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Wrist Action

Swiss sports watches are high-performance timepieces
Edward Kiersh
Posted: June 1, 2000

Published May/June 2000

Wrist Action Swiss sports watches are high-performance timepieces By Edward Kiersh Mark Wasserman is conducting a tour of his Hawthorne, New York, office. It's filled with keepsakes, such as fountain pens and paperweights. But its real attraction is Wasserman's vast collection of Brooklyn Dodgers memorabilia. He gazes lovingly at autographed balls, scuffed bats and other mementos, occasionally examining particular items. This passion for anything Dodger Blue is not something one might expect from the 56-year-old president of Oris U.S.A., the subsidiary of the 96-year-old Swiss watch firm known for styling distinctive traditional-looking sports watches.   "While I love watches and our latest BC3 collection, my real passion is baseball," Wasserman says as he picks up a faded memento. "This 1955 scorecard is from Ebbets Field. Now that was a real ballpark. I just hate Astroturf and these modern stadiums with no character, no spirit, no sense of history."   Old World virtues and traditions are particularly revered at Oris, a company long renowned for crafting superbly engineered timepieces. Founded in 1904 in Hölstein, Switzerland, Oris flirted with quartz watches when the craze swept the horological world in the 1980s, but unlike its sports watch competitors, it never made them a priority. Focusing instead on the development of micro-mechanisms, an automatic pointer calendar and specialized movements that weren't driven by batteries, Oris continued to make only mechanical watches.   "Oris is the leading producer of mechanical watches with special movements at affordable prices," says Patrik Hoffmann, the president of Swiss watch manufacturer Ulysse-Nardin's U.S. division. "All the movements they do are modified by expert craftsmen, and because the company only does mechanicals, it's become their specialty."   Although such precise watches as Oris's Pointer Classic and Big Crown Chronograph are reasonably priced, from $575 to $1,850, Oris's popularity has mainly been limited to European cognoscenti.   Many Americans shy away from mechanical watches, preferring the accuracy of quartz, or are just leery of wearing intricate instruments linked to watchmaking's hand-wound past. Wasserman says his company's rise from cult favorite to niche leader is further complicated by the highly competitive sports watch market.   Some of Oris's competitors include TAG Heuer and Baume & Mercier, both of which produce rugged, water-resistant watches with stainless-steel safety clasp bracelets, and Omega, the maker of the famed Speedmaster that's been worn on the moon.   Wasserman is launching a "Hi-Mech" counterattack to battle the slick, sexy advertising that his rivals employ to celebrate their high-tech, modern sports pieces. Relying on the talents of Oris's innovative craftsmen, Wasserman hopes to dominate the watch world with mechanicals that combine technological flourishes with oversized crowns, sapphire crystals and other stylistic details.   The newest, most distinctive face in Oris's Big Crown collection is the 27-jewel Commander Divers Regulator, a water-resistant (to 200 meters) piece that shows the minutes only from the center of the dial. This feature reminds scuba lovers how long they've been underwater, and is complemented by a screw-down security crown and unidirectional, rotating bezel for added safety when braving adventurous depths.   While Wasserman is not a scuba diver himself, he believes landlubbers will appreciate the newly designed solid-steel bracelet, the black regulator dial with yellow luminous hands and indices, and the modern-looking subsidiary displays for hours, minutes and the date.   Besides fashioning submersibles for would-be Jacques Cousteaus, Oris is reaching new heights with its automatic, retro-looking BC3 pilot's watches. Inspired by the Big Crown mechanicals that American airmen used in the Second World War to set the time in the numbing cold over the English Channel, BC3s are equipped with sturdy ETA-calibre 2836.2 movements, scratchproof sapphire crystals, day and date display windows, and white or black dials with illuminated hands.   Oris Worldtimers, particularly the 18-carat rose-gold Jules Verne with two separately adjustable time indicators and an automatic date corrector, also celebrate a heroic spirit. Designed to prevent the date error that almost doomed Phileas Fogg's 80-day around-the-world quest, this 30-jewel limited-edition watch measures the hour in two time zones and automatically switches the date backwards or forwards when the watch is adjusted to local time. A must for globe-trotting travelers, the Classic Worldtimers are fitted with anti-reflex sapphire crystals, stainless steel skeleton screw backs, and secure metal bracelets or leather straps.   