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History’s Toughest Exploration Watches: From Ocean Depths to Outer Space

Apollo 13 Mission Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch

Apollo 13’s lunar module pilot Fred Haise, commander Jim Lovell and command module pilot Thomas K. Mattingly (later replaced by Jack Swigert) wearing the iconic Omega Speedmaster.

We all know about the moon watch, but what about the unsung wrist-heroes that ticked where few dared to tock? There’s nothing like real-life extreme exploits to wake up those horological taste buds. That usually involves a life-saving booster-timing Moonwatch or the watch that made it to the top of Mount Everest first. But what about the unsung heroes of the watch world, the quietly spoken tough exploration watches who don’t want to make a fuss? We’ve got them here for you in all their scratched-up glory.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual | The First Everest Summit (1953)

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Everest Summit

Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on the summit of Everest.

Sir Edmund Hillary wore a Rolex Explorer I on his wrist upon finally scaling Mount Everest. He might and/or also have worn a Smiths, but let’s not get into that debate. While the first Explorer has the stamp of legends, so does the everyday Oyster Perpetual on the same rugged wrist. Two years after his Everest triumph, Hillary had enough oxygen-starved mountain air and kept his feet, or rather driven belts, on the ground for three years.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual First Everest Summit

Edmund Hillary’s Rolex worn in 1953.

Sir Ed was the first to cross the entire southern continent of Antarctica in snow tractors. And for the three-year expedition, he wore an O.P. gifted to him by the Calcutta jeweller, J Boseck & Co. So, even if your 36mm silver-dialled Oyster Perpetual looks killer with a navy suit, it packs a tougher punch than you’d think.

Enicar Ultrasonic ‘Sherpas’ | Everest Summit (1956)

Enicar Ultrasonic Sherpas

While it’s in Rolex’s blood to… let’s say, embellish certain claims, it’s hard to doubt that they were the first exploration watch to the top of Everest on the wrist of the aforementioned Sir Edmund Hillary. But they were very closely followed by what was at the time an upstart Swiss brand – Enicar. Indeed, the Enicar Ultrasonic ‘Sherpas’ the Swiss expedition was equipped with was an off-kilter, if practical choice, with funky numerals built into a rugged case. It did its job – and so well that Enicar dubbed an entire line, the Sherpa.

Nowadays, Enicar’s a shadow of its former self. But if you want to try out a modern version of its seminal mountain-beater, Sherpa Watches have you covered, taking that same DNA in the right direction.

Omega Speedmaster | Apollo 13 (1970)

Apollo 13 Omega
Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Apollo 13 25th Anniversary Edition

Apollo 13’s command module pilot Jack Swigert / Omega Speedmaster Professional “Apollo XIII” (1995)

The Speedmaster’s the Moonwatch; it’s iconic for timing that famous 1969 leap for mankind. But on the Apollo 13 mission it had a far, far more important role. During the mission there was a critical failure that meant the return shuttle was off course for re-entry. NASA opted for Omega’s Speedmaster to time the 14 seconds needed – no more, no less – to right themselves. Thanks to the accuracy of the NASA-approved exploration watch, they survived.

Bulova Lunar Pilot | Apollo 15 (1971)

Bulova Dave Scott Apollo 15

We all love the evergreen Omega Speedmaster, don’t get us wrong. But did you know about the Bulova Lunar Pilot? It is monochromatically photogenic like the Speedy, with the coolest pushers this side of Cape Canaveral, but what’s the story? The provenance is real, as this formerly US-based brand produced a NASA prototype that was worn in 1971 by Dave Scott. He was a crew member on the Apollo 15 mission, and the Bulova chronograph was his personal backup tool, smuggled onboard. Dave’s Speedy crystal popped off mid-mission, and the rest is Bulova history.

If you think it looks similar to the Moonwatch, that’s no accident. It follows NASA legibility and function specs for the appraisal that the Speedmaster ultimately won, and now the latest 45mm reissue can be found for a mere £429 with a quartz movement. Fire up the boosters!

Tudor Oyster Prince | The British North Greenland Expedition (1952)

Tudor Oyster Prince The British North Greenland Expedition
Tudor Oyster Prince The British North Greenland Expedition

Major Desmond Homard’s Tudor Oyster Prince from the British North Greenland Expedition.

