Last week I was thumbing through a sun-faded back issue of Skin Diver from 1970. In addition to tips on photographing underwater scenes, a Fish Of The Month column, and other scuba-related content, just about every issue has a Rolex advertisement in it, so I was anticipating reeling in a nice black and white 5513 Submariner ad. Instead I ended up catching something even bigger…
Lost in the middle of the magazine, like a sunken treasure waiting to be recovered, was a two-page spread about a Rolex watch; a long-lost artifact of Rolex lore. The article’s words – printed on paper that had turned brittle and smelled musty – were penned by a diving renaissance man, Dick Anderson. After reading the editorial I researched its author and determined Dick to be the kind of guy we would’ve loved to interview for a Watch Patina feature. I speak about Dick in the past tense because he passed away in 2006. But Dick not being with us didn’t stop me from treating him as if he were still alive. I decided to exercise some creative license and treat his article for Skin Diver as if it were a transcript of an interview we conducted. My hope in doing this is that through his unique tale about his Rolex Submariner, his name and contributions would resurface in conversations about sport watches.
The legacy Dick left behind still ripples throughout the world of diving. He was among the first employees of U.S. Divers and became the first authorized Aqua Lung repairman in the U.S. In addition to helping revolutionize the profession of diving, Dick was also instrumental in popularizing diving as a recreational sport. The list of Dick’s accomplishments is as long as the Mariana Trench is deep, including enshrinement in the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame. Part of his induction ceremony was a narrated clip highlighting his fifty-plus year career, part of which was a personal fascination with hunting for gold and the time he “took some nuggets directly to the Rolex factory and had them machined into a gold watch.”
When it came to mining for gold, Dick’s claim to fame wasn’t a discovery he made, but rather a treasure he helped get manufactured…
“I’ve got to confess that I’ve always wanted the big gold Rolex Oyster. I could just never bring myself to making the move that would bridge the vast gap between wanting and owning: namely forking over thirteen hundred dollars.” Keep in mind this statement from Dick was made in the late ’60s, when a stainless steel Submariner could be had for less than $200. So why spend over a grand? “Because, dammit” Dick said in his trademark dry humor.
For Dick, not any gold Rolex would do… “I wanted a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Sumbariner Chronometer that was made from my own gold: gold that I scratched from Mother Earth with my own two hands. A one and only – a special special – a Dick Anderson model, if you will.” This is where the legend of his 18 ct yellow gold Sub begins. And as fascinating as the story is in its own right, it also provides some evidence about the origins and authenticity of one-off Rolex models, such as John Goldberger’s incredible 18 ct. white gold ref. 6265 Daytona Cosmograph.
According to Dick “if you want to pull off some weird scheme the best approach to the whole thing is to act important and talk loudly.” With that attitude he – and his wife – hopped on a plane to Geneva and proceeded to the Rolex factory. Somehow Dick managed to pull up a chair in the office of Rene Jeanneret – director of Rolex at the time and the driving force behind the development of the Submariner in the early 1950s.
The few biographies I’ve read on Dick all share how funny and charming he was, so I’d like to think some small talk ensued before he “dumped a buckskin bag of gold nuggets out onto [Rene’s] desk… gold from the North and South Forks of California’s Yuba River and gold from a sunken Gold Rush ship.” Even though Monsieur Jeanneret said “we’ve never done anything like this before,” the tone he used suggested it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility…
Within two months’ time Dick and his wife were on a plane back to Geneva. They soon found themselves “munching Cognac-filled chocolates” in the director’s office waiting for Dick to be given his special Submariner. After a warm greeting by Jeanneret, the moment had arrived. As Dick tells it: “without a great deal of ceremony but with an abundance of pride [Rene Jeanneret] presented me with my special Rolex.” Despite being a gold watch, Jeanneret reminded Dick that it’s still a Rolex, which means he shouldn’t “be afraid to wear it diving.” Ever the comedian, Dick said: “with a watch like that you’d have no choice but to wear it or hire a guard to watch your pants while you’re under.”
We don’t know where Dick’s gold Sub is today… And we don’t know if the circumstances surrounding its production were as simple as they sound… Maybe part of the deal was Dick writing his review of sorts – to promote Rolex and its high-quality, robust wristwatches? You see, besides Dick’s nonchalant recounting of the events, he’s keen to mention various recognitions Rolex received, such as winning “nearly 40% of all the Chronometer Certificates ever awarded.” Also, if you get the chance to read the full article, Dick weaves in testimonials about the waterproofness of the Rolex “Oyster” case; none more amusing than a story about a Rolex found inside a crocodile’s stomach – along with human remains. Of course the poor soul didn’t stand a chance, but the Rolex… it was “still running, still keeping perfect time.”
I find it quite fitting that an adventurer of Dick Anderson’s caliber is associated with a gold Rolex; a Submariner no less. Its ruggedness and reliability embody Dick’s fearlessness and dedication to diving. And the case metal of his 1608/8 – solid gold – certainly speaks to his triumphs and classy persona.
Quotations are from Dick Anderson’s article “Out of California Nuggets Comes A World First: The Solid Gold Rolex” published in Skin Diver Magazine, October 1970
Images used in this feature are from: Skin Diver October 1970, Vintage Rolex Sports Models by Skeet & Urul, Rolex Submariner by Mondani & Ravagnani, DoubleRedSeaDweller.com, and Dick Anderson’s International Scuba Diving HOF video