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15 Min Read
The enigmatic Khanjar watches of the Sultan of Oman
By A Collected Man
A curved dagger on a belt, atop two crossed swords, has become an almost iconic symbol in the world of watches. With links to Middle Eastern royalty and appearing on a small handful of pieces, it embodies the meeting point between rarity, history and intrigue. Though it does not specifically reference mechanical craft or refined design, the Khanjar crest is perhaps one of the best examples of provenance, capturing the imagination of collectors and enthusiasts alike.
This storied glyph traces its history to the earliest days of Oman as a modern nation, and speaks, in many ways, to how it built its influence in the 20th century. There are few recent, comparable ties, between a royal family and the finest Swiss manufactures. The late Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said al Said – the longest-serving monarch in the Middle East and Arab world – was at the epicentre of those relationships. With Oman's 50th national day, the late Sultan’s birthday, celebrated last week, a year after his passing, we took the opportunity to find out more.
An unusual way to see the Khanjar, outside of the case.
How did this recently established nation, convince some of the world’s pre-eminent watch brands to display the country’s crest, alongside their own logos? More to the point, how was Rolex convinced to move their signature on some dials, to accommodate the Khanjar, a feat that seems almost unthinkable today? We were able to gain a unique insight into the origins of these watches thanks to the input of several individuals who, based in Oman, have close links to the pieces themselves, as well as the late Sultan. The information they have provided has helped shape much of this article, although as private individuals they have requested not to be named.
Separately, we also spoke to those who have discovered, handled and enjoyed many of these watches since they left the country - from collectors like Wulf Schuetz and Hendra, to auctioneers such as Sam Hines, the Worldwide Head of Watches at Sotheby’s. While the full story of these pieces, could only really have been properly told by the late Sultan himself, we hope that we shed some light on these intriguing watches and possibly correct a few myths, too good to be true, along the way. In these situations, however, the truth is often more fantastic than the fiction.
How did the Khanjar end up on watches?
As many know, the Khanjar is the national symbol of Oman. It was introduced by the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, to appear on the new country’s flag in 1970. There are points of contention surrounding this period of history, especially when looking at the involvement of the British in the region. Whilst we don’t want it to feel like we’re ignoring the issue, we also feel that this wouldn’t be the right context in which to explore them. Instead, we aim to focus on the watches and relationships that came out of this unique period, while recognising that there are some more controversial elements to the backstory.
The Khanjar on the gate to the Royal Palace.
Growing up, the young Qaboos attended a private school in England, in the town of Bury St Edmunds, before moving onto the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Whilst there, and later, living in London in his early twenties, he struck up a friendship with a man named Tim Landon. Brigadier Sir James Timothy Whittington Landon, KCVO, would become one of the richest men in England and one of the Sultan’s closest friends. He helped Qaboos with the development of Oman and also introduced him to a central character in this story, John Asprey.
Asprey would prove to be a key player in facilitating Qaboos’ wishes when it came to fulfilling orders for double-signed watches. He was responsible for managing his family’s luxury emporium, a purveyor of watches, jewels, silverware, fine bookbinding and hunting accessories, with European and Middle Eastern royals among his clients.
A parade outside the Royal Military Academy Sandhurt.
Interestingly enough, it is believed that the inspiration for placing the Khanjar on the dial of certain watches partly came from Asprey himself. Qaboos was struck by the power of the various Royal warrants carried by the Asprey brand and, when he came to power, he wanted a similar magisterial crest that would help give some credibility and legitimacy to his reign. It would also act as an influential piece of advertisement for his new country.
Asprey was not only the inspiration for placing the Khanjar on watches, but also the facilitator. Being a rather private man, it was useful for the Sultan to have an intermediary like Asprey, who would give him a near direct line to some of the most established watch brands in the world, all in a time before watch collecting had really taken off. By way of this route, the late Sultan Qaboos became one of the most prolific collectors of the 20th century...
The late Sultan Qaboos with Queen Elizabeth II. The pair met multiple times over his long reign.
