Timepieces That Connect With a History of Exploration

New York Times, November 5, 2014

LOS ANGELES — A rowboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is not the most festive place to celebrate a 30th birthday, but Alex Bellini made the most of it. “I enjoyed a full panettone by myself,” he said, recalling the sweet bread from his native Italy that helped distinguish Sept. 15, 2008, from the 293 other days he spent alone at sea.

Mr. Bellini, a professional adventurer and motivational speaker, had to abandon his solo rowing journey from Lima, Peru, to Sydney, Australia, just 60 miles from his destination because of hazardous weather, but not before he learned a few lessons about time.

“If you ever happen to row an ocean, you will soon discover there’s no difference between days, no difference between seasons, between winter or spring — there is nothing but yourself, so you have to measure time by what you have within yourself,” Mr. Bellini said during a recent Skype interview from his home in Britain.

“But keeping track of your time is very important because it gives you the magnitude of your adventure — because the longer you stay alone, the closer you get to yourself,” he continued. “That’s what makes the adventure extreme — not exploring remote areas. It’s just a way to face yourself, to accept your strengths, your weaknesses.”

Come fall 2015, Mr. Bellini will once again put his strengths and weaknesses to the test when he embarks on a mission to spend a year alone on a melting iceberg off northwest Greenland. Dubbed Adrift, the project aims to draw attention to macro issues like global warming and climate change, as well as individual challenges, such as how a person copes with being confined to a gradually diminishing environment.

Like his hero, Sir Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer who in 1909 ventured further south in Antarctica than anyone had ever been, Mr. Bellini will keep time using a mechanical watch by Waltham.

The company, founded in 1850 in Roxbury, Mass., was a favorite of adventurers of the early 20th century, including the North Pole pioneer Robert Peary and the aviator Charles Lindbergh. Like most American watchmakers, the company saw its business decline in the post-World War II economy. In 1981, a Japanese company purchased the brand. Soon after, its watches fell from favor.

Earlier this year, Waltham’s new owner, Antonio DiBenedetto, reintroduced the brand to the American and European markets as a Swiss-made timepiece for men who aspire to the same ideals that drove Shackleton and Peary to the ends of the earth — chief among them, nonconformity.

When Mr. DiBenedetto learned about Adrift, he said, he realized that partnering with Mr. Bellini would be an authentic way to tie the brand’s history to an unconventional modern-day adventure. “It’s a wonderful occasion for Waltham to return to the ice,” he said.

Throughout history, timepieces ranked with compasses and sextants as critical tools for explorers seeking to define the contours of the earth. But in an era of digital maps, satellite-powered phones and GPS-enabled devices — all of which have reduced the difficulties of exploration — a mechanical timepiece, not to mention the exploring effort behind it, may seem irrelevant. That’s what makes the clutch of contemporary watch brands that have partnered with latter-day adventurers an intriguing coda to the age of exploration.

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“Watches were vital equipment to guys like Hillary climbing Everest,” said Jason Heaton, a Minneapolis-based travel writer who reviews watches for sites such as Gear Patrol and Hodinkee. “They had to be mechanical, waterproof, reliable and self-winding. Nowadays, a watch is a talisman or memento. It connects the wearer to a whole history of adventurers.”

To the polar explorer Ben Saunders and his teammate, Tarka L’Herpiniere, the connection to history couldn’t be more literal. In February, the British pair completed a four-month journey that retraced the exact route that Capt. Robert Falcon Scott and his companions made in 1911-12 on their ill-fated Terra Nova expedition, which aimed to be the first to reach the South Pole. A Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen beat Scott to the pole. Scott and his crew perished on the return journey.

“There is perhaps a misconception that it’s all been done nowadays,” said Mr. Saunders. “People will say, ‘My granny’s going on a cruise to Antarctica.’ But I’m trying to explain that the journey Scott died trying to achieve still hadn’t been finished.”

When Mr. Saunders and Mr. L’Herpiniere set off on their 1,800-mile Scott Expedition, they pulled about 440 pounds of food, fuel and other essentials. “We cut the handles off our toothbrushes, the labels off our clothes. Everything had to be super lightweight,” Mr. Saunders said.

That also was true for the timepieces they carried. The British watch brand Bremont created the limited-edition Terra Nova, an ultralight titanium wristwatch, to accompany Mr. Saunders and Mr. L’Herpiniere.

Another requirement was that its movement be mechanical. “The polar regions are so extreme — particularly the temperatures — that a lot of electronic gadgets can be unreliable, certainly things with LCD screens,” Mr. Saunders said. “On very cold days, we had problems with GPS units. A mechanical timepiece is the ultimate when it comes to reliability.”

For Bremont’s part, having Mr. Saunders field-test the watch offered the brand an invaluable opportunity to see how its products hold up under extreme real-world conditions.

“When we started the brand back in 2002, we were testing the watch in the workshop till our faces turned blue,” said the Bremont co-owner Nick English. “We used a new type of steel. How’s it going to react in Antarctica, on top of Everest? You just don’t know. So working with someone like Ben Saunders is immensely useful. How else would you get your watch in that situation?”

At Kobold Expedition Tools, an American watch brand founded by Michael Kobold in 1998, the feedback he received on his signature timepiece, the Kobold Polar Surveyor Chronograph, preceded the expedition stage, thanks to a unique partnership with the esteemed British explorer Ranulph Fiennes — “Uncle Ran” to Mr. Kobold — who co-designed the watch prior to its debut in 2002.

