Robert Redford’s Favorite Watch Is No Ordinary Rolex

I had just finished making an exhibition for a gallery in Paris when the coronavirus crisis hit. The show, and everything else I was working on, was immediately put on hold. For the first time in years, I had no deadlines. I figured I could occupy myself in quarantine by drawing about death, a constant theme in my work—but instead I decided to let myself have fun. So I’ve been using the extra time to work on an idea that had been in my head for the past 18 months or so, a series of paintings of classic American icons: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Robert Redford.

The day I started, I put on my 1972 Rolex ref. 1680 “Red Line” Submariner, and I have barely taken it off since. We’re all searching for comfort and something familiar right now. This little piece of steel from 48 years ago makes me stop and appreciate all that I have at a time when it’s easy to slide into despair.

Newman, McQueen, and Redford were all steel Rolex guys. Newman, of course, famously wore a Daytona. McQueen wore a 1964 ref. 5512 Submariner. But to me, Redford, who favored the Red Line Sub, had the best taste of all. (He wears one in All the President’s Men.)

Introduced in 1953 at the forefront of Rolex’s dive watch program, the Submariner—thanks in part to its fans in New Hollywood—is the timepiece that most people picture when they think of Swiss watchmaking. It embodies the balance of rugged mechanical innovation and elegant case expression that has made Rolex the final word in watch design.

The Red Line Sub, launched in 1969, gets its nickname from the distinct crimson Submariner script on the dial. It was the first Sub to feature a date window and was fitted with a bezel that is prone to fading to a beautiful milky gray. But the red script is the detail that collectors really love—one of those rare aesthetic deviations that can jack up the price of a vintage timepiece exponentially.

I bought mine because it was produced the year I was born. It wasn’t until later that I discovered the Redford connection—and now, when I seek the comforts of timeless things that transcend this disastrous moment, whether in my work or on my wrist, that connection is more powerful than ever.

A version of this story originally appears in the June/July 2020 issue with the title “Time Stands Still”.

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