From black-dialed chronographs offering speed and distance timers, to Radius watches symbolizing the sun and automatic 27-jewel chronometers that are certified for accuracy by a Swiss testing institute, Oris offers additional unique pieces.   Two of the most notable Oris watches are the new Full Steel Pointer Day and Big Crown Original, one of the company's oldest models. Sized at 39.50 millimeters in diameter, the black- or white-dialed Pointer Day features an easy-to-read date window, is water-resistant to 100 meters, and indicates the day of the week with a red center hand. Oris's technical accomplishments are further dramatized by a transparent glass back, which provides a view of the movement and its hand-finished components.   The Pointer's sister piece, the Big Crown Original, is equally Hi-Mech. Similar in looks to a classic aviator's watch, this stainless steel piece in two men's sizes (36- or 44.5-millimeter case) is powered by an ETA-based movement. It displays hours, minutes and seconds and employs a distinctive pitchfork-shaped hand, which points to one of the 31 numerals marking the date.   Like Oris, TAG Heuer produces high-tech shock- and scratch-resistant sports watches for the active person. The product of a 1985 merger that connected then 125-year-old Heuer to the TAG (Techniques d' Avant-Garde) Group, this legendary Swiss brand is celebrating its self-described "alliance between tradition and innovation" with classic as well as imaginative futuristic designs.   The $2,000 Kirium Ti5 with an eight-year lithium battery pays homage to motor racing. Long employed as the official timekeeper of Formula 1 and Olympic sporting events, TAG Heuer designed this grade-5 titanium piece to be far stronger than steel, yet lightweight. The high-tech carbon fiber dial accentuates the polished case, and the watch has a glare-proof sapphire crystal, a unidirectional bezel and a supple, vulcanized, black rubber strap.   "We wanted to showcase our technological mastery in the ultimate modern sports watch, a model that defied time with very fluid lines," says Michael Fankhauser, TAG Heuer USA's vice president of marketing. "That was a challenge, since we had used titanium as early as 1985, but [because we were] unable to refine the polishing process, the metal looked too grainy. Now this grade-5 [titanium and vanadium] alloy allows us to offer a watch that shines like platinum and is highly comfortable to wear."   TAG is also renowned for its modern and stylistic Link collection. Meant to symbolize the link between ideas, determination, strength and human endeavor, these quartz and automatic watches feature angled S-shaped bracelets; oversized "sword" hands; black, white, blue or slate gray dials; and serrated unidirectional bezels. The most notable Link watch is an ergonomically advanced chronometer (designed to maximize productivity by reducing the wearer's fatigue and discomfort) with an ETA movement that sells for $2,395. The water-resistant (to 200 meters) Ti5 is a logical extension of the Link collection.   The Link watches were designed by Eddy Schopfer, the artist who also engineered the specifications for TAG's S/el line. The S/el models--automatic chronographs, certified-for-accuracy chronometers and quartz chronographs designed to measure tenths of a second--are being replaced by modern Link versions. Bimetallic S/els that were once showcased in stainless steel and gold plating will now consist of steel and solid gold. Whether it's an automatic chronograph, the quartz 1/10th version with small second, 30-minute and 12-hour registers, or any other time-ennobling Link, Fankhauser says "these pieces will be fashionably heavier and larger than their S/el predecessors."   To further emphasize the Link's cutting-edge styling, TAG Heuer will promote the collection with a range of brash, ingenious talents. Bad-boy fashion designers Thierry Mugler and Alexander McQueen, the sleek-moving track and field star Marion Jones and tennis ace Monica Seles were chosen as embodiments of the Link's character, stars "suited to the daring ambition" of a new watch-wearing generation.   Another McQueen also symbolizes TAG's boldness: Hollywood legend Steve McQueen.   In the 1970 film Le Mans, McQueen, who played a guilt-ridden race car driver, wore a Heuer Monaco, an automatic chronograph with a provocative, water-resistant square case, stop-seconds function, 30-minute dial, date display and a flat, caliber-11 chronomatic movement. Its modular design was unique, and, as WatchTime magazine reports, while prompting polarized opinions, the Monaco "became an accessory to the stars."   