Forget the old saying that time is money. It’s far more important than that. Impossible to retain and forever ebbing away, time is perhaps our most precious commodity. And like most highly valuable things — gold bullion, the Crown Jewels, the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken — it warrants careful protection. Something similar applies to mechanical watches, which are our traditional instruments of time-keeping. Watches, after all, are fragile creatures. Beneath their dials lurks an intricate network of tiny components whose integrity must be preserved to make them tick. Over the years, many innovations, from silicon hairsprings to ceramic bezels, have attempted to make timepieces more robust. Yet such efforts to protect a watch from life’s occupational hazards will occasionally shape its entire character. What begins as a mere strengthening upgrade can give birth to classic design as function inspires form in a novel way.
The Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Duoface, for example, was conceived in the 1930s as a watch built to withstand the rigours of playing polo. The ingenious flip-over case design works like armour for the watch dial, allowing the wearer to shield it from galloping hooves and flailing mallets. The Panerai Luminor’s distinctive looks also resulted from a defensive measure. Working with the Italian navy, the brand was tasked with designing waterproof watches for frogman commandos. To seal the watch’s crown for underwater use, Panerai developed a domed crown guard with a locking lever to keep the watch’s innards watertight. That feature inspired the instantly recognisable design that’s since become one of the brand’s hallowed trademarks.
Resilience under pressure was also the driving force behind the Omega Speedmaster Professional that was conceived during the 20th-century space race. At the time, NASA was determined to kit out its astronauts with mechanical timepieces but knew that any watch capable of functioning under the demands of space travel would have to be super-tough. The watch would have to maintain perfect accuracy while laughing off zero-gravity, extreme G-forces and the wild temperature changes on the moon, where conditions can vary from -153°C to 107°C. Consequently, in the early ’60s, before the first lunar mission, NASA bought a range of chronographs to find the best watch for astronauts to wear in space. The watches were stress-tested in some of the most rigorous trials in the history of horology. The Omega Speedmaster was the only entry to pass, an achievement that would lead to it becoming the first watch on the moon.
“One small step for man” was taken in the opposite direction when Rolex set its sights on conquering the deep. Having produced the first waterproof watch in 1926, the brand raised its game by engineering a timepiece to meet the extreme demands of saturation divers, who are required to stay underwater for days. The Sea- Dweller was first offered in 1967, with a helium release valve to let out gas particles that accumulate during extended spells underwater. After several upgrades, in 2012 the watch accompanied the director James Cameron on his solo submarine mission to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest-known point on earth. To achieve this feat, the Sea- Dweller had evolved to deliver water resistance at 3,990 metres — more than 10 times the depth of the deepest scuba dive ever.
Similarly invincible qualities were demanded of Bremont when it teamed up with Martin-Baker, the aviation company responsible for supplying 70 per cent of the world’s air forces with the technology for ejection seats. The goal was to create a watch that could withstand the same break- neck intensity as the seats themselves. The resulting timepiece — the limited-edition Bremont MBI (“MB One”) — is reserved for pilots who’ve ejected from an aircraft in a Martin-Baker seat and lived to tell the tale. Perhaps aware that this might curtail the watch’s potential sales, Bremont graciously agreed to make its MBII and MBIII models available to a broader audience.
The irony is that the technical wizardry behind such extraordinary watches is rarely used for its intended purpose. The average consumer is as unlikely to be ejected from a fighter plane as to play a chukka of polo. Moreover, as mechanical watches increasingly become more about status than functionality, people are understandably wary of putting their expensive watches into harm’s way. Yet the rugged capabilities of a high-performance watch remain both reassuring and handy. Sure, the chronograph sub-dials on your Moonwatch may never be used in some intergalactic adventure, but they can still help ensure you don’t overcook the pasta.