Rolex and the Avant-Garde ’60s
With the Midas, Rolex replica was responding to a new type of timepiece: in 1957, the family-owned firm of Piaget, which until the 1940s had been a supplier of movements, had launched a remarkable movement in the calibre 9P, an ultra-thin hand-wound movement of 2mm height that enabled the development of elegant dress wristwatches of avant-garde design, often using exotic stone dials. A new language of horological ornament had been invented and with the Midas, Rolex was to prove that it was fluent. And, highly unusually for Rolex, the Swiss luxury fake Rolex King Midas ref. 9630 was limited to 1,000 pieces each with a number engraved on the underside of the bracelet close to the junction with the case.
Straight on one side and angled to a point on the other, when laid flat on its edge, it evokes the pediment and tympanum of a classical building. “We created this as a modern tribute to ancient Greece,” explained one advertisement. But anyone who had even just glimpsed the packaging would have been well aware of the debt to the ancient world.
The “box” was a true tour de force and a collectible on its own merits; ranking alongside the cork box housing the first Nautilus and the moon-cratered box in which the 1969 Omega Speedmaster Tribute to Apollo XI was presented. Like the watch inside, it was truly remarkable, taking as its inspiration a masterpiece of antiquity in the collection of the British Museum. The famed Midas stamnos, a lidded pottery vessel combining aspects of vase and amphora, was created around 440 BC, the black ground is decorated with red figures depicting Silenus led before Midas. The incident recorded on the two-and-a-half-millennia-old stamnos is the moment at which the satyr Silenus, found drunk by peasants, is brought before the Phrygian monarch Midas, who recognises him as the teacher of Dionysus and treats him honourably, extending several days of hospitality before returning him to Dionysus who, in thanks, grants Midas the famous touch that turns all to gold. This scene is reproduced on the lid of the chalice-shaped gold bracelet replica Rolex King Midas “stamnos” which is further printed with a battle scene from classical antiquity.
Only ever intended to be sold in small numbers and, as the advertising pointed out, priced to be beyond the means of all but the most plutocratic of customers (approximately 50 per cent higher than the previous prestige model, the Day-Date), the King Midas enjoyed celebrity status. Wearers included John Wayne and Elvis Presley, who was presented with a Midas engraved with the words, “To Elvis Presley from the Houston Livestock Show Officers 1970.”
When the first “homage to Benvenuto Cellini” brochure appeared in 1964, the King Midas enjoyed a prominent position but the Midas did not become a Cellini-signed model until much later (the copperplate Cellini signature first appeared on watch dials in 1968). The ’70s was a particularly fecund era for the Cellini range — the King Midas was interpreted in a variety of different shapes and styles and became a pillar of this family of watches. The Midas name last appeared in the catalogue in the early 21st century, by which time the all-gold original had been replaced by the “Cellini Midas-First” on crocodile strap.
Now at last it is, I hope, enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. What I find truly remarkable is that for the sort of money that will not even get you started in collecting vintage steel sports Rolex, it is possible to buy a watch that is (i) a huge chunk of gold; (ii) part of a limited and numbered series; and (iii) a real piece of Rolex history.
It may be hoping for too much to think that best quality copy Rolex will ever relaunch the King Midas but I would like to think Rolex collectors will look on it with increasing respect.