Humanity’s urge to explore has led us to the farthest reaches of the globe…and beyond. But no explorer is complete without the proper tools for the mission. Whether it be extreme temperatures, altitudes, or depths, every adventurer needs a watch that can withstand the most extreme elements. Here are the 4 watches that have gone the distance and lived to tell about it:
#4 – The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer
It wasn’t until 1953 that Mt. Everest was conquered—May 29thto be exact. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to climb the world’s highest peak. The watch on Hillary’s wrist? The Rolex Oyster Perpetual, ancestor to the Rolex oyster Perpetual Explorer. At the time, the Nepalese government only allowed one expedition per year, and Rolex was one of the sponsors of the ‘53 expedition. The watch, produced in 1950, was lent to the men for the expedition then returned to Rolex for testing. In Hillary’s words, the Rolex “experienced considerable extremes of temperature, from the great heat of India to the cold temperature at over 22,000 feet and seemed unaffected by the knocks it received on rock climbs.” You can see the OG at the Beyer Watch and Clock Museum in Zürich, and you can nab your own Rolex Explorer—created in 1953 to honor the expedition.
#3 – The Rolex Deep Sea Special
The Mariana Trench is the deepest known spot on the planet—7 miles from the ocean surface to the trench’s deepest point. If Mt. Everest were dropped into the trench, its peak would still be more than a mile underwater. Until 2012*, only two men and one watch had made it to the bottom of the trench: Jacques Piccard, Don Walsh, and the Rolex Deep Sea Special. In 1960, the men piloted a sub called the Trieste into a depression called the Challenger Deep—10,916 meters below the surface. The pressure at that depth was one ton per square centimeter (1,000 times that at the surface). One of the exterior windows of the sub cracked under the pressure, but the Rolex Deep Sea Special, strapped to the outside of the vessel, was unscathed. Piccard telegraphed Rolex after the expedition, saying, “Happy to announce your watch works as well at 11,000 metres as it does on the surface.”
*In 2012, James Cameron made a solo expedition 10,908 meters deep with the Rolex Deepsea Challenge strapped to a robotic arm.
#2 – The Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th
On October 14th, 2012, at 120,100 feet (39,045 meters) above the Earth’s surface, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner leapt out of a space capsule (carried by a helium-filled balloon) into the stratosphere. Called the Red Bull Stratos mission, the goal was for Baumgartner to break the sound barrier in a freefall. And break the sound barrier he did—with a Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10thstrapped to his wrist. Baumgartner reached a record speed of 1,342 km an hour before being slowed down by the atmosphere during his freefall. The skydiver’s jump lasted 9 minutes, 3 seconds before he landed in the New Mexico desert. Three new world records were set that day: the first jump in history to break the speed of sound in a freefall, the highest freefall, and the highest occupied flight in a balloon. The Zenith attached to his wrist was in perfect working order upon landing—after surviving extreme differences in altitude, pressure, temperature, and acceleration. The El Primero movement, designed 40 years ago, is still the most precise series-produced chronograph in existence, beating at 36,000 vibrations per hour.
#1 – The Omega Speedmaster Professional
In July of 1969, the crew of the Apollo 11—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins—became the first men on the moon. And the watch that made that historic first walk: the Omega Speedmaster Professional. Originally released in 1957, the original Speedmaster was introduced as a racing chronograph—Omega was the official timekeeper for the Olympic Games at the time. But in 1962, Wally Schirra wore his own Omega Speedmaster CK2998 on a Mercury flight. Realizing “private” items could pose a danger on space missions, NASA began testing watches for official use. The three brands that made it to testing were Longines-Wittnauer, Rolex, and Omega. The “Qualification Test Procedures” included 11 different tests and only the Omega Speedmaster survived. And it’s a good thing. On the Apollo 13 mission, when things went wrong and the capsule lost power, the Omega Speedmaster was used to time two 14-second course corrections, helping the men return safely to Earth. And that’s how the Speedmaster became known as the Moonwatch and the only watch ever certified by NASA.