10 Watches That Represent Global Watchmaking Milestones


June 12, 2018 | BY Christian Barker

Abraham-Louis Breguet’s invention of the tourbillon and Patek Philippe’s remarkable ‘supercomplications’ cemented their places in the pantheon of horological greats, and each of their iconic timepieces is inextricably linked to astonishing feats of human achievement or broader socio-economic importance.

Here, we list 10 watches that, in their time, changed the world of watchmaking forever (in no particular order):

Cartier Santos; Alberto Santos-Dumont (Photos: Courtesy of Cartier)

Cartier Santos

Aviation geeks, and the people of his native Brazil, recognise 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.

(Related: Cartier Introduces The Santos De Cartier With A New Look)

10 Watches That Represent Global Watchmaking Milestones
Rolex Oyster Perpetual (Photo: Courtesy of Rolex)

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 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 of the world’s highest peak.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms (Photos: Courtesy of Blancpain)

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.

(Related: Baselworld 2018 Day 3: Simple, Pure And Elegant Aesthetics)

10 Watches That Represent Global Watchmaking Milestones
Seiko Astron (Photo: Courtesy of Seiko)

Seiko Astron 

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.

(Related: It's All In The Details For These 3 New Japanese Watches)

Elvis Presley; Hamilton Ventura (Photos: Courtesy of Hamilton)

Hamilton Ventura

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 general, at least.

(Related: Hublot Loves Art: 5 Of The Watchmaker's Most Stunning Artistic Collaborations)

10 Watches That Represent Global Watchmaking Milestones
Walter Schirra; Omega Speedmaster (Photos: Courtesy of Omega)

Omega Speedmaster

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.

The watch 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 the Apollo XIII to time a crucial 14-second manoeuvre that saved three space cowboys from certain death.

Swatch (Photo: Courtesy of Swatch)

The Swatch

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.

Swatch watches were an instant hit worldwide, and Hayek channeled funds from the huge sales of these cheap’n’cheerful timepieces back into prestigious traditional marques, including Omega, Blancpain and Breguet, thus breathing new life into the Swiss watch industry.

(Related: 5 Vintage-Inspired Watches Spotted At Baselworld 2018)

10 Watches That Represent Global Watchmaking Milestones
Rafael Nadal; Yohan Blake; Richard Mille tourbillons (Photos: Courtesy of Richard Mille)

Richard Mille’s Sportsmen & their watches

Famous athletes regularly act as paid spokespeople and advertising ambassadors for watch brands. Few of them, however, are 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. 

Marine Chronometer

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 might never have risen to such heights, and the country of Australia (as we know it) might not exist. 

(Related: Elvis Presley's Watch Is Hitting The Auction Block)

10 Watches That Represent Global Watchmaking Milestones
Mike Horn (Photo: Courtesy of Panerai)

Mike Horn’s Panerais

“Panerai has written more history with Mike Horn,” said the famous South African adventurer (referring to 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 have summited several of the world’s highest peaks. They’ve kept time on the first unassisted, unsupported ski crossing of Antarctica, and on 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.

This article first appeared on hk.asiatatler.com

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