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How Elvis Measured His Success: With Watches

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Of all of the swagger and elegance that defined Elvis Presley — the gyrating hips, the garments, the cars, the smirk of all smirks, that hair! — his collection of watches probably didn’t elicit giddy screaming across teen-dom within the late Fifties.

But “Elvis,” a latest biopic of the singer’s life, celebrates all of it. Directed by Baz Luhrmann (with, one assumes, the identical panache that each one but turned the music and the dancing into characters in movies like “Moulin Rouge!” and “Strictly Ballroom”), the movie is claimed to be a homage to a humble man whose love of collecting and trading watches was often missed during his all-too-brief 42 years.

“Watches were an emblem of his success and an enormous a part of his story, and he gathered more precious watches as his profession developed,” said Catherine Martin, the four-time-Oscar-winning costume and production designer for the film, in a phone interview from her home in her native Australia. “They were a standing symbol, and yet Elvis traded and gave watches away. He would swap watches with strangers whose watches he admired. It was crazy.”

Ms. Martin, who is also a producer on the film and is married to Mr. Luhrmann, said she saw Presley’s love of watches as essential to telling his story: The way in which he wore and picked up and traded watches reflects the image he created for himself as “the King,” but blended along with his folksy roots.

“Elvis was a fully iconoclastic dresser, and he was at all times accessorizing watches,” Ms. Martin said. “He reinvented himself continuously throughout his profession. We don’t consider him as shocking now, but within the ’50s it was like he was a member of the Sex Pistols.”

That radical transformation of Presley, played by Austin Butler within the film, provides much of the story line for “Elvis,” including his tumultuous relationship along with his manager, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who discovered the singer in 1955.

Watches are an ever-present, if not obvious, element in lots of the film’s scenes, Ms. Martin said, particularly because Presley at all times put a terrific deal of thought into how he wore and accessorized timepieces.

“Even within the 1968 TV special, in his black leather outfit, he had a custom leather wristband made for a Bulova Accutron Astronaut,” she said, referring to Presley’s famous televised comeback concert. “A number of the watches he wore were about technological style advances. He was at all times eager about what the newest watches were.”

The watch that began all of it was one he owned just as he was hitting it big: the triangular Hamilton Ventura, created by the American industrial designer Robert Arbib and often known as the world’s first battery-powered watch. It became a signature for Presley — showing up in a gold version in his 1961 film “Blue Hawaii” — and for the watch company, which reintroduced the “Elvis watch” in 2015 to mark what would have been his eightieth birthday. (It also was seen in all 4 “Men in Black” movies.)

“It just happened that we didn’t find yourself with the ‘Elvis watch’ since it’s such an iconic watch and so well-known that we didn’t want it to be a essential a part of the story,” Ms. Martin said. “There’s so rather more to inform over 40 years. I don’t wish to deny that this watch was super necessary within the Elvis story, but watches were on the whole.”

One example can be the Omega Constellation he wore while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960. Made from pink gold with a black “sniper” dial, it was considered one of the originals within the Constellation line. Presley later gave it to Charlie Hodge, a friend and fellow musician.

Antiquorum auctioned the timepiece in June 2012, expecting it to fetch $10,000 to $20,000; it sold for $52,500.

And there was a second Omega Constellation, given to Presley in 1961 by his record company, RCA. The 33-millimeter white gold watch has a silver dial, with 44 round diamonds accenting the bezel, and a case back that’s engraved, “To Elvis, 75 Million Records, RCA Victor, 12-25-60.” Lettering beneath the Omega logo shows that RCA purchased the watch from Tiffany & Company.

Legend has it that Presley swapped it for a fan’s watch, and the fan’s nephew put the watch up for auction with Phillips in 2018. It sold for 1.8 million Swiss francs (about $1.87 million today), making it on the time the most costly Omega ever sold. The best bidder: Omega itself, which added the watch to its museum collection in Bienne, Switzerland.

One watch that was outstanding late in Elvis’s profession was the Rolex King Midas, which has an asymmetrical case with a large integrated bracelet and was designed by Gerald Genta, the name behind such legendary watches because the Royal Oak and the Nautilus. Concert promoters gave the Midas to Presley in 1970 for performing six days of sold-out concert events, and it’s now on everlasting display at Graceland, Presley’s home in Memphis, where he died in 1977.

“The King Midas is a really unusual shape, and Baz happens to own one, so Austin Butler wore that within the movie,” Ms. Martin said. “Some watches were borrowed or purchased online. Some were so precious that it was unattainable to have them on set, so we had duplicates made.”

The topic of the film, which premiered on the Cannes Film Festival last month, definitely falls into the larger-than-life category that Mr. Luhrmann and Ms. Martin seem drawn to in filmmaking (like their 2013 version of “The Great Gatsby”).

“The character arc of Elvis is fascinating, as is the incontrovertible fact that he was a rare stylist who created his own look,” Ms. Martin said. “He became super famous super fast, and watches were necessary to him to point out that he had made it.”

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