If the mountain won’t go to watchmakers, nor are watchmakers inclined to go to the mountain… a surprising conclusion for a profession that considers itself to be one of the symbols of its Alpine homeland. Always quick to wax lyrical over the beauty of nature and the need to preserve it, brands are first in line to save the oceans, as the recent World Ocean Day showed, but rarely spare a thought for the planet’s pinnacles. Have we ever seen a brand invite its fans to pick up the trash that litters ski runs when the season is over? Or take part in a clean-up operation to rid Mount Everest of the 250 metric tons of debris that are left behind each year? Maybe enlist a star athlete or actor to help? The kind of “community service” initiative that brands willingly sponsor shoreside have still to make it to the slopes.
It seems the masters of time don’t have a head for heights. At best, we’ve seen a multiplication in the number of hiking watches in recent years. All electronic, of course, complete with navigation system, altimeter, barometer, compass and elevation sensors. Only Oris has attempted a mechanical altimeter on its Rega pilot’s watch. In this respect, hikers and trail runners are no different to divers, who prefer to entrust their life to a wrist computer and keep their mechanical dive watch for show. None of which has prevented divers from becoming a fixture of the horological landscape after earning their credentials as tool watches in the 1950s. Rugged, reliable, water-resistant and legible, always at the forefront of watchmaking technology, they have all the attributes of a watch cut out for action.
Why reinvent the wheel when there are already watches built to survive extreme conditions? Whatever a watch will endure 200 metres underwater shouldn’t pose a problem at 2,000 metres altitude. And as more people dream about crystal-clear waters than crevasses in glaciers, brands have focused their efforts where they are more likely to be appreciated. Take the example of Panerai, whose ties with the sea go back a hundred years. It has found, in climber Jimmy Chin, an ambassador capable of taking the brand to the highest summits, wearing one of its inimitable dive watches.
A world of adventure lies among the rocky cirques and snow-capped summits, although any encounter with this pristine environment has to be earned through blood, sweat and tears – an aura that hasn’t escaped certain brands. Alpina’s Alpiner range promises “strong and sturdy watches that can resist the toughest conditions while remaining pure and easy to wear.” In a similar vein, two years ago Montblanc was urging us to “reconnect” with nature on a mountain trail, preferably wearing the 1858 Geosphere: a worthy heir to the observation watches coming out of the Minerva manufacture in the 1930s and 1940s. For a brand that shares its name with the highest peak in the Alps, this recent excursion into Minerva’s archives is particularly apropos!
More authentic, Vacheron Constantin’s partnership with mountaineer and photographer Cory Richards makes a strong fit for the Overseas, a collection launched in 1996 but whose origins in fact go back to 1977 and the “222”. Already renowned for precision timekeeping, as perfectly embodied in a range of wrist chronographs that set a precedent last century, Vacheron Constantin could legitimately add a travel watch to its catalogue. When equipping Cory Richards for his latest attempt to scale Everest, the Geneva-based manufacturer took the precaution of adapting the watch to the conditions he would encounter on the roof of the world, where temperatures can drop to -40°C, and produced an Overseas Dual Time Prototype in titanium with a tantalum reinforcement under the bezel. Other additions are two titanium crown guards, a soft iron inner case for anti-magnetic protection, and a screw-down crown for 150-metre water-resistance.
These initiatives are, nonetheless, like a snowflake on a glacier. Which leaves the way wide open for Rolex, a brand whose watches have served as precision instruments for explorers in the most hostile environments, including at high altitude. “For the founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf, the world was like a living laboratory. He began to use it as a testing ground for his watches from the 1930s, sending them to the most extreme locations, supporting explorers who ventured into the unknown.” Prototypes of what would become the world-famous Explorer were given to mountaineers for testing in real-life conditions.
“Hans Wilsdorf loved exploits,” writes Romain Réa, CEO of watch auction house Antiquorum, in Le Point Montres. “That Rolex watches equipped so many adventurers is proof. The Explorer was developed and made to accompany Sir Edmund Hillary for his assault on Mount Everest, reaching the summit on May 29, 1953. Heir to the Bubble Back, the Explorer is built to withstand every challenge. Robust, reliable, legible and precise, it is the explorer’s watch par excellence.” A new era brings new priorities, and today’s explorers are more likely to be scientists leading expeditions to better understand the changes taking place in the natural world, though still with Rolex by their side, through its Perpetual Planet programme and its tool watches. They include the aptly-named Explorer and Explorer II, with two new versions released this year that are also the height of style.