Rolex Explorer 1

Sports Watches

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Rolex Explorer 1

In this short series we’re going to examine the main categories of wristwatch that you will come across on your daily horological journeys and this time it’s the ‘Sports Watch’.

“Sports Watch”  is a term that’s bandied around regularly by watch types and ‘normal’ people alike without too much thought for what it actually means, so hopefully this piece will shed at least a little light.

By the way, recently some quarters have taken to using the term to cover the current fad for ‘fitness trackers’ – these are NOT watches people so by definition they can’t be Sports Watches…..

One final note before we dig in – on this part of our journey we’re going to swerve the ‘Dive Watch’ and ‘Chronograph’ which are both subsets of the Sports Watch category but also categories in themselves so more about those later.

So what is it that turns a watch into a sports watch?  Well it mainly has to do with ruggedness and durability.  Unlike a dress watch that is not normally expected to have to take much toughie – one doesn’t normally encounter many mountains or race tracks when wearing one’s dinner jacket – the Sports Watch is designed to do just that.

As you may know, and can read here,  the first ‘proper’ wristwatch was thought to have been designed by Cartier for the pioneering pilot M. Santos Dumont. Shortly afterwards, soldiers in the trenches were required to have watches on their persons at all times to help to synchronise their movements (pun totally intended).

The thing is, when you’re fighting a war, it’s really difficult to hold a pocket watch as you tend not to have your hands free and anyway they were often stored in the Tommy’s tea mugs for safety. Consequently, thousands of soldiers had (usually small) pocket watches adapted by having wire lugs soldered onto them so they could be worn on a leather strap around the wrist – and so the trench watch was born.

These are all very well and helped to start the fashion for wearing watches on the wrist but they were not particularly robust – and neither were the designs of standard wristwatches that followed over the next few decades.

It wasn’t until pioneering explorers like Sir Edmund Hillary said that they had a need for a wristwatch that could withstand the elements and a little more abuse that brands like Rolex and Tudor developed the first sports watches, culminating in the release of the Rolex Explorer in 1953 with the strongest, most shock resistant movement ever made in a wristwatch.  Then the ball was rolling …

Once the market was established for a watch that could be worn on a daily basis by active people without concern for its structural integrity and safety, more and more people saw the benefits of such a watch and more and more watchmakers got in on the act with their own take on the theme.

As we said, Rolex quickly established an insurmountable foothold in the sports watch market and have been the all-round kings of the style ever since – they followed the Explorer with the 6541 Milgauss in 1956 – That’s a whole new story but it was developed for the scientists at CERN who needed a wristwatch with built in defences against strong magnetic fields so needless to say, it a strong old bird.  The Explorer II that followed in 1971 was never designed to replace the 36mm 1016 Explorer – in fact that watch was made well into the 1980’s – but rather as a larger, 40mm watch to accompany it in the Rolex range.  There’s the whole ‘Steve McQueen’ thing going on with this watch but again, that’s another story.

However, that’s not to say that other brands haven’t scored significant points themselves over the years.

Take Jaeger Le Coultre for instance whose Reverso – while designed in 1931 for a polo player in India tired of having his watches smashed – really took off once the sports watch became a ‘thing’ and of course is still made nearly 70 years later.  The case of the Reverso is very cleverly designed to flip over on a roller mechanism, rotating the dial backwards and protecting it from flying polo balls and sticks (never ‘mallets’ by the way).  While copied by Cartier decades later for their Tank Basculante, JLC are the fathers of this ingenious design.  Curiously they developed the model over the years to feature a dial on each side of the case so that when you flipped it over….you get another delicate dial, totally defeating the object.

Omega’s sports watch successes will be discussed in later blogs but just because we’re not covering them here doesn’t diminish their awesomeness (dude) – it’s just that they tend to be chronographs and dive watches so are for another time.  The one exception is is possibly the Seamaster Aqua Terra which despite being a Seamaster isn’t a dive watch and despite being lovely, isn’t really worthy of much more note.

It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that another brand was to make its mark with a totally different type of non-Chrono, non-diver sports watch.  In 1969 the people at Audemars Piguet got together with burgeoning designer Gerald Genta and three years later, the Royal Oak was born.  The AP Royal Oak was the world’s first ‘luxury sports watch’, spanning the gap between dress watches and their more robust cousins.  You can read a bit more about the Royal Oak here.

Of course other luxury sports watches are available – the Patek Philippe Nautilus and the Vacheron Constantin Overseas to name but two – but they all came after the Royal Oak and many would say that they are both pretenders to the luxury sports throne.

Finally, no piece on sports watches would be complete without a mention of ‘The Best Watch In The World’ ……..  intrigued? Click here for more details – you might be surprised.

Come back soon for other blogs on the Chronograph, the Dive Watch and maybe some others too…

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