This idea of spreading the influence and recognition of Oman is central to the story of the Khanjar pieces. This sentiment, coupled with the Sultan's natural generosity, resulted in many of the Khanjar-signed watches being given away as gifts. Whether you were a trusted adviser, a foreign dignitary or part of the waiting staff at a restaurant that the Sultan had booked out, all could be gifted a Khanjar-signed Daytona 6263. It just depended on what Qaboos had at hand.
There are also rumours of English Special Forces who fought in a specific battle, all being given golden Khanjar Rolexes, in thanks for their service. Though this particular story is unverified, there are many like it floating around, which speak to the Sultan's approach of gifting watches, as a way of manifesting his generosity and spreading his influence. After all, placing the coat of arms of your newly established nation alongside names like Patek Philippe or Rolex, it could be argued, added a certain legitimacy.
A young Sultan Qaboos in military uniform.
Who applied the Khanjar and how?
Sultan Qaboos was an early collector and appreciator of Swiss timepieces. At a time when the watch industry was evolving into a global, luxury business and wristwatch collecting communities were in their infancy, the Sultan’s enthusiasm was unwavering.
One of the big debates surrounding his personalised watches, has always been around who applied the Khanjar signature and how? The answer to the latter question, is relatively simple. The Khanjar coat of arms was typically applied using the décalque technique. A form of printing, this technique allows for the transfer of a design engraved on a metal plate (known as a cliché) onto a dial, with the help of a silicone or gelatine stamp. Ink is placed into the recessed areas of the cliché, where Khanjar symbol would have been engraved, and reproduced with impressive precision onto the dial. As for who applied them, the answer is, alas, not as simple.
The earliest known Khanjar watch that was commissioned and gifted by Sultan Qaboos, as confirmed by Davide Parmegiani.
As the key intermediary for the Sultan, Asprey certainly had a central role to play. It was assumed for a long time, that because some dials were modified by brands, they must have also been the ones who applied the Khanjar, prior to sending them to Asprey. However, it would appear that it was in fact Asprey who applied the coat of arms. Whether the dials were supplied loose, or the retailer took them out of complete watches is unclear, but most of the time it was the retailer, and not the brands, who stamped the dials.
This means that, in their London workshop, Asprey would have had several metal plates with the Khanjar, ready to apply it on watches they received from Rolex and Patek Philippe, as well as IWC or Baume & Mercier. The thought of a Middle Eastern coat of arms, being applied on a Swiss watch dial, in a London workshop, may seem a little over-complicated, but there you go.
The London store of Asprey, at 167 New Bond Street.
Asprey received two types of dials from the Swiss manufacturers: modified and unmodified. The former are much more unusual, as they were especially changed, in order to create additional space for the Khanjar signature. In other cases, Asprey would just apply the additional symbol on an unmodified dial, which is why the location can sometimes seem more out of place. Looking purely at the Rolex Daytona, for example, both types of dials were stamped. On some of them, the Rolex signature at 12 o'clock was moved upwards or entirely removed, in order to accommodate for the Khanjar.
In other cases, the dial was left unchanged by Rolex, with the Khanjar being placed elsewhere, such as within the sub-dial at 6 o'clock. The thought that Rolex would entirely remove their name from the dial, in order to make place for someone else, seems unthinkable nowadays, but speaks to the influence of the Sultan at the time.
A pair of caseback engravings - a vintage Patek Philippe 3448 (left), a modern Rolex Oyster Perpetual from the last few years (right).
On some of the watches, you can also find the Asprey signature engraved on the caseback. These can be found in different styles, based on the age of the watch, from a more austere signature, all on one line, to the more playful, cursive Asprey signature. Though this is not found across all the watches modified by Asprey, it certainly adds to the provenance and rarity of the watch. Many collectors who focus on these examples, including both Schuetz and Hendra, find the Asprey stamped models more desirable.
However, there is one piece of evidence that brings into question the idea that modifications were always carried out by Asprey; it is found on Extracts from the Archives that accompany certain Patek Philippe models. These sometimes state that the Khanjars were “applied by Patek Philippe workshops.” This phrase could be understood in several ways. Perhaps the work was carried out by a workshop owned and operated by the company or by a separate workshop, which had been licensed by Patek Philippe. From what we’ve been told, it seems more likely to be the latter. In fact, if we go back to our previous article on double-signed watches, it used to be the norm for retailers to add their name onto the dial. Most often, the watch brands had very little – if anything – to do with it.
