The mid-20th century was the heyday of mechanical watches. They were reliable, ubiquitous and not yet edged aside by quartz or digital technology. They were also practical. A plethora of watches extended the functionality of general timekeeping to pursuits and professions that were evolving fast at the time – diving, flying, engineering, exploring.
As much as they were timekeepers, these watches were tools, designed for a crucial task amid specific conditions, rather than a lifestyle. Utilitarian in nature, they nevertheless progressed the art of watchmaking, and would – as Switzerland is reminding us this year with a flurry of utilitarian retro releases – define the evolution of the modern luxury wristwatch from delicate dress piece to something more durable and versatile.
In 1957 Omega launched three models intended for three different professional arenas. These were the Speedmaster, a chronograph intended for racing drivers; the Seamaster 300, aimed at scuba divers; and the Railmaster, for electrical engineers, scientists and anyone operating near strong electrical currents (for marketing purposes Omega, which had historically made watches for railroad employees, associated it with the newly electrified railways). To mark the anniversary, Omega has this year released new versions recreating the look of the three originals – not as they appeared when new, mind, but with dials that show the brown patina of vintage watches. They can be bought individually or as a limited-edition box set, and collectively serve as a handy blueprint to the mid-century tool-watch phenomenon.
Of the three, the Speedmaster is easily the most famous, not because of its motor-racing credentials, but because in the 1960s it went into space as the official watch of NASA's Apollo astronauts. As such, it arguably became the tool watch to end all tool watches: surviving harsh testing to earn NASA approval, being worn in the 1969 Moon landings, and coming into its own on the fateful, almost-disastrous Apollo 13 mission, when the Speedmaster’s stopwatch was used to time manoeuvres after the onboard computers shut down.
The chronograph (a watch with a stopwatch) had always been a tool, with different dial markings and configurations adapting its purpose. There were versions used in the armed forces for measuring artillery distances, by doctors for monitoring heart rates, by pilots for navigation (Breitling’s celebrated Navitimer, still its dominant product, being a famous 1950s example).
Though it made its name in space, the “Speedy” was the watch that established the automotive style that other chronographs – particularly the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, and various 1960s models from Heuer – would make famous on the racetrack. With its steel bracelet, rugged case and tachymetric scale fixed into a thick bezel, it made the chronograph an explicitly tough, sporty and modern tool. And it’s not just Omega reminding us of that this year: TAG Heuer is also in the recreation game, reviving the look of its classic of the genre, the Autavia, with a new model that exudes the bravura spirit of 1960s motorsports. Like Omega’s models, however, its engineering is of the thoroughly modern variety.
The Railmaster is the least-known of the Omega trilogy – it lasted only until 1963, when it was discontinued – but it represents one of the more interesting strands in the tool-watch genre: watches aimed ostensibly at engineers. Rolex, IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre were all among the brands that took aim at the burgeoning post-war technological community, thanks to watch technology that was itself a by-product of wartime developments.
During the war, many Swiss firms made watches for various military services, including aircraft navigation watches. These looked like simple wristwatches, but were required to maintain great accuracy under extreme conditions and fluctuating temperatures, reliable timekeeping then being an essential element in astro-navigation. A brand new problem came with the growing array of electrical cockpit instruments, and in particular the advent of radar displays, which all emitted magnetic fields that played havoc with watch movements. This drove the development not only of the most highly engineered movements, but also of a case construction that involved an inner shield of soft iron around the movement, that would deflect magnetic fields.
In the post-war era, such developments translated to the civilian world, against a fast-evolving technological landscape. Rolex advertised its Milgauss watch – resistant to 1,000 gauss of magnetism – as relevant to scientists at the newly opened cern particle physics research centre; IWC simply named its watch the Ingenieur (“Engineer”); Jaeger-LeCoultre created its equivalent, the Geophysic, during the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, a global research project that remarkably involved both sides of the cold war. It was the first watch to sail under the North Pole, on the wrist of the commander of the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine.
Interestingly, all these watches combined front-line engineering with sturdy, minimalist designs that must have seemed the essence of modernity at the time, and whose honest, stripped-back functionality holds considerable appeal now. Besides the Railmaster, which is returning at last as a full range as well as in the vintage revival model, iwc’s latest version of the Ingenieur takes things back to those 1950s design roots.
If the engineer watch is the most esoteric tool watch, the diving watch is the all-time classic. In the 1950s, deep-water scuba diving – based on the aqualung technology invented the previous decade by Jacques Cousteau – was taking off, unleashing a wealth of scientific, military and recreational possibilities.
Though the Italian military supplier Panerai had produced a small number of now-iconic waterproof dive watches, and a handful of other brands had made their own attempts to varying degrees of success, it was Blancpain that set the blueprint for the modern dive watch with its Fifty Fathoms model in 1953, featuring for the first time a rotating bezel bearing a register for marking off the elapsed time of a dive – an essential consideration when you’re carrying a diminishing air supply on your back. A new version this year recalls “mil-spec” (military specification) versions made for American combat divers with a marking on the dial that changed colour, from white to orange, if water seeped into the watch. One may assume that there’s little risk of that happening to the modern model, though Blancpain insists the moisture strip is fully functional.
The rotating bezel – lockable in one direction, so that you couldn’t accidentally extend your dive – along with a dial of bold but minimal, luminescent indices and hands, and of course a tough, waterproof case, became prerequisites of the modern dive watch, as seen in the Rolex Submariner (1954) and indeed the Omega Seamaster 300, the final part of the trilogy.
In 1967, Rolex added a further ingenious device, to solve the problem of watches bursting open at depth, as scuba technology enabled professional divers to go ever deeper. A beefed-up version of the Submariner called the Sea-Dweller, with a valve that released built-up helium, was developed.
It was the ultimate mechanical dive tool, and sure enough, there’s a new version out this year to mark the anniversary, containing Rolex’s newest battle-tank movement, but also a bit of a retro flourish – an unusually whimsical move for Rolex – in the form of red wording on the dial, which recalls the original Sea-Dweller. Its 4,000-feet depth rating – over four times as deep as any diver wearing it could survive – is practically an act of whimsy in itself, albeit one that is the end product of engineering that once opened up new possibilities both for watches and for human endeavour.