Breitling sponsored the Orbiter 3, which circumnavigated the globe at extreme altitudes to test wind patterns, collect data and set records.

Alone in dark Arctic waters, one is grateful for the glow of the luminescent hands on a deep-dive watch. Or for the constancy of an extreme mechanical watch that moves steadily and reliably even in the thinnest atmosphere atop the highest mountain. Like the explorers and adventurers who wear them, these high-performance watches must withstand extreme rigors and deliver flawless performance.

For the past century, watchmakers have pulled out all the stops when it comes to building rugged timepieces for any terrain. In the fall of 1927, English stenographer Mercedes Gleitze swam the frigid waters of the English Channel—making headlines for herself and the Rolex watch strapped to her arm. Believing this swim to be the ultimate challenge for his creation, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf had sent the timepiece with Gleitze. After more than 10 hours in the cold waters, the Rolex—aptly named the Oyster—maintained perfect time and became renowned as the world’s first proven water-resistant watch.

Other challenges and tests have been even more extreme. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh set world records for his nonstop New York-to-Paris flight in the Spirit of St. Louis—timing courtesy of Longines. In 1947, famed fighter pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Glamorous Glennis with a Rolex Oyster Perpetual as his companion. And 13 years later, Don Walsh piloted the bathyscaphe Trieste to the deepest part of the world’s oceans, the Mariana Trench, with a Rolex Deepsea watch strapped to the outside of the vessel. All these adventurers were accompanied by timepieces that not only kept time for them, but also recorded and authenticated their attempts to break barriers of speed, height, depth and time. “The world of fine watchmaking demands exceptional performance and innovation,” says Francois- Henry Bennahmias, president and CEO of Audemars Piguet, North America. “Be it a watch developed for diving, sailing, flying or driving, the talent required to produce these watches mirrors that of star athletes and enthusiasts.”

Today’s watchmakers continue this quest for perfection. Whether for simple pleasure, serious sport or life-threatening exploration, the market offers myriad timepieces that measure moments to fractions of a second while enduring brutal temperatures and conditions. The most accurate are chronographs and chronometers—watches with multiple functions or exceptional performance. Readily recognizable by the subdials on the face, chronographs not only indicate the time, but also allow the wearer to measure continuous or discontinuous intervals of time, anywhere from a fraction of a second up to 12 or more hours. This enables climbers or divers to time multiple ascents or descents. Chronometers, on the other hand, are timepieces that, after several days of rigorous testing, are found to comply with exacting precision requirements—the most prominent being those of the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC).


Officine Panerai sponsored explorer Mike Horn (seen at left with explorer Catherine Meyer) on his expedition aboard the Pangaea (below). INSET: Horn’s Panerai Luminor 1950 Submersible Depth Gauge watch

Today’s adventurers also continue their quest to best physical limits and the records set by their predecessors. And there is virtually no extreme sport or endeavor that can’t be paired with a water-resistant, shockresistant, temperature-defying work of time keeping ingenuity. In October 2008, South African explorer Mike Horn set sail aboard the Pangaea on an expedition, sponsored by Officine Panerai, to visit all seven continents. Known for creating innovative military watches, Panerai provided Horn with a Luminor 1950 Submersible Depth Gauge watch. (Panerai also supplied the instruments for the cabin of the craft, including a thermometer and barometer.)

In March of this year, English environmentalist David de Rothschild embarked on a voyage across the Pacific, from San Francisco to Sydney, on a boat that relied on energy from solar panels, wind and propeller turbines. Called the Plastiki, the catamaran was made from approximately 12,500 plastic bottles. IWC, an official partner for the voyage, unveiled the Ingenieur Automatic Mission Earth Edition “Adventure Ecology” 1,000-piece limited-edition watch in 2009 in support of the mission (all pieces sold out). De Rothschild wore a stainless steel version on his wrist for the trip.

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