A rare ref. 3448 with a Khanjar engraved on the back where the extract states it was carried out by “Patek Philippe workshops”.
In some cases, however, the brands were definitely involved in applying the Khanjar, even if this remained the exception rather than the rule. For example, at one point, Rolex began to apply the stamp themselves after being granted permission by the Sultan. It is also believed that Patek Philippe engraved the emblem on the back themselves, though the front of the dial was modified by retailers.
Furthermore, contrary to popular opinion, Asprey were not the only ones to apply Khanjars to watch dials. There are also a few retailers in Oman, such as Khimji Ramdas and Al Qurum Jewellery, who were granted permission from the government to add the emblem and have been doing so for years. Khimji Ramdas were the exclusive Rolex dealers in Oman amongst other brands such as Cartier and IWC, whilst Al Qurum Jewellery basically covered all the other brands, including Patek Philippe.
Two brands that might not immediately spring to mind when Khanjars are referenced.
However, it would seem that many of the dials that these two Omani retailers worked on, were not modified by the brands beforehand. This meant that the Khanjar would often have to be squeezed into a position on the dial that was less than optimal for the design. Whether it be a sub-dial or off to one side, these are often easy to spot, just by the size and placement of the Khanjar itself. These Khanjars were still official and would have been given as gifts by the Sultan.
Schuetz also points out that there are Khanjar versions out there, which you need to be careful of, that were never gifted by the Sultan of Oman. He has come across models that were originally sold in Sweden, meaning that the Khanjar was more than likely placed, without permission. If this is the case, it could have been done so illegally, because from 2004 the use of the emblem has been under legal protection, with the maximum punishment being three years in prison.
The modified dial and box of a Rolex Daytona.
One barrier to finding out the true history of these timepieces, from who signed the dial, to where they were originally sold, is the secrecy that often surrounds their origin. There is a significant lack of documentation from when these were first purchased by the Sultan. He was renowned for placing extremely large orders with the watch brands when new releases were announced every year. This would mean that the Sultan would have a stock of watches, among other items, that he could give as gifts whenever he saw fit.
The Sultan’s tendency to order in batches is evidenced by looking at the Patek Philippe Nautilus 3700 in yellow gold. There are only three known to the public and all three fall within seven serial numbers, with all of them sold to the Sultan on the same date. Some have hypothesised that this means there are most likely around ten in existence.
A Daytona with a Khanjar signed box and paperwork with an Asprey stamp on the back but no Khanjar on the dial.
There was also no paperwork surrounding when they were gifted, with the provenance and stories that accompany these watches often relying on the word and circumstance of those who originally received them. This speaks to the frequency and spontaneity of the Sultan's gifting. In some cases, it is said that some watches were even handed out wrapped in newspaper.
Beyond the lack of paperwork, another obstacle to understanding quite how many Khanjar-signed dials were produced is that many were disposed of. During the 1970s and ‘80s, having a Khanjar on the dial wasn’t as attractive a proposition as it is today. The watch brands were considered far more desirable and prestigious on their own, such that there are reports of jewellers in Oman with baskets full of loose Khanjar dials, which they had replaced with standard variants. With today’s market results, the value left in those baskets is almost unimaginable...
Variations of the Khanjar
From left to right: the original Khanjar and national symbol of Oman, with the crown and the symbol of the Sultan and his family and finally with a surrounding wreath for the Omani National Police Force.
To the sadness of many, the Sultan passed away at the beginning of this year, after five years of prolonged illness. However, it is believed that his veracious appetite for watches did not diminish towards the end of his life, as he still ordered in large numbers and offered them as gifts to those who had provided him with a service. One notable exception, is that there have been no Rolex watches with Khanjars stamped on the dial for about twenty years. What has been produced instead, through Omani retailers, are Khanjars engraved on the back of Rolex models.
The Khanjar that we are all used to seeing has some interesting variations. The first and most common example consists of the traditional curved dagger on a belt atop of two crossed swords. This is the same emblem which appears on the national flag. The next variation, which Schuetz’s research suggests appeared around 1978 or 1979, has the addition of a crown on top.
