How To Spend It

Men's Watches

Out of this world

Cosmic forces are at play as top horological brands join the race to the final frontier, with vanguard technology and designs that nod to lunar missions past. Nick Foulkes reports. Photographs by George Ong

November 01 2012
Nick Foulkes

In his April 2010 space policy speech at Kennedy Space Centre, President Obama said that in the future Nasa would be using privately operated vehicles for its cosmic explorations. The reaction was mixed, with astronauts seemingly queuing up to decry the decision. Eugene Cernan, who commanded the Apollo 17 mission, spoke of America having been the leading spacefaring nation for half a century, and that current proposals risked turning the United States into a second- or even third-class country. Perhaps Cernan was comparing the US to Switzerland, where the space programme – at least the horological space programme – continues apace.

The cosmos has fascinated watch and clock makers for centuries. Long before the US put men on the moon – indeed, long before the US even existed – medieval European cities vied with each other to create ever more extraordinary clocks with elaborate astronomical functions. Remarkable examples include the celestial clocks of Prague, Strasbourg and Chartres, which plotted the apparent movements of heavenly bodies. Even though modern science has since proved that the Ptolemaic geocentric view of things is inaccurate, watchmakers nevertheless continue to be fascinated by the planets.

Patek Philippe’s celebrated Sky Moon Tourbillon (price on request) has a celestial dial as well as one that displays hours, minutes, days and months, while Van Cleef & Arpels’s Midnight in Paris (£54,000) shows the exact constellation of stars above the Place Vendôme at midnight. Maverick brand Romain Jerome has taken to including moondust in its timepieces (from £6,900). Even robustly contemporary makers cannot escape the centuries-old lure of the cosmic bodies: about five years ago, Richard Mille unveiled his Planetarium Tellerium (price on request) that seemed to fuse an almost Galilean aesthetic with the hi-tech funkiness we have come to expect of him. And another champion of the extreme-tech look, Max Büsser, has brought out a very idiosyncratic moonphase called the MB&F MoonMachine (£72,500) with Finnish watchmaker Stepan Sarpaneva.

Given that watchmakers have been attracted by space for so long, it is logical that Gene Roddenberry’s final frontier should become the next battleground. After all, the deepest depths of the oceans have been claimed by Rolex, which has sent watches to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Above water, Panerai is active in regattas and yacht clubs. On the roads, TAG Heuer has an enviable track record in motorsports, and Hublot recently signed a deal with Ferrari. Meanwhile, in the skies, Breitling is under aerial attack from IWC’s Top Gun timepieces (from £9,750) and the Pilot range by Zenith (from £4,700).

This year, the contest has moved into orbit, with both Breitling and Omega, early entrants in the horological space race, launching new cosmic models.  

Breitling was there at the start of America’s half century of spacefaring – when Scott Carpenter blasted off aboard the Aurora in May 1962. He may have been setting off a year later than the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin, but Carpenter had the good fortune to be equipped with a special version of the Breitling Navitimer. With its unique circular slide rule operated by means of the rotating bezel, a pilot could calculate rate of ascent, descent and fuel burn, making it, in effect, a wrist-worn mechanical computer. For anyone entering the unknown, it was a remarkable multifunction wristwatch and a useful back-up to on-board systems.

The watch worn by Carpenter was fitted with a 24-hour dial, on which the minute hand moved in the same way as any normal watch, but the hour hand made just one circuit per day, meaning that, for example, at noon the hands took the position usually associated with six o’clock. The rationale was that orbiting the globe in space and seeing the sun “rise” and “set” several times could give the impression of many days passing in a single 24-hour period, causing confusion for the pilot. The timepiece was designed to prevent the wearer losing all sense of time. To honour half a century of this classic space watch, Breitling launched a tribute model in May, powered by its new in-house calibre.

