For most people, a sports watch is essentially a chronograph with a second hand, a stopwatch hand, and a minute-and- hour totalizer. However, there are specialized watches for many kinds of sport, including diving, flying, and yachting. These watches will probably have one thing in common: their size. Bearing in mind the degree of water resistancy required and the space needed for the extra movements, it is not surprising that sports watches tend to be that little bit heavier.
Many sports watches have a ratchet bezel, enabling the specific timing of, for example, a dive. On all good watches, this bezel is unidirectional so that, in the case of a blow to the watch in which the bezel is moved, diving or flying time, say, is shortened, not prolonged. If you intend to purchase an old sports watch and to use it for a potentially dangerous sport, it is of course essential to check the overall condition of the piece, making sure that the stated water resistancy is still maintained and that the ratchet bezel is intact.
All water-resistant watches should have their seals checked every so often, especially when they are used in salt water, which corrodes the inner sealing ring which may then need replacing. Water-resistant chronograph movements abound, but the chronograph cannot be activated or deactivated underwater.
Baume et Mercier
As many watch companies have proved, sports watches do not all have to be ugly and ungainly. There is often no distriction between the functional and the beautiful, and many watches have surprising good looks but maintain the ability to withstand normal sports wear. These are available today both as current lines and as past successes.
Baume et Mercier is one such firm; its Transpacific and Riviera lines, both available in steel, mixed metal, and 18-carat gold, are fully water-resistant to at least 100 feet and are equipped with sapphire glass. The Riviera line has a chronograph among its many models, and the Transpacific is a chronograph line which, unusually contains a lady’s model. Continuing the Baume et Mercier history of chronograph lines, many of the company’s 1950s models are still to be found today, and these also show the elegant looks which are the Baume et Mercier signature.
Breitling is well known for its specialist sports watches. Many older models are still in existence, some of which have links with important aviation events and with air forces all over the world. Breitling is no stranger to the chronograph movement, and perhaps its most famous in recent years, the Chronomat, is available in many guises. This automatic chronograph has a diving bezel and is water-resistant. Breitling also produces the Cosmonaute, a watch for the serious pilot, which has a slide-rule bezel and a twenty-four-hour movement.
The company supplies many aviation organizations, and its flagship chronograph, the Navitimer, is still produced today by the factory in Grenchen, Switzerland. Their precision and the ease with which crucial information is made legible are probably the main reasons why Breitling timing instruments have claimed a very important position on the instrument panel of many a legendary aircraft, such as the Boeing Clipper and the DC3, and you will often see retired employees wearing their official-issue Breitling.
The yachtsman is also catered for with the Breitling Yachtmaster, which has an automatic chronograph movement and five-and ten-minute warning zones.
It is not surprising, in view of the growing interest in sports watches, that such a great name as Cartier should unveil its Pasha series in 1985, named after El Glaoui, Pasha of Marrakesh, who in the 1930s requested a watch that he could wear in his swimming pool. The Pasha is one of Cartier’s most distinctive lines, available in either steel or 18-carat gold. Cartier has also fitted a revolutionary movement to one of the Pasha models, the Chrono Reflex; this is not just a chronograph but also a calendar watch, and its case seems amazingly small when the number of functions is taken into consideration. The Chrono Reflex has an ingenious system for indicating the number of years to go until a leap year, as well as the date, the month, and the hour according to the twenty-four-hour clock.
Girard – Perregaux
Girard-Perregaux has applied its many years of experience to the production of both classic and sports chronographs and also offers a range of diving watches called Sea Hawk which would satisfy the most exacting collector. The classic good looks of its GP 4900, one of the few watches available in pink gold, are reminiscent of an earlier age, while the company’s commitment to the future is demonstrated in the clean and sober lines of its GP 7000 series. In production since 1990, again using both yellow and pink gold, GP 7000 is a line of true sports watches with sapphire glass and automatic movements.
Since1867, when Ernest Francillon opened the Longines factory, the company’s name has been linked to major sporting events, with the commitment to precision timing that this entails. A manufacturer of marine chronometers needing to withstand the rigors of journeys to the Arctic and the Antarctic (not the least famous of these expeditions was led by Captain Bernier, when he navigated from the U.S. to the North Pole on his ship, The Arctic), as well as producing watches for sports from motor racing to cycling, Longines has been directly involved in great sporting events throughout the twentieth century.