When Tudor wanted to test out their new Prince back in 1952, they didn’t hold back, strapping it to the wrists of every member of the British North Greenland expedition heading for the Arctic for two years. With 24 hours of daylight and 24 hours of freezing temperatures, it wasn’t the most pleasant of journeys.

British North Greenland Expedition

The British North Greenland Expedition at basecamp.

Still, throughout those two years of icy hell, the Tudor watches kept on keeping flawless time. Which enabled the members of the expedition like Warrant Officer Class II Desmond Edgar Lemuel Homard, Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Vehicle Mechanic to make crucial calculations for both research and survival purposes.

Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th | Red Bull Stratos Mission (2012)

Red Bull Stratos Mission
Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th Red Bull Stratos Mission

Thanks to Andrew McUtchen of Time+Tide for reminding me of this unflinching hero expedition watch from Zenith, and Felix Baumgartner. Andrew also rightfully told me that if another big brand had this to brag about, they’d never shut up. Imagine the gut-pulling rush of standing on a tiny platform back in 2012, bolted to the side of a space capsule while peering down at Earth from space. The parachuting landing spot was 38,969.4 metres below. That’s 24 miles, and we’d still be holding onto those rails today.

Legendary daredevil wing-suit pilot and parachute ace Felix Baumgartner was wearing a Zenith Stratos Flyback Striking 10th chronograph. He fell to Earth wearing this spiritual, tough-guy successor to the El Primero Chronomaster we know and love.

Cartier Santos | The First Filmed Flight (1906)

Santos Dumont
Cartier Santos Dumont Ref 1575

Albert Santos-Dumont contributed more to aeronautics than nearly anyone bar the Wright brothers. He designed and piloted the experiments that eventually led to modern aircraft, particularly on 23 October 1906, when he flew a heavier-than-air aircraft a then-staggering 25m. He upped that the next month by breaking the record with a 220m flight and becoming the first aircraft pilot ever seen on film. On his wrist? The first pilots’ watch designed for him by his good friend Louis Cartier, the ancestor to today’s Cartier Santos de Cartier.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms | Worn by Jacques Cousteau in The Silent World (1956)

Albert Falco and Jacques Cousteau

Albert Falco and Jacques Cousteau

Jacques Cousteau’s name is legendary; he was a pioneer of underwater film without whom modern documentaries like Blue Planet simply couldn’t have happened. He even developed plenty of his own scuba gear, having a pivotal role in creating the Aqualung. He was no watchmaker though, and on his wrist during the making of his Palm d’Or-winning The Silent World film in 1956 was a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms.

Blancpain First Fifty Fathoms 1953

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms (1953)

The Fifty Fathoms was developed in 1953 at a time when watchmakers were racing to produce dive watches that could reliably reach a depth of 100m. In nautical measurements, fifty fathoms equates to just over 90m in depth. As such, the Fifty Fathoms was a pioneer in professional dive watches that could withstand extended periods of time deep underwater. 70 years later watchmakers are reaching depths 100x greater than the original Fifty Fathoms and yet it remains one of the most influential dive watches of all time, thanks in part to how iconic Cousteau made it.

Bremont Terra Nova | Terra Nova Expedition (2014)

Bremont Terra Nova Expedition
Bremont Terra Nova

Ben Saunders refuses to do polar expeditions the easy way, refusing the help of dog sleds or snowmobiles. In fact, he might wear a pair of Hoka trainers traversing the North Pole being chased by a rabid polar bear, he’s that kind of guy. In 2014, he, followed the path of Captain Scott’s 1912 South Pole-crossing attempt, with his partner Tarka L’Herpiniere, and made it. This was noted in the record books as the longest polar journey on foot ever recorded, and for this “Terra Nova” expedition a Bremont was his unflinching titanium wrist companion.

Today, the steel S500 for £4,195, is the closest relative with its cheeky crown at 2 o’clock and 42mm case size. With its Trip-Tick case and solid BE-36AE movement, the S500 was Bremont’s first foray into the diver’s watch territory back in 2009, and still sets the British tool watch standard.

