The first woman to swim the Channel, in 1927, was a shorthand typist by the name of Mercedes Gleitze. Her sheer determination prompted Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf to gift her an Oyster (incidentally a means of proving its resistance). The sport watch was born. While shorthand typist is a dying profession, the spirit of Mercedes Gleitze lives on as we wade not into the Channel but the daily commute. Because as watch brands are well aware, the nine to five is already an exploit. The Oyster may have earned its credentials in saltwater, it also serves a purpose for a lunchtime swim at the local pool, or round the meeting table. We all have in mind the image of the modern-day executive, suited and booted with – what’s that? – a sport watch on his wrist.
From Everest to Edgware
How did it get there? In large part thanks to the exploits of adventurers and explorers. Jacques Cousteau during his odyssey into The Silent World (Blancpain), Scott Carpenter orbiting Earth in the Aurora 7 space capsule (Breitling), Italian mountaineers Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni in their ascent of K2 (Vulcain), Neil Armstrong taking that giant leap for mankind (Omega), James Bond on a mission for… sorry, wrong person, not James Bond! The twentieth century is replete with epic tales of the fearless individuals who travelled to the ends of the Earth and beyond to conquer the poles, space, the desert or the highest summits, fuelling the imagination of thousands and, by association, boosting watchmakers’ credibility. Indeed, the majority of watches made around this period are symbols of technical progress, the quest for excellence, and a spirit of innovation and discovery.
This additional prestige made the sport watch worthy of interest. Changing lifestyles further contributed to its popularity among a growing audience. Ultimately, the sport watch owes its success to a combination of factors. It appeals to the amateur athlete in a health-conscious era when the number of popular sporting events (trails, Color Run, etc.) has never been greater. It also has ties with world-class competition whose protagonists are celebrities in their own right. And so chronos, dive watches and other roadworthy timepieces have become legitimate wristwear for the ordinary man and woman.
Style-wise, sportswear is indicative of a laidback attitude. As early as the 1920s, Coco Chanel and Jean Patou were designing clothes that allowed greater freedom of movement. By the 1960s, sport style had moved out of the stadia and onto the street. In the 2000s, brands such as Adidas were putting out sharply designed fashion items. Now, in 2017, it’s all about nuance and hybridisation: a pair of sneakers with a smart jacket, a hoodie over an evening gown. In watchmaking, it’s the same mix. Sneak a peek under a suit sleeve and don’t be surprised to see a dive watch, maybe Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Flyback Chronograph Ocean Commitment II (BOC II) or the Rolex Sea-Dweller 1967.
Watches such as the TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre 16 Day-Date Chrono Black titanium, originally designed for car racing, have made a pit stop on our wrist. Gentleman drivers might go for the Chopard Mille Miglia 2017 Race Edition, while fans of vintage styles may prefer the Oris Chronoris Date or a Montblanc TimeWalker Chronograph Automatic. For the long list of people looking to cultivate an easygoing attitude, a stylish sport watch, more than a classic complication, is the ideal solution. Not to mention the guilty pleasure of reeling off its numerous functions: tachymeter scale, superlative chronometer precise to –2/+2 seconds a day, helium escape valve, unidirectional rotating bezel, “mushroom” pushers, countdown, water-resistance to 1,220 metres… a plethora of features guaranteed, if nothing else, to give the brain a good workout!