Having got off to a slow start against the USSR in manned space travel, the US threw its resources into making good on JFK’s pledge to put a man on the moon before the decade was out, and when man finally went lunar in the summer of 1969, he was wearing an Omega Speedmaster. The Speedmaster achieved such cult status as a result that it is frequently known as the “moon watch”, and in recent years Omega has found a reason to release another limited-edition Omega for collectors. This year, it is a piece celebrating Apollo 17 with the insignia of the 1972 mission in sterling silver on the dial (£4,550).

The early 1970s probably marked the height of space excitement – moon mania even featured in a nightclub scene in The French Connection, in which the Three Degrees performed their hit “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon”. However, the euphoria of the first lunar landings gave way to the knowledge that it would be a while before anyone would be setting up home there. Nevertheless, watches continued to be a part of the story.

For instance, as well as its tribute model to the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17, this year Omega has launched the Spacemaster Z-33 (£3,720), a suitably spacefarer-chic multifunction quartz watch that captures something of that early space-age optimism by borrowing from the elliptical case-shape of the Pilot Line watches of 40 years ago. It has four push pieces to activate a variety of timing functions, including a countdown feature and perpetual calendar, but while the name is sufficiently extraterrestrial, Stephen Urquhart, president of Omega, admits that, with the refocusing of Nasa’s activities, this watch is unlikely to be heading into orbit any time soon. “We have regular contact with Nasa, and I visit every couple of years, but while we are still a part of the space legacy, we have no pending matters for the moment,” he explains. “The Spacemaster Z-33 is engineered for pilots rather than astronauts, with input from US squadrons and the Swiss airforce.”

In contrast, Breitling has a watch named the Aerospace (£3,100) that was used by astronauts for a series of missions from the mid 1990s until the beginning of the current century. Where Breitling’s reissued Cosmonaute (£6,060) honours the role of clockwork in the conquest of space, the Aerospace has been an integral part of more recent activities in the European space programme. Breitling’s vice-president, Jean-Paul Girardin, is rightly proud that an example of the watch is on display in the Science Museum in Paris as part of the collection of instrumentation used by French astronauts. The Aerospace has been in the Breitling collection for many years, and Girardin neither confirms nor denies that a new version of the model is imminent.

But if we are to have one soon, it will surely benefit from the lessons learnt by the current model, which, says Girardin, has been constantly upgraded and improved thanks in part to its involvement in space. “We had some requests regarding the functions. For instance, when the countdown timer reaches zero it stops and there was a requirement for a count-up facility from zero to give a total mission time,” he explains. Additionally, the quartz movement was upgraded to “Superquartz” and the backlighting was made NVG (Night Vision Goggle) compatible, meaning that, as well as being legible in poor light with the naked eye, it could be used by someone wearing night-vision goggles without being blindingly bright.

Differences in visibility were not the only extreme variations Breitling had to accommodate. Given that the watch needed to be suitable for wear both outside the space suit and on the wrist itself, the strap had to be made adjustable with a special Velcro fastening.

In Russia, watches by Fortis, which celebrates its centenary this year, have long been part of the cosmonaut’s official equipment, clocking up around 100,000 Earth orbits since 1994, and the brand is already looking beyond orbital service to a manned mission to Mars. In preparation, Fortis was the official watch of Mars500 (£2,980), a joint European, Russian and Chinese simulation of a manned mission to the planet that took place last year.

In this, Fortis is demonstrating good sense, because space is getting quite crowded when it comes to watches. This year, TAG Heuer put its Carrera Calibre 1887 SpaceX chronograph (£4,475) into orbit on board the Dragon spacecraft, the first commercial space vehicle to dock at the International Space Station. The trip was to commemorate the fact that, 50 years earlier, a Heuer stopwatch had been part of John Glenn’s equipment when he orbited the Earth in 1962. Meanwhile, TAG’s LVMH stablemate Zenith backed the attempt of Felix Baumgartner to perform a freefall parachute jump from the edge of space as the intrepid Austrian skydiver successfully endeavoured to break a record that has stood for more than half a century.

All this interest in the cosmos would seem to imply that a new space race is hotting up, in which the competitors are the great chronograph houses of Switzerland, and the ultimate objective is to establish the first extraterrestrial watch shop.