What kind of watch should a superhero wear? That was a vital question for the makers of Hollywood blockbuster Iron Man 2 when they were developing their title character, played by Robert Downey Jr. For the 2010 film they finally settled on Jaeger-LeCoultre’s AMVOX3 Tourbillon GMT, a watch that has one of the most complicated mechanical movements yet devised, but – crucially for the its part in the movie – housed in an outsized, black ceramic case that suggests action as much as finesse.
It might be said that life is imitating art: despite a recessionary trend for more understated and classic timepieces across the market, the demand for action watches is still strong. One of Omega’s current bestsellers, for example, is its Speedmaster Professional, the first and only watch to have been worn on the Moon. Luxury watchmaker IWC has revamped its groundbreaking 70-year-old Portuguese line, a collection of watches inspired by nautical technology that includes its famed ocean-resistant model, Yacht Club. Even Cartier, perhaps best known for its dress watches, has now launched its first in-house movement, the 1904 MC. This is a nod to the more rugged side of the company’s horological history. In 1904 the company founder Louis Cartier created one of the first wrist-worn watches for the pioneering aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, so that he could check the time without taking his hands off the aeroplane controls. Cartier’s designs were key in helping the wristwatch to take over from the pocket watch as the more fashionable and practical timepiece.
It is perhaps because they speak of rugged masculinity in an increasingly metrosexual culture, but the fact that these watches are designed for extreme conditions to which most men are not subjected actually drives sales. James Bond’s watch of choice, the Rolex Submariner, has become an iconic timepiece, while relatively new (or reborn) brands such as Panerai, Bell & Ross and Bremont have become very fashionable. One of Bremont’s latest watches, the Supermarine 500, is named after the record-breaking S6B Schneider Trophy seaplane. ‘Our watches are about going out there and pushing yourself, in whatever way. A watch says a lot about you, so any brand needs to have a theme,’ explains company co-founder Giles English.
‘Even if its full functionality is rarely used, the diver’s watch is historically the best built, with the highest quality movements. And it can’t be beaten as an everyday watch, either,’ says Alastair Laidlaw, co-founder of independent retailer Jura Watches. ‘And, as well as personifying the birth of wristwatches, pilot watches have a graphic clarity of design that makes even the old models relevant today. Regardless of any counter trend, sports and action watches just keep selling. There is a watch designed for your every active interest now – motoring, yachting, even golf.’
‘Of course, such notions also excite men who buy the watch but don’t happen to be astronauts,’ says Liese-Lotte Peter, a director of Fortis, one of the few brands whose watches have been worn in space. In 2009 Fortis partnered with the Mars500 project, an initiative between the European Space Agency and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems, to simulate a space mission to Mars in readiness for the real thing. ‘But those men also want something authentic – that actually is used in space – not something that’s just the product of a marketing ploy. They like these watches in part for their looks, but just as much because they are genuine tools.’