When Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Mount Everest in 1953, he was wearing a Rolex called, fittingly enough, the Explorer. It is a simple watch: hours, minutes, seconds. But it’s a tough one. Its successor, the Explorer II, sports a 24-hour hand that completes a circuit of the dial once a day. But while this historic timepiece—and its fire-engine-red hand—has become a chic metropolitan accessory, there is more than merely eye-catching design at work: The reason-ing was that if an explorer should find himself stranded in a cave system or wandering in the perpetual night—or, for that matter, day—of the polar regions, the concept of a.m. and p.m. would be turned on its head.
These days there are several watches suited to the needs of the rugged individual keen to venture into the world’s most inhospitable environments. Most are built to withstand circumstances that would kill their wearers—Zenith’s Defy Xtreme, for example, is waterproof to 3,280 feet; Rolex’s new Sea-Dweller DeepSea to 12,800 feet. And yet these pieces sing a siren song that seduces many otherwise sensible men. My theory: As well as the time, your watch shows what kind of man you are, or at least the one you would like to be. An explorer’s watch brings a little bit of Indiana Jones into even the most urbane of lives. And though the likelihood of someone stopping you and asking who makes your watch in the middle of the Arctic tundra is probably quite small, it has not stopped companies from using adventurous spirits as part human laboratory and part mobile billboard.
Panerai supplied Mike Horn—the young South African who, in 2006, became the first man to reach the North Pole by foot in the dead of an Arctic winter—with a special Luminor Arktos Amagnetic. The key benefit for the polar explorer? An iron case that shields the watch’s movement from the effects of the North Pole’s strong magnetic fields. Of less use to Horn, though perhaps more relevant to the Everyman, is that the piece is water-resistant to 300 feet. The Breitling Emergency, with its built-in distress beacon, was used by Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones on their nonstop balloon trip around the world in 1999. Launched in 1995, the watch has a miniature radio signal that can be activated by pulling out the antenna stored in the watch case. The British brand Bremont, introduced in the United States just this year, is the brand of choice for Bear Grylls, the youngest Briton to climb Everest. Durability is Bremont’s calling card: The metal case of its BC-S2 model has been toughened to 2,000 Vickers hardness, making it five times tougher than regular steel.
There are times, too, when the support of watchmakers is a more practical matter. Sir Ranulph Fiennes—third cousin to actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes—always wore two watches while, say, exploring Antarctica or discovering the lost city of Ubar. For many years he had a Rolex Explorer; more recently he turned to Kobold timepieces. On one expedition he slipped into a crevasse and was saved from falling to his death when the wrist straps of his ski poles caught on the two watches he had on. The poles then jammed into the side of the icy chasm. Had he been wearing a couple of slim, elegant dress watches, Sir Ranulph would have been a goner.
While all these watches have functions made specifically for people who prefer getting around by balloon, powerboat, husky-pulled sled, or crampons, pitons, and rope, they work just as well—and look just as good—on those whose idea of adventure is taking the family to a water park.
Until recently Tag Heuer was a prominent supporter of Tom Avery, who at the age of 27 became the youngest Briton to reach the South Pole. Too bad he missed the Aquaracer ChronoTimer, with its countdown function, dual time zones, and LCD-lit digital display, which has just become available. $2,800; 866-260-3332
The Explorer, favored by Sir Edmund Hillary, was one of the highly functional tool watches Rolex introduced in the fifties (the iconic Submariner being another). This creation is a bit like a costume party—it’s more about changing the wearer into someone else, in this case a rugged explorer, than it is about actually venturing into perilous wildernesses at the ends of the earth. Auction prices for the vintage Explorer have reached a peak: $37,550 in a 2007 Christie’s sale. The Explorer II, known unofficially as the McQueen Explorer, after the actor, differs from the original with its 24-hour red arrow. Explorer, $4,925; Explorer II, $5,750; 212-758-7700.
Produced in a limited quantity, the Phantom was designed with the help of the Green Berets. That may explain why the functions of this all-black watch can be easily operated while wearing gloves and why the chronograph hands are done in red lacquer (to ensure sharpshooters optimum legibility). $5,250; 877- 762-7929
The Emergency watch, whose built-in distress beacon sends a signal to the 121.5-MHz aircraft emergency frequency, has become a legend in the world of adventure. Steve Fossett, who circled the planet in a hot-air balloon, wore his every day—except, it is said, the day he went missing. $4,700; 800-641-7343
In 1935 the Italian navy commissioned Panerai to construct watches that could be used and read underwater. The Luminor Submersible does the family proud: It is water-resistant to 400 feet, indicates depth, and keeps track of past dives and remaining battery power. $16,400; 877-726-3724
Founded in 2003 by brothers—and professional pilots—Nick and Giles English, this British company is named after World War II pilot Antoine Bremont. Its aviation watches are serious enough to be worn by pilots of the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School, but their appeal also extends to more earthy types; actor Ewan McGregor proudly wore one on his motorcycle journey through Europe, Asia, and North America. $4,950; 212-758-7300