“It’s the world’s first watch that has the functions of a polar explorer’s watch: local time, second time, day/night indicator, stopwatch and date, and it’s all mechanical,” Mr. Kobold said.

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Having scaled Mount Everest with Mr. Fiennes in 2009, Mr. Kobold is intimately familiar with how timepieces function at the top of the world — and how precarious the effort to get there can be. He was so grateful to Namgel Sherpa and Thundu Sherpa, the guides who assisted him and his wife, the mountaineer Anita Kobold, on a return journey to Mount Everest in 2010 — an expedition that nearly cost Mrs. Kobold her life — that he opened a subsidiary in Katmandu to ensure that they would no longer need to do the dangerous work required of them as guides on Everest. Since 2012, they have assembled the brand’s Himalaya, Soarway Transglobe and Himalayan Lynx timepieces.

Unlikely as it sounds, they are not the only Sherpas to figure prominently in the annals of watchmaking. In 1953, Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary, who famously carried an Oyster Perpetual timepiece by Rolex, the watchmaker most closely associated with adventurers.

The iconic Swiss brand has accompanied exploration’s bold-faced names from the peaks of the Himalayas to the depths of the Pacific Ocean. In 2012, for example, the filmmaker James Cameron affixed an experimental Rolex timepiece to the hull of his submersible and plunged 35,787 feet below the surface, where he took samples from the ocean floor and captured images of the never-before-seen species that live under the crushing pressures in the Mariana Trench.

In August, Mr. Cameron screened the American premiere of National Geographic’s “Deepsea Challenge 3D,” his documentary about the expedition, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. To mark the occasion, Rolex released a new version of its Deepsea timepiece equipped with a “D-blue” dial bearing a dark blue to pitch black gradient designed to evoke the last rays of light disappearing into the oceanic abyss that greeted Mr. Cameron.

For divers accustomed to more reasonable depths, there is Doxa. The brand’s best-known timepiece, the Doxa Sub, was produced in 1967 and endorsed by the ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, whose company, U.S. Divers, imported the wristwatch into the United States as part of an effort to promote diving as a leisure sport.

“Hours were never relevant for divers, so we dwarfed that hand to make the minute hand very legible,” said Rick Marei, marketing manager for Doxa. The model also assumed its signature orange color “because that was believed to be the most legible color underwater,” Mr. Marei added.

In June, Doxa resumed its partnership with the Cousteau family when it teamed up with Mr. Cousteau’s grandson, Fabien Cousteau, on the Mission 31 expedition, in which he lived in an underwater marine laboratory off the coast of southern Florida for 31 days.

“Basically, we lived in a house at the bottom of the sea,” Mr. Cousteau said. “I brought down scientists, two engineers and a cameraman to help me document what was happening. We were able to do three years’ worth of science in 31 days.”

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As the official watch of the mission, the Doxa Mission 31 SUB Professional helped Mr. Cousteau and his colleagues keep track of time in an environment that often lacked good lighting. Plus, said Mr. Cousteau, wearing a watch was force of habit.

“I’ve always had a watch around my wrist,” Mr. Cousteau said. “It’s the comfort of knowing that, if all else fails, my watch is powered by my movement. Some people go the digital route, but I still love the nice heavy well-crafted jewelry that’s also bulletproof.”

For seasoned divers, the ubiquity of sophisticated dive computers does not eclipse the need for a traditional dive watch. But they acknowledge that sentimental value plays a big part in their choice of timepiece.

“I started with an old diving watch my mom gave me when I was 18,” said Enric Sala, an explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society, whose Pristine Seas project — aimed at protecting marine reserves around the world — has been sponsored by the Swiss watch brand Blancpain since 2010.

Today, a wristwatch may be superfluous, but Mr. Sala continues to wear his Blancpain Fifty Fathoms chronograph everywhere — even in the shower. “It takes me back to my childhood when I was dreaming about being an ocean explorer and a diver,” he said. “I feel part of that history, and it makes me feel connected to the ocean wherever I go.”

Explorers of the final frontier — outer space — are no less enamored of their timepieces. For Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian daredevil who parachuted from a helium balloon over the desert of New Mexico in 2012 and broke the sound barrier during his freefall, the Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th was, he said, a key piece of equipment.

“It was over my suit, with a special strap,” Mr. Baumgartner said. “I did not really have time to check it during the jump itself. However if all my instruments would accidentally shut down, I could always rely on my mechanical watch that would work in any condition.”

In the event of a catastrophic instrument failure, it’s doubtful that the retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who’s worked with the Swiss brand Breitling since 2011, could have functioned in outer space with just his wristwatch, but he’s devoted to it anyway.

“The one I would certainly wear for a combat or space mission is the new Breitling Cockpit B50,” Mr. Kelly wrote in an email. “It’s very readable, has display backlighting that I can activate just by turning my wrist” and a mission elapsed time feature “that is critical in spaceflight.”

“One feature I especially like is that the watch can be set to vibrate when the alarm is activated,” he continued. “This can be really helpful in the loud environment of a spacecraft or fighter airplane.”

There are, of course, other practical considerations when the explorer ventures beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

“In space, it becomes difficult to tell time based on your environment, so a watch becomes very handy,” Mr. Kelly said. “And when they are strapped to your wrist, they don’t float away.”