“WAR! Huh! Good God! What is it good for?” pondered the great Edwin Starr on his Vietnam protest hit single, answering his own rhetorical question a line later with the words “Absolutely nothing”.
I had this song running through my head on a visit I made to the manufacturing headquarters of Blancpain earlier this year, and couldn’t help wondering if, had the Tennessee-born soul legend been with me, I’d have dared hazard one small rider to his lyric. “WAR! Huh! Good God! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing… except perhaps some very cool watch design.” Because this year Blancpain scored a bullseye with its reissue of two great military classics based on emblematic designs from the 1950s.
In 1952, the newly formed French Combat Swimmers unit was in search of a watch suited for aquatic military missions. Tests conducted with French watches were unsatisfactory: the dials were too small to read easily, and the cases were far from waterproof. Swallowing its national pride, the French navy approached Blancpain and a year later the Swiss firm delivered a watch that passed with ease.
The timepiece, named Fifty Fathoms, was soon adopted by the armed forces of other nations, including the German Bundesmarine in the 1960s, which sourced its watches via diving equipment specialist Barakuda. The Barakuda-issued Fifty Fathoms featured a distinctive design: white-painted fluorescent hands, two-tone hour markers and a hi-vis date display at three o’clock.
Its idiosyncratic appearance would subsequently make it the sort of watch that raises the pulse rate of collectors. But it is such a rarity on the market that Blancpain has decided to issue a tribute model (£10,830) in a limited edition of 500 pieces, faithful to the Barakuda specification right down to the tropical rubber strap with which the original was offered.
There’s also now a chance to get hold of another legendary design: the Blancpain Air Command (£15,170), based on one of the most sought-after military chronographs of the late 1950s. Blancpain is thought to have created a dozen watches as prototypes for the US military, but even the watchmaker does not know exactly how many there were. It will also issue the new Air Command in a limited edition of 500. This is equipped, like its famous forebear, with a ratcheted “countdown” rotating bezel; the time scale of the bezel, as well as the dial hour markers and hands, are made of old radium‑style Super-LumiNova that mimics the orange glow of the original indices.
The project has been driven by CEO and president Marc Hayek, who is one of the most enthusiastic modern users of the Fifty Fathoms. “They are sure to delight experienced divers, collectors, history buffs or simply lovers of fine mechanics,” says Hayek of the tribute models – and, as a qualified diver, collector, horological historian and watch boss, he should know what he is talking about. As he sees it, these watches offer “a perfect combination of vintage design and advanced technicality”.
A similar combination of recondite retro military styling and up-to-date precision and performance is behind the most talked about launch of the year from Tudor, sibling brand of Rolex. With its bezel-locking mechanism on the lugs and its crown sited at four o’clock, the Black Bay P01 (£2,830) is one of the most idiosyncratic military timepieces ever made. It looks as arresting and unusual today as it must have done 50 years ago when it was proposed to the US Navy. “In the mid-1960s we supplied the French, US and Canadian navies. They chose Tudor because of the accuracy of the movement,” says the brand’s designer Ander Ugarte. But there were clearly issues with the reliability, as he explains: “There was a problem with salt and sand getting under the rotating bezel and they needed to find a technical solution; that’s why our engineers devised these lockable end links, so you could remove and clean the bezel on the original model.” While they were about it, the designers moved the crown to four o’clock, providing easier access for winding. However, it was a design ahead of its time. “The solution was ‘interesting’ but a little complicated for that period, so they stuck with the standard model,” Ugarte says. Half a century later, Tudor judges that the Commando prototype’s day has finally come.
Meanwhile, over at Ulysse Nardin, an even older link with the US Navy is being revived in the shape of the Marine Torpilleur Military US Navy (£6,800). The partnership can be traced back to 1905, when the Washington Naval Observatory organised a competition for “Precision Torpedo Boat Timepieces” as accurate and reliable as marine chronometers on the largest naval vessels. Ulysse Nardin emerged victorious for several years in a row, and the caseback of the new US Navy watch is engraved “US limited edition” with the motto “Semper fortis”. As well as echoing the dial layout of the originals, it features blue hands identical to those on the earliest pieces and the number 24 printed in red on the power reserve indicator, recalling the warning system on the original marine chronometers, advising that only 24 hours of power reserve remained.
While all the above watches are very different in terms of brand, functionality and date, spanning a period of around 65 years, they share a simplicity of dial design. It is an aesthetic that finds favour in a present that has turned its back on the excessive complexity that was the leitmotif of watchmaking until a few years ago. Complications, if any, tend to be related to the matter in hand, typically a chronograph for aviators, such as the Zenith Tipo CP-2 (£6,400) supplied to the Italian air force in the 1960s and 1970s and revived with great success by Zenith in late 2016.
In general, classic military timepieces tend towards an uncluttered elegance that is a by-product of their functionality. For an individual at the controls of a torpedo boat, a fighter plane or a tank, concerns about the equation of time or whether the moon is in its waxing gibbous phase tend not to be uppermost in the mind. Often, it is the aesthetic of the so-called “Dirty Dozen” that collectors cite as the prototypical military wristwatch. This is nothing to do with the Lee Marvin war film, but the name given by collectors to the watches commissioned from 12 makers working to the same brief for the British armed forces during the second world war.
Longines was one of them, and last year it launched the Longines Heritage Military (£1,550), inspired by a watch worn by RAF pilots. Although, at 38.5mm, it is bigger than the original (which at 32.5mm would be uncommercially small today, as well as unable to house the modern movement), the watch honours its forebear by using the same distinctive spade hands and oversize winding crown for ease of operation. It also has a silver opaline dial covered with what Longines describes as a “subtle mist of fine droplets in black paint” to mimic the oxidation of the dial; and, even though the watch houses a modern automatic movement, it is the only self-winding Longines not to feature the word “Automatic” on its dial, in order to preserve the spirit of the original.
Another name that figures among the Dirty Dozen is Vertex, a British firm that went out of business almost 50 years ago but has been restarted by the founder’s great-grandson Don Cochrane. Cochrane had grown up with stories of the brand but had chosen to work in motorsport and private aviation before deciding to relaunch it in 2017, with the M100 (£2,500). For him, the decision was an emotional one. Going through old letters written to the company, he was struck by the relationship soldiers had with their watches. “One lady wrote saying that her son was on active service and that the only good thing in his day was winding his watch,” he says. “Another was from a soldier who lost his watch on D-Day and had to ask the time all the way to Berlin.” Cochrane wanted to honour such stories with a faithful tribute to the original timepiece. It seems that his enthusiasm was shared by collectors, as the M100 sold so well that he subsequently released a chronograph and is now working on a non-military dress watch of the type for which the company was famous before it closed at the beginning of the 1970s.
At the time that Vertex was closing, Hamilton was making a watch called the W10, which it produced between 1973 and 1976 and supplied to members of the RAF. The W10 has inspired the new Khaki Pilot Pioneer (£770), which features a matte case and dial to avoid unnecessary glare. “The Khaki Pilot Pioneer is an authentic 1970s update down to the smallest of details: the hand winding movement, black dial structure, mattified 33mm case, box-shaped crystal and military feel of the Nato straps,” says Hamilton’s president Sylvain Dolla. “Today there is a great appreciation for brands with such history.”