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Five Watches That Walk the Walk

  • Najib Benouar

Sometimes wearing the right watch makes all the difference—in the case of one WWII pilot, that difference was between life and death.

So when news broke of Felix Baumgartner’s record-setting, Mach-1-speed jump from roughly 24 miles high, we were duly impressed—but most interested in what he had strapped to his space-suited wrist. Turns out it was a Zenith Stratos Flyback Striking 10th.

Not coincidentally, watches have been on wrist for most of mankind's great feats—which, in some cases, might never have happened without a trusty timepiece to withstand the rigors of journeying into the great unknown. So we’d like to look back at some watches that have accomplished more than most mere mortals ever will.

Herewith, the five most historically accomplished watches, ever.

The first presidential watch. The love affair between presidents and their watches is a deep one. The most recognizable watch worn by presidents is the Vulcain Cricket Alarm (worn by multiple presidents, though first popularized by President Truman), but here we have the pocket watch worn by our first American president, George Washington. (The hole in the front fits a small key used to manually wind the watch daily.)

The first watch on the summit of Mount Everest, worn by Sir Edmund Hillary, was a Rolex, but it wasn’t the model most widely associated with him—the Explorer. Later, details emerged that he was wearing an older-model Rolex, an Oyster Perpetual, while Sir John Hunt, the expedition leader, wore an Explorer. It’s a nit to pick, but the first watch atop Everest was most likely an Oyster Perpetual.

And then there was the watch that saved a life, worn by a member of the first female pilot battalion, the “Spitfire Girls.” The watches were typically worn in the left chest pocket (over the heart), and as the indentation indicates, this one managed to stop a bullet (a 30mm caliber round from a MK108 autocannon mounted on German aircraft fighters) from piercing Private Hodgson’s heart. Thus saving her life.

The first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, was wearing an Omega Speedmaster—something the watch brand will not let anyone forget, now that every Speedmaster sold has “The Moon Watch” stamped onto its case backing. It’s an undisputed honor held by Omega, but here’s something to note when searching for the exact caliber and model that made the space voyage: you’ll want to look for a cal .321 that was made in 1967 (even though Apollo 11 took off in 1969, NASA picked the watches two years earlier—and by liftoff Omega had updated their movements to the cal .861).

James Cameron piloted the deepest oceanic dive ever accomplished by man, and he worked with Rolex to design the Rolex Deepsea Challenge specifically for that mission. In fact, he strapped one to the robotic wrist of the submarine as it explored the depths of the seabed. Also in the cockpit with Cameron was a 1960 Rolex Deep Sea Special—a good-luck charm and homage to the previous record-holders for deepest oceanic dive.