From the lowest to the highest points of the Earth: Watches in extreme conditions


by Nils Rau

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August 20. 2019 - by Nils Rau

Toolwatches are popular timepieces: they stand for adventure, reliability and can often look back on an impressive history. We’re all familiar with the Rolex Explorer being the first watch that conquered Mount Everest in 1953, and the Omega Speedmaster as the first watch on the moon: Let us tell you the stories of a further six watches that have experienced breathtaking adventures.


Reliable timepieces in an analogue world

We tend to be well equipped when going into extreme situations today. Even on the road, we have all sorts of systems to ensure the greatest possible safety. Blind Spot Assist, Distance Cruise Control and Adaptive High Beam are just a few of the numerous helpers found in many modern cars. 

A few decades ago everything was different: When the world wasn't digital yet, you had to rely on analog helpers. So it's not surprising that the great adventures with watches are mostly from the analogue era. While the use of watches in extreme situations nowadays usually involves proof of skill, a few decades ago these were essential aids that had to reliably withstand extreme situations. 

Sir Edmund Hillary wore a Rolex Explorer during his ascent to the peak Mount Everest.

1. Rolex Deepsea Challenge in the Challenger Deep (1960)

Just one year after the discovery of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, located (in simplified form) between Australia and Japan, Rolex SA turned to researcher and deep-sea pioneer Auguste Piccard to support his planned deep-sea expedition to the Challenger Deep, the deepest known point in the Earth's seabed hydrosphere. The Swiss Manufacture intended to attach a watch to the outer wall of the submarine and prove that the watch's water-resistance could withstand the deepest point of the world's oceans.

Said and done: On 23 January 1960, Auguste Piccard's son Jacques Piccard dived with Don Walsh in the Trieste, an Italian-built deep diving Bathyscaphe, to the bottom of the Challenger Deep - the Rolex Deep Sea Special was attached to the outer wall of the Trieste. After 20 minutes on the seabed, Piccard and Walsh returned to the surface. It was made clear that the Deep Sea Special had survived the deep sea voyage undamaged and was still running precisely. The watch and the plexiglass are quite high due to the high pressure tightness requirements.

2. Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic

The Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic proves that the pursuit of the extraordinary can also be achieved through the art of watchmaking. Now that the Octo Finissimo collection has been on the market for several years, the race for the flattest watch in the world between Piaget and Bulgari seems to have finally been decided. The Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic set three records in 2018 and continues to set annual records: the flattest tourbillon ever, the flattest automatic watch ever - and consequently the flattest automatic tourbillon ever. In profile, the 3.95 millimeter watch case is barely thicker than the already very flat wristband. For comparison: a Jaeger-LeCoultre Grande Reverso Ultra Thin is 7.3 millimetres high, a Patek Philippe Nautilus 8.3 millimetres and a Rolex Submariner 12.5 millimetres.

 

Source: Bulgari

3. Cartier Santos and the first powered flights (1906)

The world's first toolwatch dates back to 1906 and was developed by Cartier for the aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont. Dumont complained to Louis Cartier that he could not look at his pocket watch when flying because he needed both hands. So Cartier began to think about how to use a timepiece and developed the idea of the wrist watch, thus giving birth to the Cartier Santos. The year Alberto Santos Dumont received his watch from Cartier, he made the world's first public powered flight with an airplane. In the years that followed, with the Cartier Santos on his wrist, he set many groundbreaking records that paved the way for today's aviation.

4. Zenith Chronograph: First journey to the South Pole (1910)

The Norwegian sailor and polar explorer Roald Amundsen started the Fram expedition in 1910, which lasted until 1912 and represented the first journey to the geographical South Pole. Amundsen began the expedition in Oslo and initially travelled five months by ship to the Bay of Whales, the closest open sea point to the South Pole. From there he and his followers set off with dog sleds. After ten months they finally reached the pole. During the entire expedition Amundsen wore a chronograph from Zenith, which had to withstand extreme weather conditions - both at sea and in the ice-cold Antarctic.

In 2011, Johan Ernst Nilson launched the "Pole2Pole" expedition on the 100th anniversary, for which Zenith launched the El Primero Stratos Pole2Pole, limited to 500 pieces.

5. Mercedes Gleitze dives across the English Channel with a Rolex Oyster (1927)

In the first decades of the 20th century, everything in the watch world was a novelty: both date displays and the subject of water resistance were new territory and anything but a matter of course. In 1926, Rolex developed the first waterproof and dustproof wristwatch. The name: Oyster - A reference to an oyster that protects the precious pearl inside.

Only one year later, in 1927, the British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze started her attempt to cross the English Channel. She swam for more than 15 hours at a time and carried a Rolex Oyster with her - fastened with a ribbon around her neck (and not on her wrist). Due to the low temperatures and the high swell, the attempt failed. The watch, on the other hand, worked perfectly and brought Rolex worldwide fame.

 

6. Jump out of the stratosphere with a Zenith El Primero

In 2012, the Austrian base jumper and extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner climbed into the stratosphere (the second layer of the Earth's atmosphere) to perform a parachute jump from an altitude of almost 40,000 metres. It was not only the highest jump in the history of mankind, but also the longest time and distance in free fall. Baumgartner reached a speed of more than 1,300 km/h and was thus the first person to break through the sound barrier in free fall.

Not only Red Bull, but also Zenith supported the project of Felix Baumgartner. During the jump he wore a Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th. The watch withstood the extreme accelerations, altitude, pressure and temperature differences unscathed and functioned flawlessly even after returning to Earth. 

Nils Rau

by Nils Rau

Nils is a guest author for the CHRONEXT Journal. He currently dedicates most of his free time to wristwatches – be that talking with friends, browsing through blogs and online magazines, or keeping an eye on the timepiece stock exchange. When he is not contributing to the CHRONEXT Journal, he works as a junior lawyer in Northern Germany. His articles focus on brands, trends, as well as the philosophical questions within the world of fine watches.

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