Sooner or later, the Big Day comes around. For Mercedes Gleitze and Hans Wilsdorf, it came in 1927. Mercedes Gleitze was a stenographer, Hans Wilsdorf the boss of Rolex. The young woman dreamed of swimming the Channel, the watchmaker wanted to convince the public that his Oyster was fully watertight. Both did what they set out to do: an extraordinary personal achievement and the birth of one of the most famous watches ever.
In a world that has made space its playground, it’s easy to forget that the twentieth century put its stamp on history with all manner of records, exploits and discoveries that we now take for granted. The advent of aviation and the automobile, the first steps on the Moon, polar exploration… the twentieth century is the symbol of technical progress and the desire to excel. It also reminds us how brands have helped forge the history of time measurement, which dovetails with the history of science. This thirst for knowledge and progress has inspired some of the greatest discoveries, while the timepieces made to resist these extreme conditions delivered quality, reliability and absolute precision.
For example, on July 20th 1969 at 20:17 UTC, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon, but left his watch in the spacecraft after an onboard computer crashed. He was followed by pilot Buzz Aldrin, who thus became the second person to walk on the lunar surface and the first to wear the Omega Speedmaster chronograph. A “claim to fame” that has put the Moonwatch, as it became known, onto thousands of watch fans’ radar.
A watch to scale new heights
Such a watch has a practical function which is, broadly speaking, to precisely indicate the time. Its DNA, however, roots it in the history of science, progress and human exploits, and makes it the symbol of determination, ambition and drive. All of which is good news for the brands, whose collections inspired by these legendary watches target the ordinary man in the street. These are watches that offer performance beyond our actual needs; as always, nothing succeeds like excess.
Enter Cartier and its Santos, made in 1904 for the Brazilian pilot Santos-Dumont who was exasperated by the impracticality of a pocket watch when at the commands of his plane. The Santos went on to become one of the brand’s flagship collections. A similar story is told at IWC, which in 1935 supplied the Royal Air Force with a wristwatch having a luminescent black dial, moving bezel with markers, steel case and an unbreakable plexiglas crystal. A model that became the blueprint for pilot’s watches.
A history that transcends time
Examples of these groundbreaking watches are legion. In 1953, Blancpain developed a timepiece for combat divers. Dubbed the Fifty Fathoms, it was adopted by military, professional and civilian divers and still today embodies the brand’s love affair with the sea. On July 31st 1954, a group of mountaineers succeeded in scaling the 8,612 metres of the legendary Himalayan summit, K2. The Vulcain Cricket they wore on their wrist proved its ability to withstand the most inhospitable climate, and would give rise to a collection of watches for adventurers at heart.
We readily identify today’s collections with their predecessors’ strengths. In 2016, calibres suggest mechanisms built to last, designs rekindle an historic lineage, the technical properties of cases are a reminder of past exploits. They have inherited a title, and succeeded in turning the specific demands of a handful of users into something of benefit to a wide audience. Even so, their greatest function is to inspire the imagination. For a long time to come.
Late last August, TAG Heuer, maker of the first Swiss watch in space in 1962, reminded an invited audience in Beijing of its historic ties with space exploration. Ties the brand continues to forge today, with the announcement of its partnership with the Chinese Mars exploration programme, scheduled to launch in 2020.