It all started with Mt Everest. On 29 May 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary successfully scaled the peak of the highest mountain on Earth. The fact that numerous expeditions, mostly British, had been trying since 1921 to conquer the “third Pole”, meant that this was a big deal. When the English establishment tied it to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, on 2 June 1953, a mere four days later, made it an even bigger deal. For any company associated with the 1953 Everest expedition, this was advertising goldmine. It certainly was for Rolex.
Rolex’s canny founder Hans Wilsdorf had been supplying wristwatches to Everest expeditions since 1933. In part, it was to test how the company’s highly engineered and water resistant watches would perform at extreme conditions. If anyone summited wearing a Rolex, well, that would be even better! The legendary Himalayan climber Eric Shipton, who was considered for the longest time to be the likeliest person to summit Everest, wore Rolex Oyster watches in ‘bubbleback’ cases on many Himalayan expeditions. During the Swiss attempt to climb Everest in 1952, Tenzing Norgay had been given a Rolex to wear, but he and his climbing partner Raymond Lambert had to turn back 250m from the summit. Still, Norgay was gifted a gold Datejust by Rolex to commemorate the climb.
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The next year, Norgay, Hillary and several other members of the expedition were given Rolex watches, a white dial Rolex 6098. Some of them, including Hillary, also wore another watch, the Smiths De Luxe. When Hillary and Norgay summited, both Smiths (an English watchmaker of great repute at the time) and Rolex went to town with advertisements extolling how rugged and dependable their watches were. As has been conclusively proved in a brilliant article in The Outdoor Journal in June this year, Rolex didn’t make it to the top, because Hillary was wearing his Smiths. He had admitted as much. Norgay probably wasn’t wearing any watch that day. If he was, he too was wearing a Smiths. After all, the 1953 climb was a British national endeavour, and Smiths, along with other British companies, supplied all the expedition equipment: even the oxygen gauges used by the expedition was made by Smiths.
Be that as it may, Rolex was there at the expedition and that was enough. In 1953, it launched the iconic Explorer, a black dial steel sports watch, 36mm in diameter, with 100m water resistance, and the 3, 6 and 9 hour markers printed in Arabic numerals on the dial. Positioning itself as a rugged outdoors watch by a company that had summited Everest, the Explorer popularised a new concept of the 'sports watch'.
Of course, you could say that a sports watch wasn’t anything new. After all, Cartier had designed its first wristwatch for aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904. But for a younger demographic in the 1950s and 60s, wearing a Rolex Explorer or an Omega Seamaster was more desirable than the overly formal dress watches of earlier generations. The Smiths Everest, a watch that was also released in the 1950s to cash in on the Everest ascent, was also very popular. Today, no one remembers Smiths, because the company wound up its watch division in the 1970s when the ‘quartz crisis’ put hundreds of mechanical watchmakers out of business. Rolex, meanwhile, made a successful transition into a luxury watch brand, and these days, it’s fair to say that people who can afford to buy Rolexes don’t try to climb Himalayan peaks. The ones who do probably wear G-Shocks.
But the sports watch as a concept lives on. In these days of Instagram-fuelled watch fandom, they’re referred to as GADA (‘go-anywhere-do-anything’) watches. Take the Seiko Alpinist, for example. The Japanese watchmaking giant created its first sports watch in 1959, the Laurel Alpinist. It was a rugged no-frills watch, much like the Explorer, meant to be used by Japanese mountaineers. Through the 1960s, Seiko released successive lines of Alpinists, but from the latter part of that decade, the brand focused primarily on its iconic dive watches and a whole host of sports watches on its Seiko 5 line. In the 1990s, the Alpinist was re-imagined, this time with the addition of an inner rotating compass bezel and signature cathedral hands. Since then, the line has remained a cult favourite among watch enthusiasts while undergoing regular refreshes by Seiko. In late 2020, a slimmer version of the Alpinist was launched without the compass bezel and textured dials, and next month will see a new line of Alpinists inspired by the Laurel Alpinist of 1959.
Nearly all prestige watchmakers have their own steel sports watch. Omega’s Railmaster and the Seamaster Aqua Terra are wonderfully rugged yet elegant watches that often fly under the radar. Indeed, Omega has just released the Aqua Terra in two sizes in time for the Olympics, both in 18k yellow gold. When Audemars Piguet launched the Royal Oak in 1972 and Patek Philippe the Nautilus in 1976, a new niche was created: that of the luxury steel sports watch. It says something about the appeal of sports watches that for both these doyens of haute horology with dozens of iconic complicated references to their names, it’s the Royal Oak and the Nautilus that are the most popular.
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So, to sum up, what should you be looking for in your GADA watch? Now a sports watch is all about robustness, durability and also versatility. So it should be constructed from good quality stainless steel, should preferably have a water resistance rating of 100m or higher (bigger props for a screw down crown), with a good automatic or quartz movement. The automatic ones should have a power reserve of 40 hours or longer. Now your GADA watch need not break the bank. Both the Seiko 5 Sports and the Tissot PRX series make for great entry-level options. The Alpinist and the Oris Big Crown Pointer Date are excellent mid-range option. If your budget runs higher, then check out the Aqua Terra and the Explorer, as well as IWC’s pilot’s watches. And if you have millions to burn, get on the wait list for a Royal Oak or a Nautilus! But whichever watch you buy, wear them, don’t baby them, and don’t be afraid to put a few scratches on them. That’s what they are meant for.
Handwound is a fortnightly column on watches and watchmaking.