How the Heroes of the Horological World Became the Artefacts of a Life Less Ordinary

The watch brands trading in epic journeys to sell their wares.

Article by Luke Benedictus

HERO WATCH_1From left: Bremont Supermarine 500, $6,400,; Nivada Grenchen Super Antarctic 3.6.9, about $1,060, nivadagrenchen Imagery courtesy of brands.

What do the Star Wars films have in common with “The Odyssey”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hangover Pt II” (the one with the chain-smoking monkey)? They’re all examples of a story archetype referred to as the “hero’s journey”. The term was coined in the 1940s by Joseph Campbell, an American writer and editor who studied popular tales from a range of myths and religions. The most common storylines, he observed, unfolded from some form of journey. A protagonist would embark on an unexpected mission that would entail adventure and the potential for inner transformation.  

The hero’s journey remains a potent narrative to this day because it combines the spiritual quest of the ancient world with the modern search for identity. Campbell believed the plotline was universal, describing it as a “monomyth” that audiences are hardwired to respond to.

Recognising this emotional resonance, watch brands have long traded in epic journeys to sell their wares. In 1927, Rolex harnessed the success of Mercedes Gleitze — the first British woman to swim the English Channel — to spruik the Rolex Oyster, the world’s first waterproof watch. Similarly, in 1953, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first to scale Mount Everest, they did so wearing prototypes of the watch that would soon become the famous Rolex Explorer.

FROM LEFT: Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer, $16,600,; and Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional, $9,750, Imagery courtesy of brands.

Probably the most celebrated journey of them all is the 1969 conquest of the moon. Obviously, a watch brand muscled in on that jaunt, too. When NASA was searching for the most reliable chronograph for its astronauts, it invited several companies to submit their watches for intensive testing. The only one that passed was the Omega Speedmaster, which was subsequently fastened to the wrists of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they blasted off to take their giant leap for mankind.

Sadly for intrepid types, there is a finite number of monumental journeys that have the power to grip the public imagination. But watchmakers have hitched their wagons to some fairly obscure ones, too. Last year, for example, Nivada Grenchen launched a reissue of the Super Antarctic 3.6.9 model from the 1950s, which was used by the American navy on exploratory missions
in the South Pole. And in 2009, when the British
adventurer Olly Hicks became the first person to row across the Tasman Sea from Tasmania to New Zealand, he did so with Bremont’s Supermarine 500. 

Brands presumably patronise these trips as a way to showcase the technical ability and robustness of their watches, and because aligning their product with them imbues it with a sheen of excitement. After all, luxury timepieces are emotional purchases. We buy them not out of necessity, but because we simply desire them. Therefore, if a watch can tap into the monomyth that has left us spellbound for thousands of years, well, that’s probably no bad thing. And it is why, when you purchase one, it’s invariably not about the destination. It’s all about the journey.