The 1950s were marked by the postwar economic boom, the dawn of the cold war, and civil rights movements in the United States. The watch world also saw many innovations in the 50s when the focus was on improving the quality and precision of mechanical watches.
While they were a time of relative cultural conservatism, the 1950s saw the introduction of some of the most iconic watches ever. New technology like scuba diving drove the creation of diving watches, among them the Rolex Submariner.
It is strange to think that there was a time when the Breitling Navitimer or Omega Seamaster was a new model, but in the 1950s, both of these watchmaking icons hit the market for the first time. In fact, many popular models first appeared in the 1950s, and have been with us ever since.
Rolex – Timeless Elegance
Rolex SA was founded as Wilsdorf and Davis by Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis in London, England in 1905. The company was later named Rolex in 1908 and became Rolex Watch Co. Ltd. in 1915. Rolex moved to Geneva after World War I and was registered as Montres Rolex SA in 1920. To date, the Swiss watch brand has been owned by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, a private family trust since 1960.
Rolex has a long history in watchmaking, but many of its most popular models were born in the 1950s. While many of these watches weren’t as popular as they are today, the 1950s were the time when Rolex was able to lay a foundation to become the force that it is today.
The Explorer (Ref 6350 & Ref 6150 – 1953): Inspired by Adventure
What became the Rolex Explorer was actually in development before the 1950s, but during the decade it was officially branded and released. This watch is linked to the first successful attempt to reach the summit of Mount Everest and was marketed as a watch that was perfect for any person.
The Rolex Explorer allegedly went to the top of Mount Everest in 1953 (you can read about it here, including the comments area) and became known for being able to withstand extreme conditions. The watch was able to endure enormous changes in temperature and pressure.
One of the distinctive features of the highly legible waterproof watch is its black dial which is still used on the model today. It also features oversized, luminous 3 – 6 – 9 numerals and indices.
Originally outfitted with the A296 movement, the two original references sported a bubble case back to make room for the self-winding rotor. In 1956 Rolex updated the model with a caliber 1030, which was much slimmer, and looked more like the modern Explorer. This was the reference 6610, and the 1030 was Rolex’s first in-house movement.
The original Oyster Perpetual Explorer was smaller than the modern one, with a 36mm diameter and smaller features all around. It was marketed alongside a few other famous Rolex models, which sought to appeal to professionals from different fields.
The Submariner (Ref 6204 – 1953): The First Rolex for Divers
Introduced in 1953, the Submariner watch was the first Rolex divers’ watch that was waterproof to 100 meters. It was preceded by the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, but that model was only waterproof to around 92 meters. They both featured a rotating bezel allowing divers to keep a countdown time underwater, which was a must for scuba.
The first Submariner was just 37mm in diameter, and didn’t feature a date complication. There were a wide variety of 6204’s made, as Rolex was far less stringent about variations in the 1950s. Some were even labeled “Sub-Aqua”, and many early versions lacked the Mercedes style hands that have come to define the Rolex sport line today.
The GMT-Master (Ref 6542 – 1955): A Watch for The Dawn of The Jet Age
When intercontinental jet travel developed in the 1950s, many flights transited swiftly across several time zones. Pilots needed to know the time in multiple time zones, and GMT watches were the solution.
The GMT-Master was developed to meet the needs of airline aviators and became the official watch of several airlines such as Pan American World Airways by its most distinguishing visual feature, the two-tone bezel which marked daytime from nighttime hours. The first watches were actually made for PanAm, but quickly found a much wider market.
Unlike the modern GMT-Master, the original didn’t have an arrow on the GMT hand. Instead it has a simple thin hand that would show whatever time zone the owner wanted to display. There were a few variations made throughout the 1950s, including the now famous white dialed (albino) special edition for PanAm.
The Day-Date (Ref 6511 – 1956): A Watch for Leaders
In 1956, the Oyster Perpetual Day-Date was launched with only 18ct gold or platinum models available. Its caliber 1055 was the first wristwatch movement to display the date and day of the week spelled out in full in two windows on the dial.
Originally specially created for the President bracelet, the Day-Date was an excellent choice and common among influential people, and it came in the now standard 36mm case. The watch has become synonymous with wealth and power, and is still produced in a variety of case sizes.
The Oyster Perpetual Milgauss (Ref 6543 – 1954): Resisting Magnetic Fields Up to 1,000 Gauss
Debuted in 1954, The Milgauss was designed to meet the demands of the scientific community which could bear magnetic fields up to 1,000 gausses. In the beginning of the modern watchmaking era, watches for scientists were very popular among watchmakers.
Made of ferromagnetic alloys, the watch consists of two components, including one screwed to the movement and the other to the Oyster case. It was passed rigorous testing by CERN engineers and is well-known as the perfect magnetic shield.
The original 1954 run was limited to around 150 pieces, and Rolex brought a commercial run to the markets in 1956, with the reference 6541 that had a Submarineresque bezel. The model continued to evolve throughout the 1950s, however it never gained the same kind of following that the Submariner and GMT-Master did.
Omega – A History of Accuracy
Omega watches are one of the most historically significant brands in the world. It also has played a decisive role in shaping watches over the past several decades.
Founded in 1848 as Comptoir d’établissage in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland by Louis Brandt who is a young entrepreneur. He assembled key-wound pocket watches then sold his watches from Italy to Scandinavia by way of England. In 1894, his two sons Louis-Paul and César developed the revolutionary in-house manufacturing that allowed parts to be interchangeable.
They built a mechanized factory in Bienne and expanded their markets. In 1889, the watchmaker became the largest manufacturer of finished watches in Switzerland with 100,000 products per year. In 1903, the company was renamed Louis Brandt & Frére – OMEGA Watch Co. after the global success of a new pocket watch, named Omega.
