While Abraham-Louis Breguet’s invention of the tourbillon and Patek Philippe’s remarkable ‘supercomplications’ certainly have their place in the pantheon of greats, each of their timepieces is inextricably linked to awesome feats of human achievement or broader socio-economic importance.
Aviation geeks, and the people of his native Brazil, recognise the name Alberto Santos-Dumont as the equal of the Wright Brothers in pioneering heavier-than-air flight. Heir to a vast coffee fortune, Santos-Dumont used his considerable means to design and build some of the first working fixed-wing aircraft, which in the early years of the 20th century, he took great pleasure in piloting himself.
Complaining to his friend Louis Cartier that checking his pocket watch while airborne was a nearly impossible task, as he needed to keep his hands on the aircraft’s controls, the famous jeweller developed a wrist-worn watch for Santos-Dumont, which the aviator subsequently wore on all his flights. Voila! The first men’s wristwatch—and the first pilot’s watch—was born.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual
One of the greatest dangers affecting early watches was their susceptibility to dust, perspiration, water and humidity entering the case, causing the movement to clog, rust or degrade. The keyless stem-winding system invented by Jean Adrien Philippe in the mid-19th century had helped immensely in reducing movements’ exposure to the elements, but cases remained far from airtight. The closest thing yet seen to a hermetically sealed watch was the Oyster, launched by Rolex in 1926.
Featuring a screwed-down front and back, and a patented screw-down crown, the watch’s powers of water resistance were proven by Mercedes Gleitze, who wore the watch while swimming the English Channel in 1927. An Oyster Perpetual (the inspiration for the iconic Explorer model) would also famously be given to Edmund Hillary to test on his successful 1953 expedition to Mount Everest, where he and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the summit the world’s highest peak.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
A diver’s watch with arguably even greater provenance than the legendary Rolex Submariner or Omega Seamaster, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was conceived in 1952 by Captain Bob Maloubier, commander of the elite French tactical unit known as the ‘Nageuers de Combat’ (combat swimmers).
Involved in underwater sabotage ops and stealth attacks, the commando outfit needed a timepiece that was rugged, highly legible, unfailingly accurate, and, of course, water-resistant. Watchmaker Blancpain, whose CEO was an enthusiastic amateur scuba diver, agreed to craft a watch to Maloubier’s exacting specs. It was rapidly adopted by numerous other underwater special forces (in the US, Israel and Germany, among others) and was famously worn by scuba pioneer Jacques Cousteau during the filming of his acclaimed 1956 documentary film The Silent World.
Launched by Japan’s Seiko corporation in 1969, the Astron was the first large-scale production watch to be powered by a quartz movement. Like the electric watches that preceded it, the Astron was powered by a battery, sending a charge through a piece of crystal that oscillates at a very precise frequency, allowing a circuit to generate electric pulses exactly every second.
Though the watch was initially priced on a par with a small car, quartz movements quickly became cheap to produce—companies like Seiko and Casio began producing countless affordable, accurate, low-maintenance timepieces, the popularity of which did wonderful things for the Japanese economy, but caused traditional Swiss watchmaking to go into meltdown.
Initially enjoying success as the dominant timekeeper of the United States’ railroads at the dawn of the 20th century, in 1957, American watchmaker Hamilton was first to commercially produce an electric watch. Mechanically not dissimilar to a traditional timepiece, it featured a balance wheel, but was powered by a battery rather than being wound.
Befitting its cutting-edge technology and atomic age birth, the Hamilton Electric 500 came in a variety of ultra-modern cases, including the Ventura, worn by Elvis Presley in his hit movie Blue Hawaii in 1961. Its advent heralded a new era in which high tech and ease of use would come to be valued over mechanical craftsmanship.
In 1962, Omega’s Speedmaster chronograph made its first voyage into space when astronaut Walter Schirra wore his personal timepiece during the Mercury Programme’s ‘Sigma 7’ mission. In 1965, having rigorously tested a variety of high-performance chronographs, NASA officially certified the Speedmaster for all manned space missions.
It soon took the giant leap to become the first watch on the moon, sported by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during their historic lunar landing in 1969. And the following year, it was used by the crew of Apollo XIII to time a crucial 14-second manoeuvre that saved the three space cowboys from certain death.
Somewhat ironically, it was a cheap quartz watch that saved Swiss watchmaking from the threat posed by cheap quartz watches. Launched in 1983 by entrepreneur Nicolas Hayek, Swatch’s inexpensive plastic timepieces were designed to rekindle interest in analog watches (which had been largely superseded by digital watches), win back the entry-level market that had been gobbled up by Asian competitors, and re-assert Swiss watchmaking’s bona fides.
An instant hit worldwide, Hayek channeled funds from the huge sales of cheap’n’cheerful Swatch watches back into prestigious traditional marques including Omega, Blancpain and Breguet, breathing new life into the watch Swiss industry.
Richard Mille’s Sportsmen & their watches
Famous athletes regularly act as paid spokespeople and advertising ambassadors for watch brands. Few of them, however, are to be seen wearing the watches they promote during top-level competitions.
However, the sportspeople associated with Richard Mille regularly confound expectations by actually wearing the brand’s ultra-light, ultra-strong, ultra-comfortable, and indeed, ultra-expensive timepieces during championship performances. Sprinters Yohan Blake and Wayde van Niekerk, tennis great Rafael Nadal, hard-hitting golfer Bubba Watson, and F1 speed freaks Felipe Massa and Romain Grosjean are just some of the names who’ve proven you can take a title while wearing a tourbillon.
John Harrison’s Marine Chronometer
Invented in 1761, this device very literally changed the world. Developed over three decades by clockmaker John Harrison, the marine chronometer allowed seafarers—for the first time—to accurately gauge the hour at a reference point during long periods navigating the oceans, facilitating the accurate celestial calculation of longitude (which previously had been a matter of perilous guesswork, as earlier clocks were drastically affected by the conditions at sea).
Harrison’s creation made the exploration of the farthest corners of the earth possible; without it, the British Empire may never have risen to such heights, and the country of Australia (as we know it) might not exist.
Mike Horn’s Panerais
“Panerai has written more history with Mike Horn,” says the famous South African adventurer (talking about himself in the third person), than any other watch associated with exploration. The five watches he has created with Panerai have been 100 metres deep in the ocean and summited several of the world’s highest peaks. They’ve kept time on the first unassisted, unsupported ski crossing of Antarctica and the first (and to date, only) crossing of the North Pole in the perpetual dark of winter.
They’ve accompanied Horn on the first solo circumnavigation of the world above the Arctic Circle. One actually saved his life when he used it as a makeshift rock-climbing piton during an expedition up Broad Peak (at 8,051 metres above sea level, the world’s 12th-highest mountain). “No watch has a history like that,” Horn asserts.
See also: These 5 Luxury Watches Are Saving Seas