In this article, we’ll be traveling to North Greenland, diving deep into our planet’s oceans, climbing the most dangerous mountain in the world, taking a walk in space, and flying across the English Channel. We’ve compiled a list of 5 watches that have been an instrumental part of some of the greatest expeditions ever to have taken place. One thing is for sure: Almost every record-breaking achievement has been accompanied by a watch.
1. The British North Greenland Expedition
In 1952, an expedition team made up of British military, civilian scientists, and a Danish army officer embarked on a mission to conduct extensive geological, meteorological, climatological, and physiological research in northern Greenland. During their two years in Greenland, the researchers, led by Commander James Simpson RN, measured a record low temperature of -66.1°C (-87°F), discovered that Greenland’s ice sheet is 2,700 meters (8,900 ft) thick, and learned that the average body needs 8 hours of sleep per night.
On their expedition, these explorers each wore a Tudor Oyster Prince (ref. 7809). The founder of Rolex and Tudor, Hans Wilsdorf, even asked the men to provide the company with feedback on the watch’s performance. The men of the BGNE kept logs comparing the accuracy of their watches against daily time signals broadcast by the BBC. The watches proved very reliable. After the explorers handed in their logbooks, Tudor used the results to successfully market the Oyster Prince. Today, the Tudor Oyster Prince is not as widely sought-after as some of its bigger Rolex counterparts, but the Tudor’s achievements are no less impressive by any measure.
2. Jacques Cousteau’s Explorations of the Ocean
Many watches have connections to the world-famous French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau and the crew of the Calypso. The most prominent are the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, Rolex Submariner, and Omega Seamaster Ploprof. Another watch Cousteau wore on many of his deep-sea dives is the Doxa SUB 300T. The original model with its distinctive orange dial caught Cousteau’s attention. He ended up putting his company’s black and yellow ‘Aqua Lung’ logo on the orange dial and bringing this edition to the American market.
While the SUB 300 was Doxa’s response to the rising popularity of scuba diving, no one at the company could have predicted that this would become the watch of choice for what was the most famous dive team at that time. In addition to the version with the orange dial, Cousteau, his sons Jean-Michel and Philippe, and other crew members could often be spotted wearing the black ‘Sharkhunter’ version on many of their explorations. This gave the Doxa brand an incredible boost in popularity and credibility. If you’d like to buy one of the original watches from Cousteau and his crew, you’ll need a lot of patience and some deep pockets.
3. Louis Blériot Crossing the English Channel
In 1908, the English newspaper the “Daily Mail” set a challenge, offering a monetary award to whomever became the first to successfully fly across the English Channel. Attempts were honored in the order of registration. This meant Frenchman Hubert Latham would have his go before Louis Blériot. Latham’s attempt ended in a crash landing, so it was now Blériot’s chance to try to fly the 40 km from Calais to Dover. At that time, such a distance was considered impossible to fly.
On July 25, 1909, at 4:41 am, Blériot took off in his Type XI wearing his Zenith watch—the predecessor to the Zenith Type 20 introduced in the 1930s. The company provided this watch to many pilots in the early 1900s. Blériot’s Zenith was characterized by its massive grooved crown and luminous hands and numerals, a typical feature of pilot’s watches of that era. Three years after flying across the English Channel, Blériot sent the following note to Zenith: “I am extremely satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I use regularly, and cannot recommend it highly enough to people in search of precision.” Those are some powerful words from a man that accomplished something phenomenal.
4. Uno Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni Summiting K2
While many may think Mount Everest is the world’s most difficult mountain to climb because of its height, mountaineers will tell you that K2 is actually the most challenging. Plenty of discussion surrounds Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, and the watches they were wearing when they summited Everest. However, there’s no doubt about the first watches worn to the peak of K2.
In 1954, 14 Italian mountaineers went on a mission to become the first to conquer K2 in celebration of the Italian Mountaineering Club’s the 90th anniversary. They had Vulcain Cricket watches on their wrists. Vulcain watches were known for their ability to withstand the toughest conditions. The expedition set up base camp at the foot of the world’s second highest peak, located in a remote section of the China-Pakistan border. On July 31, 1954, Uno Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, accompanied by their Vulcain Cricket watches, became the first humans to ever reach the K2’s 8,611-meter (28,251-ft) summit. This remains an incredible achievement to this day, considering K2’s reputation as the most dangerous peak in the world. We also know their Vulcain Crickets played a pivotal role in their improbable feat.
5. Alexey Leonov Conducts the First Spacewalk
We all know the Omega Speedmaster Professional was the first watch on the Moon—it’s perhaps the most famous watch story there is. However, the first watch to experience the vacuum of space was the Poljot Strela. Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov was wearing this timepiece as he exited the Voskhod 2 and became the first person to conduct a spacewalk on March 18, 1965.
Leonov’s spacewalk didn’t go as smoothly as planned. In fact, his spacesuit started malfunctioning the moment he stepped out of the Voskhod 3KD spacecraft. It began inflating and stiffening almost immediately. His spacewalk lasted for 12 minutes and 9 seconds, at the end of which he had to manually depressurize his suit before reentering the spacecraft’s airlock. Inside he faced more problems before he and his fellow cosmonaut, Beyayev, could finally take their seats for landing. This caused a 46-second delay in the landing procedure. As a result, the spacecraft missed its landing zone by almost 400 km. The spacecraft landed in the heavily wooded part of the western Urals, home to bears and wolves and dangerously low temperatures. A rescue party wouldn’t arrive until the following day. Throughout all these challenges, Leonov’s Poljot Strela Chronograph performed perfectly, making it the first watch in space and a legendary timepiece.