The Unlikely Watch Collector: Michael Caine
Like the range of his movies, the acting legend shows us that variety is the spice of life when it comes to wearing watches.
Younger audiences know him as Batman’s butler Alfred; to older moviegoers, he is the manipulating womanizer Alfie. Every generation probably knows at least one movie starring acting legend Michael Caine by the sheer fact that he has been in the business for so long and made 130 films and counting.
Throughout his 65-year career, Caine has been spotted rocking many watches, both on set and off. And, just like his cinematic canon, they are a bit of a mixed bag, including some absolute classics, a few solid efforts, and a turkey or two along the way.
Born in London in 1933 into a loving but poor working-class family, Michael Caine, whose real name is Maurice Micklewhite, spent nine years working as an actor on stage and TV, including some minor film parts, before landing his breakthrough movie role in the 1964 war epic Zulu.
In publicity shots around this time, Caine can be seen wearing a dress watch with radial finish on the dial, which also features a crosshair marking. You can just about make out part of the brand name, and all the clues point to it being a gold-plated, 21-jewel Shockmaster by British brand Accurist. It was a logical choice for a fledgling cash-conscious British actor who wanted to wear something with a Swiss movement that was smart yet affordable.
A Star on The Rise
After Zulu, the Londoner was cast as the laconic anti-hero Harry Palmer in the spy thriller The Ipcress File (1965), which put Caine – with his thick-rimmed glasses, cockney accent, and easy charm – on the map in the UK.
But it wasn’t until he excelled as the cocky lead in the comedy-drama Alfie (1966) and the small, taboo-breaking British film was released in the US that American audiences began to discover his talents, leading to his first Oscar nomination.
Throughout Alfie, Caine wears a thick steel watch with a black dial. Close-ups reveal that this piece is almost definitely an IWC Ingenieur (ref. 666 AD), featuring the magnetically shielded automatic caliber 8531 with date function and distinctive beads-of-rice bracelet made by Gay Frères.
Signs of Success
Following Alfie’s success, Caine made his Hollywood debut in the crime comedy Gambit (1966) and then a pair of decent Harry Palmer sequels before he starred in the stylishly-shot Deadfall (1968) and The Magus (1968), both of which flopped.
While shooting these last two movies, Caine was snapped looking really rather cool as he wore a pair of shades and a yellow-gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date President on a dark leather strap. The piece here looks to be a second-series ref. 1803 with a fluted bezel. Caine’s stands out for its eye-catching gold linen-textured dial motif.
A few years later, Caine put on one of his most memorable performances: ruthless killer Jack Carter in the gangster revenge tale Get Carter (1971). Brandishing a double-barreled shotgun while donning a navy-blue mohair suit, Caine oozes presence, looking at once stylish and menacing, and he completes the striking ensemble by wearing that personal Rolex Day-Date on a brown leather strap.
The trusty Day-Date was back again in 1972, this time on a President bracelet when Caine faced off against Laurence Olivier in the absorbing mystery Sleuth, which earned him another Oscar nomination.
He wore this watch on- and off-screen for well over a decade, even admitting that when he had hit the big time with The Ipcress File, he had bought a raft of luxuries to reward himself and his family, one of which must have been this President that is, for many, a symbol of having made it in life.
Gold Bullion and a Steel Watch
After his flops in 1968, Caine returned to box-office form in the heist classic The Italian Job (1969), playing the charismatic gold bullion thief Charlie Croker. In the film, remembered for the Mini Cooper car chase through (and under) the city of Turin, Caine wears a steel watch that features a notched bezel with a dive-time scale framing a black dial with tapering hour markers and Arabic numerals at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock.
Is it an Omega Seamaster 300? It’s hard to tell, but what we do know is when Croker is briefing his accomplices, he is wearing the watch over his shirt cuff. A sartorial no-no for some, this may have been Caine’s nod to the watch-wearing habits of one of Turin’s most famous sons, Gianni Agnelli.
