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Watches & Jewellery

During the 1950s, free spirits conquered watchmaking

After the war, humanity is entitled to dream again. Technological discoveries accompany great expeditions. Watchmaking then invents Tool watches, capable of resisting extreme conditions. Our summer series “A time a watch” continues and explores the fifties.

Cristina D’Agostino

By Cristina D’Agostino12 août 2021

The spirit of the Tool watches of the 1950s is mirrored in the Omega trilogy of models, with the Seamaster 300, Railmaster and Speedmaster launched in 1957 (Omega)

The 1950s and the end of privation mark a major milestone: human spirit is changing scales, the world becomes accessible, transportation becomes the norm, as comfort turns into a dream that anyone can reach. Urbanization follows that trend, and the man-made environment structures the landscape. In the USA, highway networks now surround cities. The constructions, all identical, increase at an industrial pace. The reconstruction program is ongoing, everywhere in the world. Great architecture firms develop an industrial mindset. Metallic structures are highlighted and inspire living spaces that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had created in Stuttgart. In New York, in 1954 the Seagram Building imagined by Mies van de Rohe with Philip Johnson, emerges. Wing-shaped roofs also spread towards the sky and become the signature of the 1950s’ optimism. The Washington Dulles International Airport and its sleek structures imagined by Eero Saarinen in 1958 mark a dynamism of shapes. The 707 Boeing is a symbol of modernity.

Washington's Dulles International Airport and its slender structures designed by Eero Saarinen in 1958 (Shutterstock)

The adventure spirit becomes the norm

In watchmaking as well, the conquering spirit, the possibility to dream again after dark years of war, enable to rethink the utility of watches. “The long reconstruction that marks the post-war years will rely, in technical sectors, on progress born from previous military research. Round shapes with black dials very clearly readable from aviation watches with significant dimensions cohabit with smaller models,” says Dominique Fléchon in the work La conquête du temps. The professional watch trend beings, led by the conquest spirit that dominates the 1950s.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbing Everest in 1953 (The Times Archives, Bally)

The Everest ascension by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, the great under-water saga with Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the space and moon conquest by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in 1969 lead the way to new desires, to which now everyone wants access. Watchmaking invents timepieces adapted to these new activities and professions. Pilots, divers, train conductors, engineers have obligations dictated by very strict time measurement. “Technological innovations discovered during the second World War have mainly been reused to military means, as explained by Petros Protopapas, Head of Brand Heritage at Omega. But one model has been discreet enough to be used otherwise, the one of scuba diving with an autonomous valve system called Aqua Lung in 1943. Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan launched it. For the first time, it was possible to breath freely under water and easily thanks to bottles. Cousteau enables the discovery of under-water diving to the greatest number through his feature films, as his documentaries were broadcasted at prime time. The documentary film Le Monde du Silence directed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle in 1954 definitively anchors this new type of adventure in popular culture. Watchmaking also wants to participate in this adventurous spirit. The first Omega Seamaster waterproof diving watch emerges in 1948.”

Le Monde du Silence movie directed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle in 1954 (Cannes Film Festival archives)

In the 1950s, Hemingway is read by all and many dream of far-away travels now accessible. They travel by airplane or by boat to explore the world. The need for robust watches that are precise, and waterproof grows stronger. Tool watches increase and many brands stand-out through their mastering of diverse technical aspects, from Breitling’s Navitimer thought for aviation in 1952, to the Rolex Submariner waterproof to 100 meters, in 1953.

Drive consciousness

The Seamaster 300 on the wrist of American diver Henry Kendall (Omega)

Petros Protopapas continues: “In 1957, Omega introduces the Trilogy including the Speedmaster, the Railmaster and the Seamaster 300. The Speedmaster is a professional chronographer adapted to automotive, Railmaster is an antimagnetic watch resistant to 1000 gauss thought for engineers and the Seamaster 300 is waterproof to 300 meters, for professional divers. But unlike many brands, Omega decided to make the Tool watch universal, wearable by all in any circumstances, even in a tuxedo. This left a mark and built its success.”

While the 1950s are characterized by Tool watches, they are also defined by a world that remained thought by and for men.

An advertisement from the 1950s of Omega's Ladymatic (Omega)

“While we talk about tool watches, we specifically mean men’s watches, explains Petros Protopapas, as at the time, almost no women were divers, pilots, boat captains or train conductors. But Omega thinks differently and contrary to the trend, the brand introduces the Ladymatic in 1955, an automatic watch and certified chronometer dedicated to women. It is a strong symbol, which in my eyes, is as important as the Trilogy. To imagine the Ladymatic was close to science fiction, at a time where women’s watches were considered as jewelry. A tool watch also has this use, to advance consciousness.”  

References

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