Charmex CX Swiss Military Diver | The Deepest Saltwater Scuba Dive (2015)

Ahmed Gabr
Charmex CX Swiss Military Diver

That’s right, no big brand boasting, but the 28.5mm thick (not a typo) lesser-seen Charmex CX Swiss Military Diver, a bulbous tool rated to a serious 6,000 metres. We’d expect this to have been an event with big brand sponsorship. But instead, the honour goes to a lesser-known brawny tool with a bulbous charm and sub £2K price. In 2014, Ahmed Gabr performed the jaw-dropping feat of diving to the unfathomable (pun intended) depths of 332.35 metres. The 41-year-old Egyptian plunged into the Red Sea after a decade of preparation, setting the current scuba record.

That’s a bit deeper than the usual pool dip we put our Ploprofs or Rolex Deepseas through, but it still doesn’t seem impossible, right? That is because, in our insular world of watches, we have been blinded by big numbers like 300 metres, even 600 on daily beaters, and Rolex’s one-upmanship of 11,000 metres. Most certified divers stay above 50 metres, so you’ll be safe with your 300m Longines even if you do get off the sofa and certify yourself.

Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute | The First Swiss Watch in Space (1962)

Scott Carpenter
Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute

Astronaut M. Scott Carpenter / Breitling Navitimer B02 Chronograph 41 Cosmonaute (2022)

Yes, that’s right, it wasn’t an Omega. For some reason, Breitling doesn’t make a big thing of it but we think they should. We all know the deep link that the swoopy B logo has with pilots and the bafflingly complex Navitimer with its slide-ruling bezel. The Navitimer Cosmonaute with its big fat Arabic numerals and 24-hour dial was on Scott Carpenter’s wrist, orbiting our planet in 1959. It did however meet an ignominious fate when they splashed down, ironically tough enough for space but not a dip in the ocean.

You’ll find these small-cased beauties for around £3,500 pre-owned, but they’re still current. For a great daily wearer with a big boost of space history, we’d go for the 41mm model at £6,100.

Rolex Deepsea Challenge | First Solo Dive to the Bottom of the Mariana Trench (2012)

James Cameron Rolex Deepsea Challenge

The depths of the ocean is arguably the most hostile environment on Earth and building equipment to survive down in the dark is an incredibly difficult challenge. Back in 2012 famous director James Cameron boarded the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER and journeyed into the deeps as the first human to reach the 35,787ft (10,908 meters) valley solo. Strapped to the outside of his submersible, exposed to the elements, was the Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea which survived the exploration trip alongside Cameron.

Rolex The Deepsea Challenge

From left to right: Oyster Perpetual Rolex Deepsea (2008), Oyster Perpetual Deepsea Challenge (2022), Deep Sea Special (1960), Rolex Deepsea Challenge (2012) and Oyster Perpetual Submariner (1986).

G-Shock DW5600 | Worn by Astronauts on the Space Shuttle (Early 1990s)

Bill Nelson Casio Gshock DW5600
Casio Gshock DW5600

We can write eloquently about a host of mechanical exploration watches and their frozen, death-defying, space-walking pedigree, don’t get us wrong. But we all know the infinite toughness of a simple G-Shock, a fact proven by a host of astronauts, some bringing them along as personal keepsakes. The DW5600, the most classic of sub-£100 square Gs has actually quietly been certified by NASA.

Both in C and E-versions, they have been flown on space missions ever since the iconic Shuttle was still in service. So when those occasional crisp white NASA editions get released, it’s the real deal and not to be scoffed at. As a space-worn watch, it easily trounces the opposition in the value stakes and remains a bulletproof icon.

Seiko Pogue | The First Automatic Chronograph in Space (Skylab Space Station) (1973) 

William Pogue
Seiko Pogue Ref 6139 6002

We’ll finish in space for the Seiko reissue we’re still waiting for, namely the dazzling golden yellow sunray of the “Pogue”. The cult classic Seiko ref. 6139 6002 chronograph has its nickname not for being worn by members of Shane MacGowan’s crew, but by astronaut Colonel William Pogue. That’s it, on the Skylab space station in 1973 there was a Speedmaster on his wrist, but also a stowaway.

Pogue brought along his non-NASA-approved Seiko with its multi-coloured quirkiness. We wouldn’t be lying by claiming this to be an absolute in many Seikoboi’s collections. The solid and big-for-its-day sports watch might today not be quite the bargain we’d like, with prices of still less than £1,000 if you can live with the scratches. But come on, Seiko, we’ve seen every diver under the Sun being reissued, isn’t it time for the space-traveling 6139 to grace our wrists again with its sunny demeanour?

About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.