The Rise of the All-Terrain Adventure Watch

Many truly emblematic feats of exploration and adventure were completed without the need of specialist explorer watches. For instance, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the top of Everest in 1953, their expedition was famously equipped by Rolex with simple Oyster Perpetuals. (The Crown’s legendary Explorer 1 was launched later that year to commemorate the climb.) Yachtsman Francis Chichester completed his historic 226-day solo circumnavigation of the globe in 1967 also wearing a straightforward Rolex Oyster Perpetual; mid-Atlantic, he slipped into his dinner jacket to celebrate his birthday with a glass of Champagne.

This year the adventure watch is having a moment, reviving questions of what exactly it is, and what it can be. “Adventure watches are more than an accessory, they’re more than just watches, they tell a story,” explains Alex Ghotbi, head of watches for Europe and the Middle East at Phillips. “The story of the person who went into space, under the sea, in the jungle, or to the Sahara. From being just a watch they become an element of the adventure itself, and collectors love that because it allows them to live vicariously through their watch.”

When we spoke this summer, Breitling CEO Georges Kern was on his way to Wheels and Waves in Biarritz, a French seaside Burning Man–lite event of sorts for surfers and bikers, to inaugurate his latest vision for the adventure watch, the striking new Breitling Superocean. “The Superocean goes well beyond the needs of leisure diving or surfing,” Kern told me. “Kelly Slater wouldn’t have put his name to it if it wasn’t totally adventure-ready.” The pared- down look has a squared-off minute hand (for maximum legibility when you’re on a wave), and all the models are water-resistant to 300 meters. The watch pillages the late ’60s, early ’70s design lexicon: acid-bright colors; chunky “wideboy” lume-loaded indices; and that increasingly popular hi-vis, adventure-spec signifier, the snowflake hand.

Within days of the Superocean debut, Tudor launched an adventure watch too: the 39-mm Tudor Ranger. It is a predictably superb value proposition with a better-than–chronometer-level Kenissi movement and robust yet sober form-follows-function styling. The watch’s expedition credentials were reinforced by its launch coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the British North Greenland expedition, which had been supplied with Tudor’s first waterproof and automatic watch, the Oyster Prince. Again, interesting to note that the timepiece supplied to the expedition was not an expedition-specific model—that came during the 1960s in the shape of the original Ranger, which introduced the design vocabulary of the modern adventure watch (black dial, big lume-loaded hour hand). And by 1970, the Ranger was being marketed as the manly accessory par excellence, just as much of a tool as, say, a chainsaw.

One of the subtlest among this new crop of expedition watches is the steel-and-yellow-gold Rolex Explorer I 36mm (Reference 124273), which launched in 2021. It marks a hugely significant point in the ongoing evolution of the adventure watch. Since the first version appeared in the wake of the successful Everest ascent almost 70 years ago, the minimalist Explorer I has been made in steel, but the arrival of a bicolor model signals the broadening of its appeal.