Now the Monaco is back. Modernizing the "sandwich-style" construction of the earlier movement and softening the edges of the angular case, TAG has reissued McQueen's favorite watch. The $2,450 mechanical update has a retro swagger as well as refinements that have improved its performance and visual allure. "Today's Heuer Monaco radiates an irresistible charisma," raves WatchTime. "It stands as one of the great designer watches of the '90s."   Keenly interested in the history of watchmaking, Fankhauser headed a research project that culminated in the release of the contemporary Monaco. His efforts didn't stop there, however. Impressed by company archives that detailed a rich past of watchmaking breakthroughs, he recognized the merits of creating another watch that pays tribute to motor car racing.   That watch, the Carrera, has also been reissued. The original, a 1964 manually wound model that represented the height of wrist-chronograph technology, was named in honor of the Carrera Panamericana, the dangerous auto race of the '50s that wound through Mexico's remotest areas. The first chronograph to feature a ring-shaped numerical date indicator, the Carrera boasted three off-center sub dials, a decimal conversion scale, a 1/5th-of-a-second scale on the flange (protruding rim), and an extra large crown for easy push-button operating. Such illustrious Grand Prix drivers as Jacky Ickx, Niki Lauda and Bruce McLaren (the founder of the McLaren racing team) wore the ingenious Carrera.   Today's version of the Carrera is as audacious as its predecessor. It features outsized chronograph buttons, a tachometer scale and a water-resistant case in either stainless steel or 18-karat gold. There's also a choice of straps (perforated calfskin or dark brown crocodile). The Carrera comes in two models, the $2,450 mechanical version and the $1,400 GMT automatic with display of a second time zone on a 24-hour scale for those hard-driving speed demons that don't want to bother with manual winding.   "The spirit of that Panamericana race, which attracted only the most fearless drivers, is mirrored in this new Carrera," says Fankhauser. "It's a piece that captures our innovative past and dedication to stretching the boundaries of technology and design in the future."   In the battle to push that outer envelope of watchmaking chic, Omega is another company with an edgy attitude. Collaborating with top-gun pilots and NASA astronauts, this 152-year-old Swiss titan touts itself as a cosmic traveler's "flight qualified" delight, having fashioned the only watch that's been worn on the moon, the Speedmaster Professional.   Accompanying astronauts on at least 50 space missions, including six lunar landings, these 321- and 861-caliber Speedmasters were so precise under extreme conditions that mission commander Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, now Omega's chairman, says, "With my experience in space, I understood the need for a device to track count-up, countdown and mission elapse time. I gave the specifications to Omega, and I'm very proud of their record in space. They did a super job."   Omega wasn't content merely to have one of its moon watches installed in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. It continued to work with American and European astronauts, and now after a five-year research and development project, the company is again on a mission with its new lightweight titanium Speedmaster X-33.   Touted by Omega officials as the "Mars Watch," this 1/100-of-a-second quartz chronograph features an array of digital functions, which are displayed by a press of the crown or push buttons and are visible in the dark, thanks to an illuminated screen ($2,995 on a titanium bracelet, $2,595 on a DuPont Kevlar strap). Shock-resistant to 3,500 g's, the watch indicates mission elapsed time (days, hours, minutes and seconds) and Greenwich Mean Time (universal time), and sounds alarms of more than 80 decibels.   "The X-33 is our next step in the race against time," says Alain Bezos, Omega's U.S. marketing and sales operations manager. "[It's] more than just a link to space--it's the future, a very lightweight titanium treasure perfectly suited for adventures and thrilling escapades."   