Explorers and adventurers from back in the day were so tough they wore dress watches up mountains and crossing oceans. At least, that's how the often small, simple and conservatively styled watches would look to our modern eyes. There was a time, you see, when sport watches as we know them today didn't really exist — until when suddenly, in 1953, they did.
All in the same year, multiple companies independently debuted the first timepieces to incorporate many of the features now typically associated with sport watches. The distinctive rotating bezel was a big part of that formula and appeared on dive and pilot watches in 1953, establishing popular genres which now dominate the watch industry.
It would seem that watch companies had done their market research, consulted professionals about their needs and arrived at remarkably similar solutions. This era saw the emergence of commercial aviation, advances in scuba diving — as well as general post-war prosperity that helped make travel and leisure activities more widely accessible. The world was ready for the sport watch.
More so than the technical features themselves, which mostly weren't new inventions in 1953, it was how they were used, combined and offered to the general consumer which was novel. While they weren't necessarily widely adopted right away, the following watches, all introduced in 1953, together mark a watershed in the history of watches.
There are many who would credit the creation of the modern, consumer-oriented sport watch to Rolex alone with its iconic Submariner and other innovations. Rolex had played a prominent role in developing features like water-resistance and automatic winding (as previously combined in its Oyster Perpetual watches) as well as rotating bezels (as seen in watches like its Zerographe) that helped dive and sport watches take off (though it was far from the only company doing so). Shock resistance and legible, luminous dials were also part of the equation.
Also notably introduced in 1953 was a Rolex model called the Turn-O-Graph which shared many of the Submariner's features (and preceded it slightly). Although it wasn't the only such watch introduced that year (there's some debate and nitpicking about release dates and details), the Submariner by far had the greatest influence on dive and sport watches that followed it. 1953 was also the year the first James Bond novel came out, and some years later the character would famously wear a watch on screen not too different from that first Submariner.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
Today, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms is one of the swankiest luxury dive watches you can get. But just like the other dive watches introduced in 1953, it was created for rugged use and practical purposes. Fathoms are a British unit of depth measurement, and being water-resistant to 50 of them brings the watch's rating more or less in line with other dive watches released that year, at somewhere around 100m water-resistant. It also shared the rotating bezel, automatic winding, luminous dial elements and other features with its 1953 dive watch contemporaries.
Where the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms differs, however, is in its story and purpose. The Fifty Fathoms was developed for the French navy's elite combat swimmers (or "frogmen") akin to the famous US Navy SEALs. The frogmen ended up using versions with even more features, but the traits of the Fifty Fathoms presented in 1953 were consistent with those first, groundbreaking dive and sport watches that made history that same year.
Zodiac Sea Wolf
Though Rolex and Blancpain are the prestigious names associated with the first dive watches, Zodiac was right there alongside them in 1953 with their Sea Wolf. Though featuring a distinctive look (that didn't prove quite as versatile or enduring as that of the Submariner) the Sea Wolf was every bit a capable dive watch. What's coolest about it, however, is that it offers that interesting history and provenance at a much more affordable price point. While vintage examples or modern descendants of Rolex or Blancpain's dive watches will cost you tens of thousands of dollars, Zodiac offers a link to that heritage for significantly less.
Lest it be overlooked, the Glycine Airman was among the now far more famous watches introduced in 1953 to incorporate a rotating bezel. However, it stands apart from that year's dive watches with a totally different purpose and functionality. The Airman was made for pilots, and was able to tell time in a 24-hour (rather than the typical 12-hour) format.
Whereas dive watches used the rotating bezel to track minutes while underwater, the Airman tracked hours. Equipped with 24 markers, the bezel rotates to easily track a time zone apart from what's displayed on the dial. Rolex's GMT Master would debut the following year, adding a second time zone displayed mechanically, as well as the 24-hour rotating bezel. The Glycine Airman demonstrates that the birth of the sport watch was about more than just dive watches and that these features had wider appeal and application from the get go.
Along with all the other notable events, 1953 was also the year that Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first humans confirmed to summit Mt. Everest. Rolex had sponsored the expedition and provided watches for it — and tied the expedition to the release of the new Explorer watch later the same year. The Explorer watch they introduced had many of the features and design language now associated with Rolex sport watches — even though the watches provided to the mountaineers were relatively dressy-looking Oyster Perpetuals (and there's much debate about what they actually wore on the mountain). Future mountaineers would have timepieces built with their specific purposes in mind.