Solid Yet Unspectacular
And in the mid-1970s, Caine made a few solid-if-unspectacular thrillers, starting with The Black Windmill (1974), in which he sports a steel watch with dark dial, red central seconds and date window at 3 o’clock – something resembling a Certina DS-2 Automatic – worn on a steel bracelet.
Popular buddy movie The Man Who Would Be King (1975) followed, then a few comedies and a couple of more war movies before Caine starred in some disastrous disaster films as well as some pretty catastrophic non-disaster films. But he found his mojo again with some great performances in Deathtrap (1982), Educating Rita (1982), and Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), for which he finally won the Oscar for Best Supporting actor.
The timepieces Caine was wearing began to reflect this era too. In his private life, his go-to watch was still a yellow-gold Rolex Day-Date. But now, he preferred a champagne-dialed Rolex Oysterquartz ref. 19018 with its brushed and polished angular case and integrated bracelet with rectangular links. It became a prominent fixture on his wrist.
Of course, the 1980s saw the rise of the digital watch, and Caine was not immune to the trend. During the fourth (and definitely worst) installment of the Jaws series Jaws: The Revenge (1987), Caine’s character spends most of the film wearing what looks like a small typewriter on his wrist while getting it on with Chief Brody’s widow Ellen.
At first glance, this looks like the chunky Seiko Voice Note M516-4009. However, it turns out that this gem is actually the Protime Gas Lighter EWL8802, the watch that will light your cigarette or, in the case of Caine, an avid cigar smoker, your Cohiba.
Packing a time-only LCD display, with only the push of a button, this beast becomes a butane lighter as well. It’s quite incredible and possibly scarier than the movie itself.
Caine quickly made amends for that cinematic and horological aberration with the fine comedies Without a Clue (1988) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), giving that Rolex Oysterquartz Day-Date screen time in the latter.
A Career on the Wane?
In the early nineties, his film career looked to be in permanent decline, as the actor accepted roles in several straight-to-video spy thrillers and Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground (1994). He later remarked of that period: “I effectively retired. Well, I didn't retire, the movies retired me.”
On the watch front – as mechanical watches began to recover from the quartz crisis – Caine was unsure whether to stick with digital or return to analog. So he compromised, acquiring the ana-digi Breitling Navitimer Aerospace Titanium powered by the Breitling Caliber 56 quartz movement with an analog hour-minute display and digitally displayed perpetual calendar, dual time zone, and chronograph. He would wear it on and off film for the next decade.
Since Jack Nicholson convinced him to come out of retirement for 1997's Blood and Wine, Caine has won a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Cider House Rules (1999) and turned out some great performances, genre-hopping from comedy to dystopian drama to science fiction to psychological thriller with aplomb.
When he played Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred in The Dark Knight trilogy, Caine started to regularly wear an H3 Black Storm Pro tool watch made by the Swiss brand Traser.
Again, this is a quartz piece, and its main advantage is that it uses tritium tubes for assured nighttime illumination. Traser has historically supplied the US Army and Swiss Air Force, among other military outfits, so maybe it was Alfred’s backstory as a former SAS operative that inspired Caine’s choice of personal timepiece here.
More recently, Caine has been spotted wearing a gold-plated, quartz Timex Easy Reader Indiglo in yet another heist comedy Going In Style (2017). And this year, in a campaign by the UK health service to encourage senior citizens to get the COVID-19 vaccination, Caine revealed that he added another battery-powered timepiece to his collection: An Apple Watch.
Variety the Key
Throughout his career, Michael Caine has shown us that he is nothing if not versatile. He is even quoted as saying: “As an actor, I'll play anything.”
Likewise, when it comes to watches, Caine has shown us that he is open to everything: famous names and unknown brands, the pricey and the inexpensive, and the classical and the quirky. It seems that for Caine, variety really is the spice of life.
(Photography licensed by Getty Images & Alamy, other sources mentioned)