Rare, scarce, unusual: Those words get our attention. And when they’re applied to an object – whether it’s a piece of furniture, a work of art, or an item of jewelry – they make us curious about the article in question.
All too often, in a noisy marketplace filled with hyperboles, those terms really aren’t justified. Very few things are genuinely “awesome” or “iconic.” But in the world of watch collecting, one extraordinary vintage timepiece truly is rare. That watch is the Tornek-Rayville TR-900 Dive Watch. And Skinner’s Clocks and Watches auction in August will yet again offer one of these legendary pieces.
Astonishingly, it will be the 10th time in 10 years that Skinner has been entrusted with the sale of a TR-900, they are so rare that Jonathan Dowling, Skinner’s director of clocks, watches and scientific instruments, notes that “the bigger auction houses have offered maybe one to three each over the last decade.”
The backstory of the ultimate dive watch is fascinating in several ways. These complex, sophisticated timepieces were the forerunners of today’s multifunctional smart watches. TR-900s were the ultimate tool watches of their time — specialized instruments designed for use in the United States Navy’s underwater combat program, the elite special operations force now known as SEAL (Sea, Air and Land).
With an unglamorous black face, black bezel and canvas strap, the watch was not an elegant, gleaming timepiece designed to impress. TR-900s were starkly functional stainless steel, water-resistant and antimagnetic, built tough and intended for serious work. The men who wore the watches — the first time a female sailor passed the grueling 37-week training course was in 2021 — faced situations in which they knew they might have to trust their safety, even their lives, to them.
In the mid-1960s, the gold standard of dive watches was the Fifty Fathoms Mil-Spec, made by the Swiss manufacturer Blancpain. However, the 1933 “Buy-American Act,” still in effect then, prevented the U. S. Navy from purchasing the foreign-made watches, although they had been tested and approved by the Navy. Allen Tornek, a New York-based importer of Blancpain, arranged to supply the U. S. government with the required timepieces, rebranded Tornek-Rayville-900.
In 1964 and 1966, a total of around 1,000 of the dive watches were ordered and distributed. But the radium used on the luminous dial was found to be a toxic hazard and the government ordered that most of the TR-900s be destroyed. Limited in number anyway, this move combined with the demanding conditions under which they were used meant that few examples — by some estimates less than 50 — have survived.
It’s not surprising that these truly scarce and seldom seen watches, described by Jonathan Dowling as “simple but stunning in layout, design, proportions and weight,” have a cult following. For devoted dive-watch enthusiasts, Skinner’s “Clocks and Watches” live auction on Aug. 9 offers a genuinely unusual opportunity to acquire a Tornek-Rayville-900.
For those whose tastes run to other styles from other great watchmakers, the sale will offer dynamic neo-vintage and contemporary wristwatches from the likes of Patek Philippe and Cartier.
The vigorous market in vintage watches, especially the multifunctional engineering marvels known as tool watches, continues. Skinner’s record-setting success in this category reflects the specialized expertise that makes Skinner a leading resource for both buyers and sellers.
For more, contact Katie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-787-1114.