Why the Fascination with Tool Watches?

Omega PLOprof. Timepieces at Leonard Joel Auctions.

The term “tool watch” was originally conceived to describe watches that served as practical mechanical instruments which included functions that went beyond simply telling the time. A tool watch’s main objective in life was utility in service to its wearer, whether this function was a chronograph and tachymeter for racing car drivers, slide rule and GMT for pilots, bezel and helium release valve for divers, magnetic resistance for scientists, or tritium and fixed lugs for military service. 

Today, with so many other instruments and technologies at hand, these watches are no longer the essential equipment they once were and at best may serve as a secondary back up in the course of a specific task. Defying their status as a relic from times past, their appeal is perhaps tied to the daring, ingenuity, endurance, and fearlessness associated with many of the endeavours these tool watches served a part in. With this specific utilitarian association in mind, the tool watch endures and serves as a captivating symbol that evokes an adventurous and exciting spirit of a wished for “alternative existence” where daring and determination knows no bounds.

Here, I’ve chosen five of the classic best, that to my mind capture and embody the form, function, and spirit of a tool watch:    

Omega PLOprof. Timepieces at Leonard Joel Auctions.
Omega Railmaster Ref. 2914-3 SC, an Extremely Rare and Very Attractive Stainless Steel Anti-magnetic Wristwatch, Circa 1958
Sold for $10,625

Omega PLOprof  

The true name of this watch is the Seamaster 600 and its oversize proportions and fearsome and unmistakeable appearance make it the most distinctive watch ever made by Omega. The Seamaster 600 Plongeur Professionnel or Professional Diver, soon abbreviated to PLOprof by collectors was created by Omega in 1968 at the request of Comex, a leading company in deep sea diving. In response to the Comex commission for a diving watch that was able to withstand depths exceeding 400m, Omega created the PLOprof – a ‘monster from the deep’ with a higher water resistance than a submarine. 

Timepieces at Leonard Joel Auctions.
Breitling Chronomat Ref 769/217012 a Stainless Steel Chronograph Wristwatch With Bi-directional Inner Rule Scale 1940s
Sold for $5,500

Breitling Chronomat   

From its inception in the late 19th century, the firm of Leon Breitling specialised and excelled in producing chronograph tool watches. In 1932 with grandson Willy Breitling at the helm, they produced the wrist chronograph, a “tool for scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and businessmen” and applied for the patent of the Chronomat (derived from Chronograph for mathematicians) in August 1940 that added a logarithmic slide rule calculator to be worn on the wrist. 

A smartwatch for the ages, this chronograph was used for complex calculations, multiplication, division, production timing, interest and exchange rates, rules of three and geometry calculations, and was hugely popular. So successful was it, that it inspired the birth of another of Breitling’s
tool watches, this one created for the specific needs of pilots, the Navitimer.

Timepieces at Leonard Joel Auctions.
Rolex Milgauss 40mm Oystersteel Wrist Watch / Alamy

Rolex Milgauss

Tool watches are synonymous with Rolex; not only did they produce watches for the sea, land, and the air, in 1956 they created a watch for the power plant, medical facility, and research lab. That watch was the Milgauss, the first Rolex watch to shield a movement from magnetic fields and advertised as being “designed to meet the demands of the scientific community working around electromagnetic fields.”

Exposure to high magnetic fields used to damage watches worn by scientists and engineers, but the Milgauss could withstand magnetic fields of up to 1,000 gauss. In contrast to the Chronomat and Navitimer, the Milgauss was never a popular model for Rolex and due to its relatively low sales during the 1960s and 70s, it has become rare in today’s vintage watch market. 

Timepieces at Leonard Joel Auctions.
IWC Big Pilot Le Petit Prince Ref IW501002 a Stainless Steel Wrist Watch With Date and 7-day Power Reserve Circa 2021
Sold for $13,750

IWC First Big Pilot’s Watch (1940)

IWC is probably the watch brand most often associated with aviation. Since their first Pilot’s Watch in 1936, IWC has remained a true pioneer in developing robust instruments for the cockpit. In this nascent time of aviation, pilots had to face the elements in unheated cockpits and under these conditions it helped that watch cases were large, with dials bold enough to be instantly legible, fitted with especially large crowns that were easy to grip so they could be wound and set by pilots wearing thick gloves and a padded flight suit. 

The IWC Big Pilot’s Watch (ref. IW431) was supplied to the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) in 1940 in an edition of 1,000 pieces. This tool with its minimalist dial was designed to mimic easy-to-read cockpit instruments, had a large onion shaped crown, and a case diameter of 55mm which made it large enough to wear over the cuff of a bomber jacket. 

Ulysse Nardin Marine Regatta 

One might suggest that what IWC is to aviation, Ulysse Nardin is to ocean navigation, and it would not be far from the truth only that Nardin has maintained their intrepid ocean spirit from even earlier, since 1846. Before radio and GPS, ship captains relied on marine chronometers, highly accurate ship’s clocks which were an essential navigational tool and a contributing factor in the escalation of world exploration and international trade – it was said that whosoever commands the seas commands the world itself. Chronometers became a standard and a designation reserved for only the most accurate of watches, which Ulysse Nardin were renowned for. 

In celebration of their remarkable high seas heritage, Ulysse Nardin released the impressive Marine Regatta, a tool watch for the serious sailing community complete with a regatta timer. 

PATRICIA KONTOS / Senior Jewels & Timepieces Specialist

Banner Image: Omega Railmaster Ref. 2914-3 SC, an Extremely Rare and Very Attractive Stainless Steel Anti-magnetic Wristwatch, Circa 1958. Sold for $10,625   

May 2023