There are rich and interesting years for historians, and years in which few but noteworthy events happen. In the year I want to tell you about, few but important things happened.
Stalin dies, the war in Korea ends, biologists Watson and Crick discover the double helix structure of DNA. Elvis Presley records his first record, New Zealander Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing Nogary climb Everest. Well, does that seem little?
But in the world of watchmaking, you may ask? A lot happens.
It is precisely the ascent of the world’s highest mountain that offers interesting topics. Hilary and Norgay both climb with a watch on their wrists, which was also an important instrument for determining the duration of the oxygen cylinder, an error in the calculation could cost them their lives, as at the time it was believed that it was impossible to climb more than 8000 metres without one.
But while there is no doubt as to what the sherpa was wearing, a specially made Rolex Oyster Perpetual, a watch worn by almost all the members of the expedition, on the New Zealander’s wrist there appears to have been a timepiece from an English brand, a Smiths.
A brand known today to few enthusiasts. Founded in 1851 as a manufacturer of pocket watches, towards the 1920s it diversified its production by first introducing a line of odometers for cars and then supplying equipment for the British Air Force and Army. This production allowed Smiths to test more robust and resistant instruments, which until then had only been reserved for the military. The idea of equipping Hilary with one of these made it possible to broaden the field of use.
Of course, both companies will publicise the event. The British company will launch a line it will call ‘Everest’, while Rolex will register the brand name ‘Explorer’. This name will identify the production of watches that are more robust and therefore suitable for sports use.
Why so much fuss about the performance of mountaineers but also of watches? Soon said.
At that time, watches were not yet those wonderful and, above all, rugged companions of our adventures in extreme terrain. The cases were not as oversized as they are today, the glasses were made of plastic (special, of course, but still plastic), the gaskets, and thus the water resistance, still unreliable.
The watches worn by the Everest mountaineers were practically prototypes, which, analysed and studied after the Himalayan adventure, allowed the two companies to build better instruments for that purpose. The Explorer line still exists (I wear one), while Smiths was, unfortunately like many others, wiped out by the quartz cyclone.
In the same year Rolex (a company I certainly don’t need to introduce to you), was also developing research in another field, the deep sea. In 1953, the company started experiments and tests for a watch that could accompany divers on their dives. The tests yielded positive results, so it was decided to build a watch with those characteristics that have become universal.
A massive case, a larger-than-normal crown (it had to be possible to use it even with gloves on), a black dial, large hands and, like the indexes, luminescent to be seen even in low light. A rotating bezel to help divers calculate decompression times more easily. The image of the sports watch as we still understand it today was born.
The following year, Rolex presented the ‘Submariner’ model at the Basel Fair, giving it a name as well and, consequently, creating a new family which, together with the Explorer, would create the strand we now call ‘Professional’.
In the same year, another company devoted itself to the construction of a watch for divers. Blancpain, at the urging of the French Navy, created the ‘Fifty Fathoms’ model, which for the first few years would only be reserved for French raiders and, given the goodness of the product, very soon adopted by other nations.
The technical features are similar to the Submariner, (robust case, rotating bezel, black dial, highly visible hands and indices) but aesthetically different. It is clear that both companies have experimented and built two beautiful examples of professionalism and have chosen the best features for those who would use them.
And the others?
Patek Philippe presents the reference 2526, the company’s first automatic wristwatch model. It is a very refined automatic because it mounts a gold oscillating weight, and also because it winds in both directions. The case back is screwed down, thus also ensuring greater protection against external agents.
Another Maison presents a model that is destined to become a classic: it is the “Chronomètre Royal” by Vacheron Constantin, the first model to combine a chronometer certificate with the Hallmark of Geneva. A hand-wound movement, 18,000 vibrations per hour, Breguet balance spring, 18 jewels and a device that allows, by pulling out the crown, the seconds hand to be locked in order to synchronise the watch with the time signal. Other times.
Not a little for the period when far fewer models were born and presented than today. The times were longer, there were not yet computers to help the design engineers and everything or almost everything had to be tested, tried, refined for much longer than today.
Another reason why I like to call 1953 an interesting year is that I was born there and this fact makes it very interesting.