In Focus Watches

The History and Legacy of Fortis: Pioneers in Watchmaking and Space Exploration

Fortis Cosmonauts Chronograph

What would your answer be if we asked who created the world’s first wristwatch with an automatic winding rotor? If you’re a keen reader of Oracle Time you may already know, but if not, here’s a hint: nearly a century later, the same watchmaker continues to break technological barriers, pushing horology (quite literally) out of this world.

The answer is Fortis, the Swiss brand founded in 1912 by Walter Vogt who, in collaboration with John Harwood, produced the 1926 Harwood Automatic. How does a brand go from creating the first automatic watch to revolutionising the use of watches in space? Let’s find out by looking at Fortis’s history and future in space travel.

Fortis Spacematic

In the 1960s, Fortis partnered with NASA’s Gemini program to create the Spacematic watch

Like most things related to space travel, Fortis’s connection to the void beyond our atmosphere began in the 1960s. That’s when the brand embarked on its journey into space exploration by collaborating with NASA’s Gemini program, resulting in the creation of the Spacematic watch. Designed to endure the rigors of space exploration, the Spacematic marked a significant milestone as the first wristwatch to accompany astronauts beyond Earth.

This 35mm steel-cased design featured 250m of water resistance and an automatic movement that was both shock-protected and anti-magnetic. The first iterations of the 1960’s Spacematic watches featured an ‘ar’ applied emblem at 9:00 that signified the watch’s ability to handle ‘all risks’ encountered in space travel. This integration into space missions marked a pioneering achievement in horological history, foreshadowing Fortis’ commitment to precision and durability in the most demanding environments.

Andora Rocket
Fortis Andora Stratoliner

In 1992 Fortis collaborated with artist Andora to create the artwork on the Proton Rocket and the Fortis B-42 Andora Stratoliner Chronograph

Transitioning into the 1990s, Fortis intensified its engagement with the stratosphere with the introduction of the Stratoliner (we will dig into this model more later). This era saw Fortis participating in an ambitious marketing initiative alongside the Russian space program in 1992, adorning a Proton rocket with Fortis timepieces for a high-profile launch. This collaboration showcased Fortis’ technical prowess and forged enduring ties with Roskosmos, laying the groundwork for future endeavours in space-inspired horology.

By 1994, Fortis solidified its position in space exploration, earning the official designation by the Russian space agency for its watches to be integrated into cosmonaut equipment. The Official Cosmonauts watch emerged as a quintessential companion for space farers, having undergone meticulous testing to ensure reliability amidst the challenges of space travel. Its inclusion in extravehicular activities underscored Fortis’ enduring legacy as a trusted timekeeping partner in space exploration. Now let’s skip to the modern day.

FORTIS Stratoliner

Fortis Stratoliner S-41

Today, the Stratoliner continues to be an important part of Fortis’ range of watches. The current version of the watch was released in 2022 and embodies not only the spirit of aviation but also a deep-rooted connection to space exploration, underscored by its rigorous testing and approval by the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) in space. Yes, you read that right, the movement powering the Stratoliner, the Fortis Werk 17 automatic manufacture calibre was tested in actual space, conquering microgravity, extreme temperatures, radiation, micro-density, and extreme winds. While many watches have been sent to space, none have used performance in space as a metric for watch testing, other than Fortis.

Fortis Werk 17

Fortis Werk 17

The Werk 17 features a column wheel chronograph mechanism for enhanced reliability while operating at a balance frequency of 28,800 vibrations per hour (4 Hz). It boasts a generous power reserve of 60 hours, and the calibre is meticulously regulated to chronometer standards by Fortis watchmakers in Grenchen. The Stratoliner’s journey to space was marked by a series of intensive tests conducted in collaboration with the Swedish Space Corporation as mentioned above.

In a ground-breaking experiment, several Stratoliner movements were affixed to a gondola driven by a stratospheric balloon and launched from the Esrange Space Center. After enduring 1.5 hours of exposure to the harsh cosmic conditions at high altitudes, the movements safely returned to Earth, landing amidst the vast forest landscape of Finland. Subsequent rocket campaigns in 2022 further validated the durability and precision of the Stratoliner, solidifying its reputation as a trusted timekeeping companion for space exploration endeavours.

Fortis movements in space

Fortis movements in space

After the series of successful stratospheric balloon tests and validating the requirements of their timepieces to be considered space-resilient, Fortis is taking things one step further. In a continued partnership with the Swedish Space Corporation, Fortis aims to establish a Space-Lab built into their production facilities. Additional rocket campaigns with SSC validated that their tool-watch movements could withstand the harsh conditions not only in space but also on the way there during a rocket launch.

Fortis Novonaut 42 Legacy Edition

Fortis Novonaut 42 Legacy Edition

In 2023, Fortis unveiled the rocket-tested Novonaut, heralding a new chapter in its legacy of space horology. As the successor to the revered B-42 Official Cosmonauts watch, the Novonaut embodies craftsmanship and performance, poised to navigate future space missions with precision. Its introduction signifies Fortis’ ongoing commitment to advancing the frontiers of space exploration through cutting-edge engineering.

The Novonaut shares the tried and tested Werk 17 movement and features what Fortis calls a ‘Sirius’ bezel. The bezel made of a flat ceramic, is virtually unbreakable and sits around a Sapphire crystal featuring dual-sided anti-reflective coating. The Novonaut also features a triple-gasket screw-down crown and practices sustainability as its case and block bracelet are made of recycled stainless steel. The dial also presents a hidden feature as UV light unveils reverse seconds dial markers for counting down seconds during launches.

Fotris Watches Sergei-Volkov ISS 28
Fotris Watches Sergei-Volkov ISS 28

Russian Cosmonaut Sergei Volkov wearing a Fortis Novonaut

Entering the new millennium, Fortis set its sights on Mars, aiming to become the first watch to mark time on the Martian surface. This audacious ambition epitomizes Fortis’ dedication to pushing the boundaries of innovation in watchmaking. To do so, Fortis has partnered with the Austrian Space Forum, one of the leading institutions conducting Mars analog missions. This partnership will aim to shape the future of human exploration on the red planet while developing new standards for reliability and tool watches in parallel.

Throughout its journey, Fortis has remained a beacon of excellence in space-timekeeping, blending technical innovation with a steadfast commitment to exploration. From the Spacematic to the Stratoliner and on to the Novonaut, each timepiece represents Fortis’ enduring legacy in shaping human exploration beyond Earth’s boundaries. As Fortis moves away from efforts with Russia and expands its relationships with trusted partners like the Swedish Space Corporation and the Austrian Space Forum, fans of watchmaking and the cosmos alike can be sure the two will grow alongside each other. Fortis is not only developing top-tier watches that are purpose-built, but they are pushing boundaries and moving entire industries forward in the same way they have been since 1912. If you didn’t know about the pedigree of Fortis, you do now.

More details at Fortis.

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About the author

Brandon Erbe

As a former professional athlete turned engineer, Brandon has a fervent love for all things mechanical and design-oriented. HIs passion for watches has evolved from collecting G-Shocks to founding the online watch enthusiast platform, Balance & Bridge where he writes and curates all content. Brandon passionately celebrates the intricacies and artistry of horology, intertwining his technical expertise with his enduring love for mechanical design. You can view his blog here.