Some watches come with a great story. This is such an occasion. Let us take you back to the sixties, more particularly to Geneva in 1966…

By Thomas van Straaten on 10 June 2020

The Rolex Submariners of Geneva’s Water Polo players

Some watches come with a great story. This is such an occasion. Let me take you back to the sixties, more particularly to Geneva in 1966…

After an intense campaign, the city council pushed through its plans to build a swimming pool in the city of Geneva. The Vernets pool was born. It was located on Rue Hans Wilsdorf. Does that name ring a bell by any chance?

The road bearing the name of Rolex’s founder is, perhaps unsurprisingly, also home to the Rolex headquarters. When the aquatic sports association Geneve Natation 1885 took residence in the Vernets pool, they effectively became Rolex’s neighbors.

Geneve Natation 1885

Founded in 1885 and lasting until today, GN 1885 has been a household name in the Swiss aquatic sports world. Not only does the club facilitate swimming lessons in several different disciplines, but it also runs a number of professional teams. From individual swimmers, being guided to Olympic success, to competition diving.

One particular specialty of the club is water polo. GN 1885 runs several teams in different competitions. And quite successfully, I might add.

A friendship among neighbors

In 1966, the first water polo team was at the heights of its powers. The vice-president of the club was close friends with a certain Mr. Van Gessel. Different sources describe Van Gessel as president of the Rolex Geneva HQ, but we have to admit we cannot reliably trace back his position within the company.

What we do know is that the friendship was close enough to merit a rather special gesture from Rolex. After the water polo team had won the national Swiss championship an impressive three times in a row, in 1967, 1968, and 1969, Rolex gifted the entire team (eleven strong) a specially engraved 5513 Submariner.

A special Sub

The watches came with an inscription in the caseback reading “Geneve Natation water-polo 1967 – 1968 – 1969”. The inside of the caseback shows the last three digits of the serial number, which is common practice in military Rolex watches as well as with watches that have been changed by Rolex themselves. For instance, when a dial was changed, Rolex would stamp these numbers in the caseback. In this case, it might indicate that the watches were intended as gifts and or were part of a special batch.

Rolex continued to give Subs away to GN 1885 in the years after, but probably only on very rare occasions. We know of four swimmers making the 1972 Olympics who received one. Also, one is known to have been given to a competition diver in 1970. So that makes a total of sixteen we know of.

"Rolex continued to give Subs away to GN 1885 in the years after, but probably only on very rare occasions."

The Rolex Passion Report Sub

The story first came to light when Philipp Stahl, avid Rolex collector and the man behind the Rolex Passion Report website, posted about a purchase on two blogs in 2010. He had bought one and found out about the connection between the club and Rolex. The GN 1885 5513 came on an extremely rare oyster bracelet, with an elongated clasp and Rolex crown that was turned on its side. This further supports the idea that the watches were taken from a special batch, perhaps even prototype watches.

Unfortunately, he decided to sell the valuable bracelet separately. At the time, Stahl had a relationship with Romina Steiner of Steiner Jewelers in Maastricht, Netherlands. She sold the watch to a private collector, who tracked down a replacement bracelet and then brought the watch to us.

The Staricco Sub

Inspired by the story, we set out to learn more. We tracked down Mr. Norbert Claudio Staricco, who was a key player in the GN 1885 water polo team from 1966 until 1974. He performs functions at the club until today.

We found that he still owned his 5513, so we decided to visit him in Geneva. There, he told us all about the history of the club and its relationship with Rolex. The rather special bracelet turned out to be too vulnerable in practice and was replaced somewhere in its lifetime. The rotated logo bracelet, therefore, remains enigmatic.

We had an absolutely lovely time with Mr. Staricco and we took a number of photographs of him with his watch. Combined with the original team photos from the sixties, these make for amazing visual documentation of the man and his watch.

Mr. Staricco was happy to sell us his watch, and now we have two of the original eleven watches in our possession.

A collectors’ item with a story

The other team members’ watches have gone under the radar, likely inherited by descendants of the original players. To now have two side by side is truly unique. An inspirational story of athletic performance, friendship, and enigmatic watches.