During the 20th century, Omega created new lines to meet the needs of the modern era. Much like Rolex, it introduced models for scientists, deep sea divers, and one model that would become associated with the US space program.
The Omega Seamaster
Omega Seamaster collection is one of the longest-running lines of the company. Introduced in 1948, The Omega Seamaster started as a dressy watch for the sporty lifestyle that happened to be dust and moisture-resistant.
It then was developed as a watch for a serious diver with the release of the Seamaster 300, CK 2913, in 1957. This marked the first commercially available diving watch from Omega, and it is the genesis of all the Seamaster diving watches that have been in constant production ever since.
The Omega Constellation
The Omega Constellation is the brand’s second-oldest collection, and it debuted in 1952. This collection serves as the ultimate in luxury with the observatory cupola logo that refers to Omega’s many precision records.
In the United States, the collection was known by the name Globemaster at the beginning. Early models of Omega Constellation made from 1956 onwards offered great value for their price by using Omega-made automatic movements, such as the calibre 505.
The line developed into a series of watches finished to different degrees, including Standard, Deluxe, and Grand Luxe.
The Omega Speedmaster
This is one of the best-known Omega watch lines. The Speedmaster was not only considered the starting point for the modern chronograph, but also the first wristwatch to be worn on the moon.
In the beginning, the original Omega Speedmaster was designed for motorsports. It was the first watch to consist of the now-standard three-counter layout with the timing scale on the bezel.
The original Omega Speedmaster, reference CK 2915, was introduced in 1957, called the “Broad Arrow” due to its distinctive arrow-tipped hour hand. The design of the late-1950s to early-1960s were less bulky and did not feature the crown and pusher protection in their smaller cases.
Universal Geneve – Vintage Chronographs
Founded in 1894 in Le Locle, Switzerland as Universal Watch by two horology students Ulysse Perret and Numa-Emile Descombes, the Swiss watch brand has produced complete watches with in-house movements since its beginnings.
The company started taking delivery of ebauches produced by a third party, then fitting the dial, hands, and cases with the movement before packaging the watch up for shipment. In 1919, the company had officially moved most of its operations to Geneva, completing the transition to become Universal Geneve.
Further reading: Universal Genève History & Iconic Models
The Universal Geneve Polerouter (1954)
The Polerouter was designed by Gerald Genta, who is one of the most famous Swiss watch designers in history. Gerald Genta is a Swiss-born designer who created a range of iconic designs that still stand out, like the AP Royal Oak, and Patek Philippe Nautilus.
In 1953, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) took its first-ever route over the North Pole, taking off in Norway and landing in Alaska. This soon opened the first commercial route over the North Pole, from Copenhagen to Los Angeles which cut flight times down to 22 hours from 36.
However, flying over the North Pole came with a new and serious problem – a magnetism that wreaked havoc on timing instruments, including the wristwatches worn by the pilots and crew.
Universal Geneve was chosen to produce anti-magnetic timepieces for the airline and began to open a new era for watches.
In 1954, Universal Geneve called on Genta, then just 23-years old, to design a watch to celebrate Scandanavian Airlines’ polar flights from New York and Los Angeles directly to Europe. At that time, the watch was named Polarouter.
Its original design came with a 34.5mm case boasting gorgeous bombe lugs and a dateless dial featuring a textured inner index ring. A year later the line was renamed Polerouter.
In 1955, the Polerouter was updated with the new Universal Geneve Cal 215 micro-rotor movement. Over the following years, the Polerouter has appeared in many variations of its line, including the Polerouter Sub, Polerouter Jet, Polerouter de Luxe, the Polerouter Date, and Day-Date.
Breitling – A Precision-Made Chronometers Designed for Aviators
Breitling SA is a luxury watch brand that originated in Switzerland and was headquartered in Grenchen, Switzerland. The company was founded by Léon Breitling in Saint-Imier in 1884.
After Breitling died in 1914, the company was succeeded by his son, Gaston. When Gaston passed away unexpectedly in 1927, his 14 year old son Willy was not yet old enough to succeed in the business. As a result, the company was managed by an external team for the next five years.
The company fits all of its watches with mechanical or quartz movements that are chronometer-certified by the COSC. Its watches are usually marketed towards either diving or aviation.
The Breitling Navitimer (1952)
The Breitling Navitimer is probably the world’s most famous pilot’s watch, a chronograph with an integrated flight computer which has been used for over 60 years in the aerospace industry. Aviators across the world are still wearing the Navitimer and it even is supplied by some Air Forces as regular equipment for their pilots.
The Navitimer watch was born when Breitling decided to improve on this highly practical bezel. In 1952, Willy Breitling was asked by the U.S “Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association” (AOPA) to create a new chronograph for its members.
He decided to develop an innovative wrist-worn instrument that would enable pilots to perform all necessary flight calculations, including average speed distance traveled, fuel consumption for climb and ascent, conversion of miles to kilometers, or nautical miles.
The very first Navitimer was designed with the AOPA emblem on its dial. The Navitimer name stands for “navigation” and “timer”. The first version to be sold was the reference 806, designed with the Venus 178, a manual winding chronograph movement with a column-wheel mechanism.
During the late 1950s, the Swiss watch brand began to use marketing and brand ambassadors to make its success grow. By cooperating with the Swiss advertiser Georges Caspari, the watchmaker developed a campaign that targeted groups of pilots and that created a huge demand for its navigation chronographs.
The Time When Modern Watches Began
The 1950s saw a wide range of new products enter the marketplace, and watches were no exception. Most of the popular brands and models that we see on display today can trade their beginnings to the 1950s, and it is easy to see why these watches have been so popular over the decades.