Out of the thousands of dives with his ref. 1680 Submariner, it was one in 2012 filming sharks off Guadalupe Island in the Mexican Pacific that would leave a noticeable mark on his watch. At that point, Bret Gilliam had logged nearly 17,000 dives around the world, most of them wearing the watch. Although this particular dive was challenging in the way photographing 16-foot long apex predators of the sea while submerged in an aluminum cage operating a technically complex underwater camera is challenging, he had done it many times before.
But this time, the shark he was filming had taken a special interest in Gilliam. Recounting the experience, Gilliam tells me that while his eyes were trained on the viewfinder of his camera, a massive Great White “suddenly turned and bit the cage right next to me, and then went into a bit of a rage and started thrashing around trying to get at me. I pulled my camera back and dropped back into the cage, but not before the shark violently impacted the cage again and my left arm was knocked sharply into the bars, causing a chip in the Rolex’s bezel.”
An Icon: The Rolex Submariner
Want to learn more about the Rolex Submariner? Everything you need to know can be found in this exhaustive piece from our own Stephen Pulvirent.
And this wasn’t any old Submariner. Bret Gilliam’s dive watch is a reference 1680 made of 18k solid gold, with a black bezel and a matte black nipple dial. The 1680 was the first Submariner reference to ever be fashioned in solid gold, a metal that’s typically reserved for dress watches. A gold Rolex – even a Submariner – is often considered a success symbol rather than a true tool watch, but Gilliam had never paid much attention to rules anyway.
Gilliam is a living legend in the diving community. He was inducted into the Diving Hall of Fame in 2012 for his decades-long commitment to making diving more safe and accessible to all. Now in his ’70s, he’s still active, serving as an expert witness in diving and maritime cases. I spent hours on the phone with Gilliam discussing the evolution of the industry from the mid-century era until the present day. There are few pioneers left who have seen SCUBA diving evolve the way he has. He has a wealth of knowledge, and he shares it with the sort of enthusiasm that’s almost unexpected from someone who has been in an industry for over half a century. He hasn’t been jaded by his unique position.
Bret Gilliam’s father was a Navy Officer, so a life aquatic was second nature to him. He started diving in 1959 at age eight, when diving technology was still in its infancy. Gilliam has performed dives in a military capacity, doing deep-diving projects for the Navy in the ’70s. He satisfied his ROTC obligations after his collegiate studies by working for the Navy filming fast attack submarines at depths around 525 feet. The project assessed what sort of visible wake vortex was left by these submarines. The dives were carried out using the Navy’s “Exceptional Exposure” tables, a set of tables used in extreme circumstances.
After his service, Gilliam went on to dive in a number roles including commercial, scientific research, technical, and filming purposes. He’s served as a consultant coordinating underwater cinematography on a number of Hollywood movies including Dreams of Gold and The Island of Dr. Moreau. He’s even appeared in a few. His outsized reputation in the dive world comes not only from his accomplishments underwater, but also his entrepreneurial spirit topside. He’s founded a number of companies including Technical Diving International, a certification agency, and he’s consulted for UWATEC, a company that produced dive computers.
And for most of his career, he’s worn a Rolex Submariner, but it wasn’t always a gold one. In 1973, Gilliam founded V.I. Divers Ltd., a diving operation that attracted recreational divers and supported research divers in the Virgin Islands. Part of the business was retailing Scubapro equipment, including watches. In the ’70s, Scubapro contracted Swiss manufacturers to produce timepieces for them, lending their branding to the dial and caseback. Gilliam wore a Scubapro Benthos 500 dive watch as he was an authorized dealer from 1971 to 1985. In 1974, he bought a stainless steel Rolex Submariner that he wore daily both underwater and topside. Gilliam said the “watch was bulletproof.” And he could have easily worn that watch for the rest of his life.
But in 1970, Skin Diver Magazine ran a piece that stuck with Gilliam. It chronicled a mission that Dick Anderson, an early pioneer of SCUBA designs and a legendary diver in his own right, took on. Anderson supplied his own gold to Rolex and requested they produce a watch from it. A ludicrous idea, but eventually Rolex capitulated and made Anderson the watch he wanted: a solid-gold Rolex. When René Jeanneret, sales director of Rolex at the time, presented Anderson with the watch, he told him, “Just don’t be afraid to take it diving.”
One day in 1980, Gilliam got a phone call from Rolex with an offer he couldn’t refuse. “I was contracted to provide filming and on-camera commentary for a nationally televised documentary special on humpback whales. Rolex got in touch with me and asked if I would wear a gold Rolex Submariner in the film,” Gilliam recounts. And the best part? Rolex would offer him a very steep discount on the watch. He purchased it from Little Switzerland, a Rolex AD four blocks from his V.I. Divers headquarters in St. Croix. The purchase price was $ 6,500, which Gilliam says was more than he paid for the first boat he bought for his diving business.
He wore the watch just like he wore his stainless steel Submariner before that, and that is to say, he wasn’t at all afraid to get it wet and knock it around. Forget about the foofoo imagery that typically comes with a gold watch. “It’s been through extreme deep dives below 800 feet, saturation diving, as my primary timepiece for celestial navigation as a maritime officer, treatments in recompression chambers, under ice in both the Arctic and Antarctica, deep diving in submersibles to over 12,000-foot depths … just about everything,” Gilliam says.
The watch was on his wrist during an event that would land Gilliam in the Guinness Book of World Records. Gilliam completed a series of record-breaking dives – in ’90 and ’93 – for the deepest dive breathing compressed air.
On the ’93 dive, he reached 490 ft. at “Mary’s Place” in Roatán, a Caribbean island, while remaining totally conscious, with the Rolex on his wrist. When dive computers were still a relatively new tool, he would wear a diving computer on one wrist and the Rolex on the other.
Stories tend to increase in value more than any other asset, but Gilliam’s Sub hasn’t performed poorly at all. He reports that he gets “constant offers from divers who want to buy it simply because it was mine, and I used it for over 40 years so far. The last offer I got was for $ 45,000 in January.”
For reference, a brand new solid gold Submariner ref. 126618LN currently retails for $ 36,950. The idea of wearing a solid-gold sub to carry out challenging and often precarious tasks underwater certainly defies traditional watch enthusiast thinking, but like René Jeanneret said to Dick Anderson in 1970, one should not be afraid to take it diving. Gilliam took that quite literally, and it turns out Jeanneret wasn’t bluffing.
“The watch has never failed me,” he says.
Gilliam has become quite successful through his business ventures, and given that the watch has been by his side through almost his entire diving career, it’s worth more on an emotional level than any amount of money a collector can offer. When someone asks him about it, the answer is simple. He says, “I’m keeping it.”
“I have no family or kids, but my intent is to leave it to a dear friend that’s a diver. He’s younger and will probably outlive me… at least, that’s his plan,” he says.