Omega’s Speedmaster chronographs also have a long history. A hand-wound version was taken to the moon in 1969 – you can’t have an automatic movement in the absence of gravity. With such an auspicious start, it is not surprising that Omega has kept up the Speedmaster series, retaining the basic idea but constantly improving and updating the design. Introducing a titanium and rose gold Seamaster has been Omega’s latest venture into chronographs, with a water resistancy of 1,000 feet and a ratchet diving bezel. It is worth knowing that Omega first went underwater in 1934, so it is not surprising that the company has solved the problem of helium gas release in a novel way. Instead of having an open valve, it has perfected a screw-down crown at ten c’clock which can be opened if and when needed, letting out any helium while preventing water from seeping in.
When Omega Speedmaster went to the moon, it was the beginning of a great tradition in sports timing for the company. Omega has produced a limited-edition Speedmaster chronograph with a run of just 999 pieces and available only in 18-carat gold. The survivor of a very impressive array of tests organized by NASA in Houston, Omega was the brand that rose above its competitors and, after that first moon mission, accompanied American astronauts on several more sorties. Ironically enough, an agreement between the Russians and Omega followed.
To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of that very important date of July 20, 1969, Omega also produced an edition of 2,500 stainless-steel Speedmaster professional chronographs, each inscribed, as is the more recent 18-carat gold version, with the words “Apollo XI 1969” on the edge and bearing on the back “The first watch worn on the moon” and “ Flight qualified by NASA for all manned space missions.” It is worth remembering that the precision of these chronographs was so good that it allowed the crew of one space mission to make crucial calculations to establish navigational positions when contact with Earth was broken.
One of the most famous diving watches of all time must surely be the Rolex Submariner, with an automatic movement, chronometer certificate, and water resistance to 1,000 feet. It is beaten only by another Rolex product, the Sea Dweller. Capable of submerging to a depth of 4,000 feet, this is, incidentally, the only Rolex with a date that does not have a magnifying bubble. The Sea Dweller has been produced solely in steel, whereas the Submariner has been produced in steel, yellow metal and steel, and all-18-carat gold.
Tag – Heuer
It would be impossible to collect sports watches and ignore the importance of Tag-Heuer. Tracing its history back to 1860 and official timekeeper at the 1920 Olympics, Tag-Heuer has made a remarkable comeback since the early 1980s, when it had all but slipped out of sight. In 1985 the link between the watch manufacturer Heuer and the group TAG (Techniques d’Avant Garde) was made, and Tag-Heuer has forged ahead ever since. Obviously, any piece that you come across with only the name Heuer on the dial predates 1985.
Most of the Tag-Heuer of today have a quartz mechanism, providing the precision demanded by competing sportsmen and sportswomen worldwide. Edward Heuer’s interest in technological achievement led to many patents, the first, very early in the company’s history, for a new system of water-sealing cases. The comapny’s effors were not limited to the field of watches alone: its expertise was also put to use in the making of car dashboard timers, and in 1942 it launched the Solunar, which showed the ebb and flow of the tides and indicated the times when fishing would be good!
Today the Tag-Heuer factory is still in a position to service most pieces bearing the old Heuer brand, either mechanical or quartz. Automatic Tag-Heuers are rare and much sought by mechanical movement fanatics.
It would be difficult to discuss automatic chronograph movements without mentioning the El Primero movement by Zenith , used by other watch companies for their chronograph ranges. The El Primero is a classic, constantly revised and updated; it was first produced in 1969 and has been making a considerable comeback during the years immediately preceding the time of writing. It is tought by some watch enthusiasts to be the epitome of chronograph movements, having, as it does, many unique features. Zenith has recently produced a new range of El Primero chronographs, entitled The Rainbow.
With the current trend toward a healthier, fitter lifestyle, more and more people are taking up a sport. This has inspired watch companies, which have, since the mid-1980s, stepped up their chronograph production, and many fine new models have appeared every year to meet demand. When you buy a sports watch, make sure that it does the job for which you intend to use it – there is little point in buying a pilot’s watch if you mean to take up deep-sea diving or yachting!