The Unlikely Watch Collector: Cary Grant
This debonair actor’s timepieces were as tightly edited as his wardrobe.
It’s been over half a century since Cary Grant made his last film, Walk, Don’t Run (1966). But the actor’s films still feel as timeless as his dashing personal style. From screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938) to the romantic thriller Charade (1963), Grant personified the fast-thinking, light-on-his-feet character with personal style to spare.
One of the best-dressed humans ever to walk the earth, Grant had a less is more fashion philosophy: “Simplicity, to me, has always been the essence of good taste.”
This rule of thumb extended to Grant’s timepiece preferences as well. It might be a stretch to call him a collector as he favored one watch over all others – a Cartier Tank – but he was certainly an enthusiast.
Born in Bristol, England, on January 18, 1904, Cary Grant was the stage name of Archibald Alec Leach and was the son of a textile worker. With an alcoholic father and a mother racked with guilt over the death of her first-born child from tubercular meningitis, suffice it to say, Archie didn’t have the sunniest of childhoods. And when he was thirteen, he ran away from home to join a troupe of acrobats.
Eventually, Grant found his way to the United States and Hollywood, where Paramount Pictures executives rebranded him, Cary Grant. He proved to be versatile, appearing in almost every genre of film except for Western and sci-fi, but he didn’t exactly disappear into his roles either.
Despite his gloomy upbringing, the actor brought a rakish urbane quality to all of his onscreen appearances. In 1975, The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “Everyone likes the idea of Cary Grant. Everyone thinks of him affectionately because he embodies what seems a happier time – a time when we had a simpler relationship to a performer.”
Grant’s everyday watch was equally uncomplicated: a time-only Cartier Tank. This timepiece was as integral to his wardrobe as his impeccably tailored suits. As iconic as Grant himself, the Cartier Tank was designed in 1917 and has been associated with many leading men and women, but few stars were as devoted to this classic as Grant. He even wore his personal watch in one of his most memorable cinematic appearances, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual “Bubbleback”
Grant was known for stamping his personal style on his projects. One time, while filming That Touch of Mink (1962), he took co-star Doris Day shopping to oversee her wardrobe selection. Another time, bothered by the prop paintings on the set of a different movie, Grant was said to have left filming only to return with artworks from his private collection.
Grant was also concerned with on-camera accuracy when it came to watches. In Destination Tokyo (1943), Grant plays Cassidy, a submarine captain, on a secret mission. Obviously, a Tank would not be an appropriate watch for a submariner, so instead, Grant opted for something that was both rugged and understated. And in one closeup, his character appears to be wearing a Rolex Oyster Perpetual “Bubbleback” with a sub-seconds register.
Made between 1933 and 1955, these Oyster Perpetuals represented Rolex’s earliest self-winding watches. The “Bubbleback” nickname makes reference to the shape of the caseback designed to accommodate the bulkier automatic caliber. With a domed crystal and sized at just 30 to 32mm, these watches are understated but distinctive.
Rolex Oyster Royal
One of Grant’s most memorable movies is the 1963 caper flick Charade. Once again, when the scene required a watch with water resistance, Grant went with Rolex – in this case, an Oyster Royal. The watch makes an appearance in two scenes: First, it appears in a closeup when his character Brian Cruikshank (a.k.a. Peter Joshua a.k.a. Alexander Dyle a.k.a. Adam Canfield) rigs up a tripwire to keep tabs on Audrey Hepburn. Later on, it can be seen in the shower where he points at the timepiece and says, “Waterproof.”
The Oyster Royal was introduced in 1933 and, at the time, was notable for its use of a center second hand. At the time, Rolex marketed the Royal as being ideally suited for those in the medical profession, reckoning that the large second hand would be far easier to track when timing a patient’s heartbeat over a 60-second period. No doubt a character such as Grant’s confidence man would also require a watch that provided accurate timing (and good looks).
In Charade, Grant’s Royal appears to be a stainless steel mid-century model. Though the model name soldiered on in some markets until this century, the Royal basically disappeared by the 1970s. And while Royals are a relatively unsung example of the Rolex canon, they are also an affordable alternative to other vintage Rollies.
Grant’s watch collection was tightly curated, but he always picked classic timepieces that reflected his roles – whether onscreen or off. Just as his characters never came off as too posh, his horological choices were at once refined and attainable. Grant once said, “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” And if you follow his style guide, you can be a little like Cary Grant too.