“We had no idea if it would sell or if anyone would be interested at all… we were just two guys, two quiet collectors. Two lurkers on vintage watch boards that came together and decided to harness both of our skills,” said Jeremy Davis. “It” was the first watch of Tempus Machina: the Red Depth 216A, a watch that started its life as a standard Submariner 114060 and was painstakingly modified to pay homage to the Submariner 6538 “Big Crown,” the very famous watch known for its role in Dr. No. Examples of the Big Crown can sell at auction for over half a million dollars. Davis’s watch? $25,000.
Davis, who’s in his early forties, got his start in web design (he created the original site for Comedy Central) and has always had an insatiable lust for vintage Rolex watches. “My first vintage Rolex, I had when I was 16 — it was a DateJust, a 1603,” said Davis. “I grew up my whole life having a 1675 my father bought me for like $215. You know, it’s one of those things from when you were a kid and you can’t shake it — there’s that ineffable quality where you look at it, and it just seems so right.”
Davis met his partner (who prefers to remain anonymous) through vintage Rolex forums, the two kindling their friendship through their “pre-Comex” Submariners and eventually deciding on going into business together. “There was obviously the vintage market, but it’s a very difficult business to break into and a difficult business to be trusted in,” said Davis. “We also didn’t want to be another cog in the wheel of vintage dealing — I certainly didn’t want to chase vintage pieces around the globe.”
Instead, Davis and his partner realized they could channel their knowledge and love of vintage Rolexes into the niche market of custom work. Up until this point, this was a market dominated by brands like Bamford Watch Department and Project X, who were modifying Rolexes and other high-end watches, blacking them out, adding jewels. “Project X, to give credit where credit is due, was kind of the catalyst for us…it had just released the HSL1 Heritage Submariner, and it was really interesting. But in our opinion it wasn’t a fully realized piece,” said Davis. “I thought, ‘We could do that.’ Between my sort of artistic skills and my partner’s knack for machines and engineering, there might be something there. So in late 2014 we decided if we were going to do it.”
“It’s one of those things from when you were a kid and you can’t shake it — there’s that ineffable quality where you look at it and it just seems so right.”
What followed was months and months of trial and error, seeing how they could transform a modern Submariner into a fully realized vintage homage — a process that involved destroying a few watches in the process. “It was the nature of the beast,” Davis said. “You buy used watches, and then basically hold your nose and jump in and realize you’re about to destroy something with a lot of value. Fortunately it didn’t happen much.”
Creating a Tempus Machina takes a deceptively large amount of work. Davis and his partner purchase brand new Rolex 114060’s from authorized dealers, strip them down and modify each part: using a CNC machine to thin and cut the case to replicate the smaller profile of an old Submariner; hand beveling and finishing that case; spending three days on a pointed crown protector; stripping and finishing the dials, before sending them through a galvanizing process, leaving “negative gilt” dial markings and texts that shine through the black color of the dial.
This process doesn’t just recapture the look of an old Rolex; inherently, it preserves outdated manufacturing techniques. Though they look a lot like the originals, modern Rolexes are completely different from those made 50 years ago. Modern Rolexes don’t have bevels — they don’t need them. They don’t have domed sapphire crystals, and they don’t have negative gilt dials that after years of being exposed to the sun turn “tropical” and fade into an off-black color. “Rolex as a brand had to move away from those things to mass produce watches that could stand up to the test of time and be accurate,” Davis said. “It’s not in their best interest to build dials that go tropical. Rolex is about evolution.”
For the most part, Davis’s watches have been met with praise — Wired even crowned Tempus’s first watch as one of its favorites of 2015. But Davis admits it isn’t for everyone. Some hardcore purists object to modifying a new Rolex, and the brand itself often refuses to work on modified watches.
This doesn’t faze Davis. “That’s the nature of the beast — you buy this watch and you forfeit the ability to get it serviced by Rolex. But the guys buying our watches wouldn’t do that anyways. Most collectors don’t have their watches serviced by Rolex.”
“It was the nature of the beast. You buy used watches, and then basically hold your nose and jump in and realize you’re about to destroy something with a lot of value.”
A year after launching its first watch, Tempus moved on to its second, the 809H, an explorer-dialed Submariner based on the very rare 5512 reference made during the 1960s. If you were to look for an original of either one, Davis says you’d be spending six figures, easy. And ultimately that’s the appeal — the look and feel of a pricey original, with all the benefits of a modern case and movement. “People ask me, ‘Can I wear it like a modern Rolex?’ and I say, ‘It is a modern Rolex. You can beat the shit out of this thing.’ I’ve worn this [prototype 216A] since the day it was finished. I’ve beaten the crap out of it and it barely has a ding or a scratch on it,” Davis said.
As time goes on, the gilt dials on Tempus Machina watches should age like those priceless originals, too. “The dial on my partner’s watch is very tropical, because maybe the plate didn’t sit in the galvanic bath for long enough — that’s the kind of thing that makes each watch special,” said Davis. “I will never see that dial on any watch ever again. That’s the fun of it. I’m hoping the brand goes on enough that our watches have that kind of story.”