This was the personal emblem of the Sultan and his family, while the one without, remained the official emblem of the nation. It is also possible to find a variation that is the symbol of the Omani police force, which has a Khanjar with a crown and a wreath around it. This variation is extremely rare, as they were only given to serving members of the police force.
A Rolex with the symbol of the Omani police force.
The final variant that's worth talking about, is the Qaboos signature. This is seen far less frequently than the normal Khanjar, yet, according to Schuetz’s data, appears to have been randomly interspersed with normal Khanjar signed pieces. This means that Asprey would apply it to dials as they saw fit, although it is possible that an order would have been put in for a specific number to be signed with a Khanjar, and the rest with a Qaboos.
For Schuetz, these Qaboos signed examples are possibly the most desirable, because of their limited supply and subtle design. They should always be seen as a parallel category to the original Khanjar pieces, as their origin and provenance are the same, with the only difference being the design.
Modified Rolex Daytona and Sea-dweller dials that were give the signature of Sultan Qaboos instead of the Khanjar.
We should also point out the different colours that have been used. Most commonly, you will find red Khanjars on Rolex sports models and white on everything else. That being said, there are also versions in green, gold and black. The colours red, green and white were chosen as they were the colours that Qaboos chose for the country’s new flag when he took the throne.
The more unusual golden Khanjar.
The Khanjar in today’s market
It could be said that we have recently started to see something of an influx of Khanjars entering the open market. With some of these pieces demanding significant premiums over unsigned examples, it can be easy to see why those who have been gifted them in the past, might now be willing to part with them. Some of the more desirable models can swap hands for fifteen times the value of their unsigned counterpart. This does seem to show the power of physical provenance.
Four Khanjar signed pieces that were sold at Phillips recently.
As stated earlier, these dials were not particularly popular to begin with and the sentiment was shared on the secondary market. According to Sam Hines, the Head of Watches at Sotheby’s, Khanjars were actually considered defects and were trading for less than standard models. He references popular Rolex Daytona models as being a prime example of this. As their popularity started to climb, the few that carried the emblem of Oman couldn’t keep up on the open market. In fact, it has only been since about 2012 or 2013, that a sharp rise in price and appreciation has occurred. If you ask Hines, this has everything to do with the increase in knowledge that was happening at the time. As younger collectors began to appreciate timepieces, hunger for something unique and personal began to drive up both interest and prices.
Today, Hines finds himself selling the story of these watches more than he does the watch itself. Collectors will ask him about their history, whether the watch came from the original owner and how they first came to own it, more than they enquire about the condition of the piece. However, despite the meteoric rise in value that these have seen over the last seven or eight years, there has been a cooling off over the past twe’ve months.
With links to royalty and possibly military service, these watches are all unique.
This marginal dip in prices is not particularly dramatic, nor should it be taken as a worrying trend, but it does show signs of correction. Hines thinks that collectors might now be looking at other brands with Khanjar dials, rather than the usual suspects, such as Patek Philippe and Rolex. What about IWC for example? These still carry the same provenance, at a fraction of the price.
Coming across a Rolex, Patek Philippe or Audemars Piguet with a Khanjar on the dial can be an exciting moment for any watch enthusiast. Knowing that a piece has a direct link to royalty, often adds a certain gravitas, which is hard to compare to anything else. There are those special military-issued watches or double signed pieces that were sold through prestigious retailers, but the backstory that can accompany any one of the Khanjar signed watches, might well put them in a category of their own.
Two white gold pieces owned by an Omani collector, including one of only three known Nautilus 3700s in white gold.
While recognising that there are some potentially controversial elements to their story, the weight of provenance is difficult to ignore. Combine this with their rarity and you can understand the fascination they generate from collectors. An extremely limited supply, with a powerful history and a unique way of initially owning one. Not the worst of combinations.
For helping us piece together this story we would like to extend special thanks to Ishan, Wulf Schuetz, Sam Hines and Hendra for providing us with invaluable insights into how these watches have come to be and the influence they now carry in the collecting world.