On a spring afternoon four years ago in the ancient British town of Rochester in Kent, Desmond “Roy” Homard, 93, carried a small, dog-eared green cardboard box into his dining room. Inside, wrapped in cotton wool, was an elegant, weathered steel wristwatch. Homard had recently found it at the back of a kitchen drawer, where it had probably been sitting hidden for a decade or more. Its silver dial was stained brown in places but the legend “Tudor Oyster-Prince”, and, lower down, “Rotor self-winding”, were still clear.
The worn, brown, leather band it was attached to was significantly longer than a normal watch strap, designed to be worn over the sleeve not under it – this timepiece was specifically made to go over an Arctic adventurer’s overalls. Exactly 60 years before, the watch had accompanied Homard as he roamed around the polar ice as part of the British North Greenland Expedition, a two-year geological survey of one of the northern hemisphere’s vast and unforgiving landscapes in the 1950s. A logbook in the archives of Tudor, a sibling watch brand to Rolex, attested to consistent performance of Homard’s watch as he lived in tents on the ice for weeks at a time.
The importance of reliable timekeeping in the world’s harshest environments, where days and nights appear the same, has a long history. In the Victorian era, the Royal Geographical Society, which gathered together Britain’s explorers and geographers, would kit out its travellers with pocket watches featuring robust lever escapements – a watch’s crucial regulating mechanism – and large, hermetically sealed cases, including a screw-down cap over the winding crown to keep it watertight in extreme climates. Known as “explorer watches”, these have since become sought-after collectors’ items. The watch that Robert Falcon Scott wore on his fateful journey to the South Pole in 1912 is one of the treasures of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.
As pocket watches gave way to wristwatches in the 20th century, Hans Wilsdorf, who founded both Rolex and Tudor watch brands, was keen to prove how good his companies’ timepieces were. He gave models to adventurers around the world. A 1952 Tudor advert even praised the courage of the British North Greenland Expedition explorers who would test themselves and Tudor’s timekeeping to the limits in Greenland. It was a brilliant idea. Just as Homard and his pals were enduring the Arctic cold, Wilsdorf was chalking up an even grander success for Rolex. When Edmund Hillary ascended Everest he carried a timepiece that would beget the most iconic adventuring watch of all: the Rolex Explorer.
Both Hillary and Tenzing Norgay sported Rolexes on their triumphant 1953 climb, though conjecture remains as to whether Hillary was actually wearing his to the summit – he had with him another watch by the British firm Smiths as well, which he confirmed he “carried” to the top. Wilsdorf nevertheless capitalised on the moment of glory. Rolex quickly went on to develop a new generation of hardy watches for professional use in demanding environments, including the Submariner diving watch and the anti-magnetic Milgauss that were developed in 1956 for scientists and professionals operating around strong magnetic fields in the burgeoning technological landscape of the post-war era (strong magnets can make a watch unreliable or even stop).
In the immediate afterglow of the Everest success in 1953, Rolex launched the Explorer, a version of its normal “Oyster Perpetual”, the one that Hillary wore, which also featured a black dial with white luminescent markings to make it readable in any circumstances, and a thinner lubricant to help it function at low temperatures. Though it has since taken on a more luxurious air, the Explorer’s design has remained largely unchanged.
Tudor produced its own modern equivalent of Homard’s Oyster Prince, launched in 2015. The North Flag is more rugged and sporty in appearance than the Explorer, with its steel and ceramic case, and bold white-and-yellow dial markings. Inside is Tudor’s in-house chronometer movement, an engine with a sturdy construction that includes a silicon balance spring and an impressive 70-hour power reserve.
Timekeeping has never been the only use for an adventurer’s watch. In his memoir of the British North Greenland Expedition mission in the 1950s, expedition leader James Simpson described how teams would use sun-compasses – a kind of tiny, portable sundial – in tandem with a wristwatch to navigate across Greenland’s snowscape.
This was nothing new. Earlier adventurers, including Roald Amundsen in the North and South poles and David Livingstone in Africa, charted their way through unknown territory using marine chronometers and sextants. Ben Saunders, a British athlete who in 2013 retraced Scott’s route to the South Pole on foot says that the ability to navigate by wristwatch remains a crucial skill in case more modern instruments fail. Bremont, a British watch company, recently developed a timepiece to accompany Saunders on his journeys. Named the Endurance, after Ernest Shackleton’s mission to the Antarctic in 1914, it is a rugged piece cased in lightweight, aircraft-grade titanium, waterproof to 500 metres and on an orange fabric strap. Developed from a Bremont diving watch, the rotating bezel – as used on a dive watch for marking off time at depth – is equipped with compass markings which can be used to navigate when the watch is aligned with the sun.
Another celebrated explorer and environmentalist, Pen Hadow – who walked unaided to the North Pole in 2003 and now leading a North Pole conservation venture, Arctic Mission – wears a Raider Bivouac 9000 from Favre-Leuba. One of the oldest names in Swiss watchmaking, Favre-Leuba scored a first in 1962 with its original Bivouac wristwatch designed for mountaineers, which combined timekeeping with a barometric altimeter. After years in obscurity, the Favre-Leuba brand, which sponsored Arctic Mission’s research voyage to newly ice-free polar waters last year, has recently come up with a watch inspired by its 1960s and 1970s hits, that also included the first diving watch with a depth-gauge.
Today’s explorers have all kinds of new-fangled equipment that theoretically make such arcane mechanical pieces redundant. Electronic action watches offer all such services: the Casio G-Shock includes a Rangeman model which has complex GPS navigation, altimeter and barometer, digital compass, solar and wireless charging, and low-temperature resistance; the Emergency, which Breitling launched in 2013, made from lightweight titanium, includes a distress beacon that broadcasts a rescue signal via satellite and analogue frequencies from anywhere on Earth. But come freezing conditions where digital displays and battery-powered devices could fail, even modern adventuring may require more than the ability to consult electronic kit. A simple, reliable watch, part of an adventurer’s kit for generations, still earns its place.