The Cosmic Adventures of Fortis Watches

There’s no doubting it: space is hot right now. Thanks to the Bowie-crooning Twitter phenomenon that is Commander Chris Hadfield, we’ve been afforded an enticingly visceral insight into life aboard International Space Station (ISS), and wide-eyed kids are growing up in an era of very public Russian/Western collaboration. Hadfield has even reduced grown adults to wide-eyed kids and had us wishing we’d paid more attention in science lessons.

Fortis Watches

And at the rather less worthy end of the space spectrum, we have the likes of Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic outfit soon to be whisking the first space tourists to zero gravity for six minutes – at a rate of $41,667 per minute. PayPal founder Elon Musk is being subcontracted by NASA through his SpaceX rocket programme and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is soon to be stealing a march on Branson with his cheaper Blue Origin project.

Yup, space is hot alright. Which means Fortis’s re-entry to the UK market at the hands of Page & Cooper couldn’t be better timed. For this is a Swiss brand that has been hot in space since 1994.

Actually, make that 1962. Back then, the Grenchen watchmaker marketed its Spacematic Automatic, constructed for extreme conditions and temperature changes and tested, no less, by seven members of a US space mission. Fortis had obviously sniffed a space race and cleverly thought to capitalise – which is more than can be said for Omega, whose ‘Moon Watch’ was selected by NASA with virtually no fanfare. In fact, the same year as the Spacematic ‘launched’, the first-ever Swiss timepiece went into space on the wrist of John Glenn aboard Friendship 7: a converted Heuer stopwatch. Something that TAG Heuer didn’t know about until 3 years ago.

 Things really hotted up for Fortis in 1994, when, after endurance tests bordering on sheer destruction, the Russian Federal Agency’s Star City Training Center chose the Fortis Official Cosmonauts Chronograph as part of their Official Cosmonauts' equipment. The Euromir 1 crew made a Fortis the world's first automatic chronograph watch in open space outside the space station (remember that the pre-Moon Speedies were handwound) during preparations for the shuttle Atlantis docking with Mir.

Since then, Fortis automatics have proven their astro-chops on several spacewalks – something that Hadfield’s X-33 Speedie could never do, as the LCD would freeze.

Based on these intensive collaborations with Roskosmos, and listening to the feedback from the cosmonauts, a unique new watch was developed in 1998: the Cosmonauts Chronograph Automatic Alarm – handy for reminding busy spacemen of pending tasks. A real spin-off from space and a world's first, this combined a Valjoux 7750 chronograph automatic with a mechanical alarm, without increasing the watch’s bulk (a specific request from the cosmonauts). It was developed with Switzerland’s quiet genius of complications, Paul Gerber – a master of miniaturisation and the man responsible for completing the world's most complicated watch, the Louis-Elysée Piguet Supercomplication in 2003, 12 years after Franck Muller presented his original modification to a 19th century pocket watch. Read more about that here:

With the dissolution of the USSR, and therefore Mir, Fortis found a new home in space: ISS – occupied continuously by humans since Expedition 1 delivered the first astronauts in 2000. The first experiment on board, in 2001, was to test the global synchronization of wristwatches from space. Fortis took part in the development of a new radio-controlled signal in cooperation with the European space agency (ESA), the German agency for air and space travel (DLR), and DaimlerChrysler.

That same year, Fortis was presented with a "Star of the Blue Planet” medal of honour from Roskosmos for commitment to the development of mechanical chronographs for space travel. Three years on, the partnership’s tenth anniversary was marked by Fortis’s reconfirmation as the agency’s official wristwatch supplier, and a watch or watches from Fortis can be found aboard ISS to this day.

Fortis Blue Dot

Beyond the constraints of Earth’s orbit, Mars is mankind’s next frontier, as far-fetched as that might still seem. But short of lithium warp drives, jumps to lightspeed or transporters, a manned journey to Mars would be a looong one – a year and a half round trip, cooped up with just a few others in deeeeep space. Naturally, Fortis was selected for Russia, China and the ESA’s initial simulation between 2007 and 2011, dubbed ‘Mars 500’. And the culmination in 2010, simulating a full mission to Mars, closed the hatch on six human guinea pigs inside a full-scale spaceship mock-up in a Moscow car park, isolating the crew from the rest of the world for 520 days. Sure enough, the crew members emerged in November 2011, still sane, still friends with each other, and still with their Fortis watches ticking away in good precise order.

It seems wherever humans dare to go, Fortis will too.

Alex Doak