Watch this space, Mars

Watch this space, Mars

A timepiece designed to withstand the excesses of space travel may have too high a specification for grounded consumers, but that’s the point, it’s authentic. And exciting.

It would probably be a case of overkill to wear it on a classic car rally. After all, a watch designed to go into space far exceeds the requirement of coping with the roaring engine noises and odd rattle from a vintage Ferrari, MG or Jaguar E-Type.

But, should a touch of excess be required, the Russian Space Administration might be able to supply it, together with the help of the Swiss watch brand Fortis, specialists in tough, minimalistic, functional timepieces for serious flyers and the occasional high flyer with a somewhat more grounded lifestyle. When Star City, the Russian State Scientific Research Test Centre for Cosmonaut Training, decided it needed a general-issue watch for all of its crews, it opted to have one designed to order.

In developing its Official Cosmonaut’s Chronograph in 1992, the Russians turned to Fortis – and then asked for the watch to fulfill some challenging and unexpected specifications.

It had to have, for example, no reflective surfaces – without cloud cover, glare can be a painful experience in space – as any reflection may hinder the legibility of the dial, which Fortis say should be clear at just a glimpse. But it did have to have an alarm – presumably because cosmonauts must never be late for lift-off of, course.

More understandably, it had to be able to sustain massive g-forces, huge temperature variations – from a staggering 180ºC to 150ºC – and pressure differences, including the negative pressures of a vacuum, as well as provide legibility in total darkness or in unfiltered, direct sunlight.

It had to be, in others words, a pilot’s watch and then some. It also happened to be the world’s first chronograph automatic alarm. And the first to leave the planet – tests having proven that, contrary to widespread belief, yes, an automatic would work in low gravity.

Which, much as one might ask, why a timepiece capable of performance in such extremes is really required by the Earthbound and sedentary, even if they are zipping along in a Maserati.

It also poses the question of why a cosmonaut needs a watch at all. But perhaps the almost-disastrous Apollo 13 mission, in which a life-or-death rocket burn had to be precisely timed using a wristwatch, answers that.

“You need a solid mechanical watch in an emergency, when the electronics fail,” says Liese-Lotte Peter, director of Fortis.

“It provides a sense of security. Of course, all those notions also excite the men who buy the watch who don’t happen to be astronauts.

But they do also want something that is authentic – that actually is used in space – and not something that’s the product of some marketing ploy.” That is perhaps what gets the drivers of the Tour Britannia quite so excited.

As one of the main partners of the three-day event – an annual classic car rally now in its fifth year in which some 75 pre-1981 cars compete in gentle races, hill climbs and circuits round stately homes in some unspoiled corner of the UK – Fortis has won something of a reputation with them. Indeed, Fortis presents watches as race prizes and has also produced a limited edition Flieger Automatic model specifically for sale to the competitors, or free if they manage to persuade a friend to take part in the subsequent year’s event – an offer they prefer to having a discount on their entry fee.

“There is a real cross-over between a love of classic cars and an interest in watches, it seems,” says Alec Pool, Tour Britannia’s commercial director.

“There’s a shared appreciation of mechanics and for things working well. A lot of the entrants to the Tour tend to be higher net worth individuals and drawn to top-end watches and goods generally. And they understand that a mechanical watch needs looking after much as they do their cars. We even have to be careful that nowhere the Tour events are held involves a gravel drive or speed humps...” The watches certainly sound tougher than the cars. Indeed, Fortis, established in 1912 as the first specialist manufacturer of automatic watches but still a relatively niche name compared with some of the Swiss watch brand giants, has quietly built a position of influence. Its 40mm Flieger Chronograph arguably started the trend for outsize watches – and a signature style.

Its designs have the aesthetic clarity of cockpit instruments and the hardiness of old boots that through the years has allowed certain models to pick up prestigious gongs, including the Long Life Design Award, the European Aviation Watch Award and, this year, the iF Product Design Award, for a watch created in conjunction with Volkswagen Design and worn in the future by the commander of a spacecraft in Cargo, the first science-fiction movie made in Switzerland. Compared with its Pilot Professional, Marine Master and Flieger series, its latest model, this year’s B-47 Calculator GMY 3 Time Zones, has the busiest dial in its portfolio and is still a pure product of form following function, its looks being a consequence of a slide-rule. But for all that the brand makes an elegant companion to a classic car, Fortis still finds it hard to keep its feet on the ground.

Last year the company enhanced its space credentials even further by partnering the Mars 500 project, an initiative between the European Space Agency and the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems to simulate a space mission to Mars.

Six people are spending every 24 hours of 520 days in the lab in spaceflight conditions to evaluate just what impact on a crew living in such confined conditions might have. Needless to say they are all wearing a limited-edition Fortis watch created for the mission. Never mind the count-down to lift-off. This will help them count down the time to getting out.