Rolex, Omega, Zenith: These Watches Have Seen Some Of Human Being's Greatest Achievements
A Rolex was famously strapped to the wrist of Tenzing Norgay in 1953 when he and Sir Edmund Hillary became the first men to summit Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. Rolexes were also tested to a depth of nearly 11 km on two famous submarine expeditions into the Mariana Trench—one led by Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard in 1960 and the other by director James Cameron in 2012.
There are numerous examples of watches that have aided human beings in the execution of incredible, record-breaking feats and achievements. And impressive though its accomplishments may be, Rolex by no means has a monopoly in this regard. In fact, many watch brands seek out relationships with pioneers and innovators in various fields, including through partnerships in which both parties benefit.
An Omega Speedmaster—certified by Nasa in 1965 as the official watch for all US space missions—became the first watch to land on the moon when it accompanied Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11’s momentous “one giant leap” lunar landing in 1969. The same timepiece proved a lifesaver the following year when the crew of Apollo 13 sequenced a pivotal 14-second manoeuvre that spared them a fiery demise as they re-entered the atmosphere.
In 2012, Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian extreme skydiver, wore a Zenith when he undertook a jump from the edge of space, 39 km above the Earth’s surface—the highest free-fall ever. During Baumgartner’s leap, from a capsule elevated into the stratosphere by a helium balloon, his speed peaked at 1,342 km/h, making this the first jump in history to break the speed of sound in free-fall, and Baumgartner the first person to reach such velocity without the assistance of an engine.
Through Thick And Thin
The following year, Baumgartner told me, “I always said when this was over, I’d retire, because I’m 44 years old now, I cannot go back and I definitely cannot top this one. Being the first human to break the speed of sound—there’s nothing left.” Remarkably, when he landed in New Mexico after his 10-minute descent, the stock-standard Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th that Baumgartner wore still worked perfectly, surviving enormous fluctuations in g-force, pressure, temperature and altitude.
Baumgartner said his Zenith watch was a vital failsafe tool on his record-breaking trip to the outer limits. “It was very important because everything in my capsule is based on electronics,” he explained. “So if I lose power, then I’d have no timekeeping at all. The only thing that would be left to time emergency oxygen levels and so forth is the Zenith on my wrist, which is mechanically driven.”
South African explorer Mike Horn relies on the resilience of Panerai watches during his death-defying adventures. Panerais proved unstoppable when Horn became the first man to make an unassisted, unsupported ski crossing of Antarctica, the first journey across the North Pole in the blistering chill and round-the-clock darkness of winter, and the first solo circumnavigation of the world above the Arctic Circle.
“Panerai is a watch that I could never afford,” Horn, a down-to-earth former Special Forces soldier, told me. “But it’s a watch that I can wear and use. It’s a tool... and it’s a tool where I have had an input in how I want the timepiece to work and to function.” According to Horn, Panerai asks him to push the brand’s research and development to the limit, demanding ever-improved anti-freeze lubricants and amagnetic casings, for instance, to ensure the watches withstand the most rigorous tests.
“The moment you start choosing or adding value through your knowledge to the tools that you want to use, you need to be able to trust them,” Horn said. He noted that his very survival might hinge on a timepiece that won’t freeze up when temperatures dip below -50C or that would allow him to tell day from night in the perpetual darkness of a polar winter.
Steel in the game
In the sporting arena, Richard Mille stands out by producing watches that can be worn by elite athletes without adversely affecting performance. Mille’s timepieces have been sported by the likes of Yohan Blake, Rafael Nadal, Bubba Watson, Pablo MacDonough, Felipe Massa and Romain Grosjean during record-breaking, championship-sealing competitions.
Mille once said, “I wanted to show my clients that they could wear my watches in any conditions. I don’t imagine watches that are made to be kept in a safe. I want to make watches that are worn and used.” By people in constant search of their personal best.