figures throughout time have chosen to wear a particular watch on their wrist, and uncovering the reason why is incredibly fascinating.