Equally equipped for fast-lane excitement, the new Speedmaster Split-Seconds Chronograph ($3,895) has a rattrapante function, meaning it can measure two or more split times: simultaneous events (such as Formula 1 or CART races) that start together but last unequal periods. Along with this function, the planned intricate caliber 3600 movement (exclusive to Omega) is so precise, the company says, that it's certified for accuracy by a Swiss testing institute. The self-winding Speedmaster, slated for release this fall, is water-resistant to 330 feet and boasts a stainless steel case with a tachometric scale, and the circular-grained, black carbon-fiber dial complements a black, rubberized leather strap with a foldover clasp. A version with a steel bracelet will be offered for $3,995.   The Speedmaster Automatic Day/Date chronograph in 18-carat gold with a self-winding movement (caliber 1152), date indicator, silver dial and alligator strap is another piece that evokes images of life on the wild side. For thrills in the deep, the self-winding Seamaster 300m GMT Chronometer ($1,995 on a steel bracelet, $1,895 on a rubber strap) is certified for accuracy and water-resistant to 1,000 feet. It also features a red arrow­tipped 24-hour hand that indicates the hour in two additional time zones.   If "From Switzerland With Love" trappings are a must, make like Pierce "James Bond" Brosnan and wear the Seamaster Professional Diver chronometer. Omegas aren't geared with high-powered magnets, laser guns, computerized message systems or retracting grappling hooks. But 007's official watch is equipped with a helium gas escape valve to allow pressure inside the watch to equalize the ambient air pressure deep underwater. Without this feature, the crystal would shatter. Also water-resistant to 1,000 feet, the blue-dialed timepiece has appeared in the past three 007 films (it's standard M16 issue, selected by Q himself, according to Alain Bezos) and is armed with an anti-reflex sapphire crystal to withstand the most jarring blows.   As Bezos says, chuckling, "Along with loving cigars, Brosnan especially likes this elegant Seamaster, a watch that always allows him to dive into joie de vivre adventures."   Offering its own tribute to the active life, the 170-year-old Geneva-based Baume & Mercier is celebrating the turning of the century with the CapeLand line. This recently introduced collection is billed as "an invitation to roam the world with resolute and relaxed" timepieces, and in pursuit of that rugged yet refined lifestyle, the company is showcasing several models, including a quartz version.   Appropriate for casual or business situations, each $2,350 CapeLand in the line has a large round case, a curved, scratch-resistant sapphire crystal, and a screw-down fluted crown that makes the watch water-resistant to 100 meters. The Arabic-numeraled dials are either a finely circular-engraved silver or jet black. The automatic chronograph has a 7750 Valjoux movement that offers a 40-hour power reserve and a distinctively detailed egg-shaped small-seconds counter. The watch features a chic 39-millimeter black dial on a honey-brown strap.   "CapeLand is the high-performance watch for anyone who's seeking new experiences," says Thomas Van der Kallen, the president of Baume & Mercier North America. "Its strong personality stands out."   The sumptuousness of these chronographs is further accented in two new limited-edition versions, both of which are made with a 25-ruby, BM 13750 movement. One 99-piece series is in white gold, the other in pink gold, while both versions are "harmonized" with a black, saddle-stitched alligator strap and are numbered with a year of the twentieth century. Numerical markings, however, aren't the only distinguishing characteristics. Attesting to this legendary firm's love of detail (each limited-edition piece, which retails for $11,500, takes about a year to produce), the finishing is particularly fine, with the white-gold rotor and all the movement's visible surfaces embellished with a Côtes de Genevé pattern. Wearers of this automatic winding mechanical can view these refinements through a sapphire crystal back. Stressing CapeLand's unique appeal, the dial flaunts gold hour and minute hands, broad two-sided hour markers, and an engraved guilloche tapestry pattern.   If limited-edition chronographs are the perfect accessories for the new millennium, retro-inspired quartz Hamptons, Classima chronos and other Baume & Mercier creations offer fashionable alternatives.   "The CapeLand chronograph is particularly attractive, since most watches with a 7750 Valjoux movement go for $4,000," says Jonathan Hochman of Altier Jewelers in Boca Raton, Florida. "The entire CapeLand collection, with their generous-sized cases, is very affordable, masculine-looking and contemporary. But they're not the only sports watches that perform beautifully. All of Baume & Mercier's timepieces uphold the finest traditions of Swiss watchmaking."     Florida-based Edward Kiersh frequently writes about watches for Cigar Aficionado.
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