Anyone over the age of 40 will remember when quartz watches were cutting- edge tech. If you were a child of the 1970s, your first watch may have been a wind-up Timex, before you were delighted to move on to a fancy Swatch. That was where the future was going, and it wasn’t going to be long before clockwork disappeared altogether.
Many watchmakers began abandoning their traditional craft as the companies prepared for the inevitable takeover of battery power. And yet against the odds the mechanical watch industry not only clung on but kicked back with force.
Here we are, decades after the expected demise, and a proper watch is still one with cogs and springs.
But why did the mechanical watch refuse to die? For most people the answer is an emotional one. They love the idea of a fiendishly clever little machine that has been refined over centuries. People who are deeply into watches think of them as almost alive, that the relentless ticking is more heartbeat than mere interaction of man-made components.
But remove the emotional side and what is left? Are these just handsome toys to pimp up a person’s wrist? Not according to the adventurer Ben Saunders, the first man to have skied solo, unsupported and unassisted to both the North and South Poles. Saunders, who has been on 12 expeditions to the polar regions since 2001, covering over 4000 miles in the process, reckons that mechanical is still the practical choice if you are in some of the world’s toughest environments.
“On the last big trip in Antarctica, we had ambient air temperatures of nearly minus 48, minus 49 degrees centigrade,” he said. “When something like a GPS with an LCD screen gets that cold, the screen becomes almost impossible to read; it becomes very sluggish and slow to respond. Even specialist lithium batteries go flat very quickly, so having an accurate timepiece is crucial when it comes to navigating. The best thing still, the most reliable way of doing that, is having a mechanical watch that doesn’t have batteries in it.” In his role as ambassador for the British watch company Bremont, Saunders has taken what most people regard as a luxury product and treated it about as harshly as you could imagine. Every time he makes a trip to one of the freezing ends of the earth he straps a Bremont to the outside of his jacket – as hitching up a sleeve to look at your watch in such conditions is not to be recommended.
His latest piece is the Endurance, a watch he helped create in collaboration with Bremont. Although to him it may be a functional no-nonsense timepiece, he did insist on one little bit of modern fancy, an exhibition caseback. Saunders decided that, even though his watch was a work tool, the chronometer-certified automatic movement was too good to hide away. This meant that Bremont had to design a new crystal and titanium caseback that would be able to cope with polar conditions and also be water resistant to 500 metres.
The watch is named after the ship that Ernest Shackleton used on his heroic attempt to reach the South Pole little more than a century ago. Back then watches were mechanical or nothing, and this new Bremont is carrying on that traditional craft. But with a century of technological development, this piece of old technology is also, surprisingly, still at the cutting edge.
The Bremont Endurance has a COSC chronometer-certified automatic movement with GMT function and 42-hour power reserve. It is water- resistant to 500 metres and has an automatic helium escape valve. Case diameter 43mm, orange Nato strap. Limited to 300 pieces. £4795