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In light of the surfing debut at this year’s Olympic games, discover how the demands of watersports forced the watchmaking industry to dive deeper into the value of a wristwatch and its capabilities.

For all the headlines that have come from this year’s controversial Olympic games, one of them was the incorporation of 5 new sports. In a bid to attract a younger audience to the games, surfing made its debut last week on the Tsurigasaki Beach on the Pacific Coastline.

A sport where no two waves are the same, Olympians compete not only against one another, but the conditions of nature. And despite the novel entrance of the sport to the 32nd Olympiad, the mastery of wave-riding supposedly dates back to the ancient Polynesians in Hawaii and Tahiti.

Credit: Courtesy of ISA

Inside the curl: how surfing grew in popularity

But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the sport grew in popularity under the victories of Duke Kahanamoku from Hawaii who scored three gold medals in swimming at the Stockholm 1912 and Antwerp 1920 Games when competing for the USA. Kahanamoku is considered ‘the father of modern surfing’ and planted the seed for surfing’s future Olympic inclusion by expressing his dream to see the sport become an Olympic sport while accepting his medal on the podium at the 1912 Games.

A testament to the global growth of the sport, estimated at 35 million surfers according to the International Surfing Association (ISA), the surge of wave technologies creating man-made waves has meant that this unique sport will no longer be subject to the ocean, broadening the accessibility, thus increasing the number of athletes. 

While the cooperation of nature is fundamental to the perfect swell, resources to help monitor this data have become essential too. While apps like the True Surf and The Magic Seaweed provide ocean analysis, live reports and beach cams, carving waves with a phone in hand doesn’t exactly work. Instead, watchmakers are being tasked to create oceanic models to assist athletes out on the water.

Credit: Courtesy of Breitling

A rising tide of interest for watchmaker’s

It’s a given that any efficient timepiece is water-resistant, and in the early 20th century, watchmaker’s were making an early headway for watersports. Rolex and Omega respectively played a big role in diversifying the history of watchmaking and its relationship with the elements. In 1926, the Rolex founder, Hans Wilsdorf patented the Oyster case which featured a screw-down crown and caseback, and later the addition of the Rolex Deep Sea and Submariner debuted at Basel Watch Fair in 1954 with  high visibility hands, uni-directional timing bezel, fliplock bracelet, and bracelet extension allowing it to change sizes easily to fit either directly on the wrist, or over the sleeve of a wetsuit.

An avid competitor, in 1932, Omega launched the Omega Marine, which they proclaimed as “|the first real diver’s watch,” resistant to external forces and offered a depth of 135 metres. The general criterion pitches water resistance up to 100 metres, quipped as 1.0 MPa in aquatic jargon. But it wasn’t until 1948 when the celebrated Seamaster – the clues in the name – we all know today 

​​While these pioneering analogue watches remained fully functional after emerging from the water, athletes longed for more than just simply telling the time of the tide. With a passion for the marine world, the Swiss luxury watch manufacturer, Blancpain joined the competition in 1953 with the Fifty Fathoms collection, branding itself as the first modern diver’s watch, to navigate the awe-inspiring waters.

Credit: Courtesy of Rolex

Making a model for the wild blue yonder 

Today, a diver’s watch forges a greater reputation. Instead, watchmaker’s are tasked to go deeper than ever before. For Reservoir, the Limited Edition Hydrosphere Bronze offers a unidirectional ceramic rotating bezel with double scale for reading the time at different diving depths before and after the retrograde minute hand’s return and watertight up to 250m, while Breitling offers the Superocean and Endurance Pro to combine serious performance with contemporary style. For Alpina, a Seastrong collection presents durable models that boast a 300m underwater depth, while Tag Heuer’s Aquaracer offers a 12-facet bezel with built-in riders for easy turning. It is unidirectional because accidental movement in the wrong direction may indicate more dive time is remaining.

But endurance isn’t the only plea anymore. Rather, watchmaker’s are tasked to embody an encyclopaedic role while out amongst the white horses by collecting data. Responding to the appetite, quartz watches push the momentum further under the tenure of American manufacturers, Garmin, concocted the Instinct Solar Surf Edition whereby, simply looking at your wrist, you can stay up to date on ocean conditions while monitoring your performance. Documenting surf activity from the number of waves surfed, maximum speed, heart rate and oxygen saturation levels, the solar powered models are purpose built for optimising time out on the water.

Time for change: making maritime models do more

Answering the call for water patrons, Nixon’s ‘high Tide’ intuitive user interface wristwatch includes 550 preprogrammed locations with tide, sun and moon data, was released in November. In addition to being the first Nixon watch made from recycled ocean plastics, the High Tide is also Nixon’s only watch to use the high

For a market of watches designed to be daring and accompany their wearer on their expedition across nature, it’s clear that while the days of scratch-resistant and water-resistant watches are paramount in improving performances, the role of a watch in the sporting world is continuously tasked to do more than their early function of telling time. They must narrate it.

Credit: Courtesy of Garmin


Scarlett is a writer, editor, and creative consultant specializing in art, fashion, culture and digital strategy. Drawing on her work from previous titles including Dazed, LOVE Magazine, The Perfect Magazine, AnOther and 1 Granary, as the Editor-in-Chief of The Next Hour, Scarlett is leading the editorial vision toward new territories providing an alternative lens of social commentary to recontextualize the world of watchmaking for the next generation.