As the America’s Cup World Series hits Portsmouth this week, news of the various special editions and watch partnerships comes flooding in and from our desktop vantage point it seems as if it’s less BAR vs Oracle than Bremont vs Ulysse Nardin vs Omega. Now that a sailing sponsorship, preferably of an America’s Cup team, is almost de rigeur for a sports-luxe brand, it seems a good moment to look back and chart how watches became so entwined with the competition for sport’s oldest cup.
Although the America’s Cup has always been the preserve of the deeply rich and glamorous (JP Morgan, various Vanderbilts, Sir Thomas Lipton, Ted Turner and Ernesto Bertarelli are just some of the names that jump out of the list of defenders and challengers), it was only in the 50’s that sailing generally caught the attention of watch marketing departments as the sport itself became more professionally organised.
The Admiral’s Cup, for example, was set up in the mid-50’s specifically to encourage a more competitive attitude among ocean sailors, a forward looking approach that saw it attract support from Corum from 1960 (a Corum team even won the cup in 1991).
Heuer’s Mareograph from 1950 seems to be the first watch aimed at the regatta world having both a chronograph with sub-dials marked for Regatta countdowns and a tide timer. Race starts being the critical timing event, watch designers focussed on countdown indicators and these appeared in various new formats appeared through the next decade and with all sorts of otherwise unheard of brands getting involved, such as this 60’s Memosail with its inset countdown disc.
The 70’s saw more specialised timers emerging with Heuer, in particular, offering a wide range of hand-held and wrist timers, chronograph and tide watches that were bold and daring in design even by the outré standards of the time.
While the 80’s saw many of these functions replaced by cheap quartz timers, 1983 saw Louis Vuitton’s first involvement in the America’s Cup, a harbinger for watchmaking’s serious embrace with the cup in the 2000’s, which would eventually manifest itself not only in LV's sponsorship of the overall competition but the production of inventive pieces like the Regatta Spin Time, below.
With Audemars Piguet and Omega closely involved with the two dominant teams of that decade, Switzerland’s Alinghi and Team New Zealand and a bevy of serious brands also involved, the regatta watch evolved into something that was much more owner than driver – even the usually sensible Rolex was tempted to go for complication rather than simplicity with the Yachtmaster II.
Audemars Piguet's involvement with sailing evaporated with the fortunes of Team Alinghi, who decided not to contest the 2010 America's Cup after winning it in 2003 and successfully defending its title in 2007. Royal Oak Offshore pieces made to mark the partnership have acquired a certain collectability - particularly the earliest dials which erroneously printed a white outline around the Alinghi logo.
Matters seem to have cooled off a little now and the America’s Cup has become a more considered option for brands both in terms of their marketing and the watches – all three brands currently involved have taken different paths when it comes to creating something nautical.
Most prominent is Bremont, as timekeeper for the competition itself as well as sponsor of defending champs Oracle Team USA. No less than four existing Bremont designs were given the America's Cup treatment in various ways, resulting in nine different references: two Oracle pieces based on the Terranova; three America's Cup dress watches, one based on the ALT-1C chronograph one based on the 32mm Solo32 ladies watch, and one a time-only version of the ALT-1C which (as yet) has no counterpart in the core collection.
Then there are the actual regatta timers - two based on the ALT-1C, and two based on the Boeing Model 247 - both with 6-9-12 chronograph subdials to accommodate the extra countdown function. We covered them in more detail here - suffice to say the collection as a whole represents a more wholehearted commitment to the America's Cup than we've seen for some time.
Omega's relationship with Emirates Team New Zealand has been around for some time, and perhaps understandably the brand feels less of a need to make such a splash. This year's ETNZ watch brings in a trace of familiarity with the dial designs of the 1970s without being overtly "retro" in any specific way; a re-worked Seamaster 300m Diver, it carries a co-axial chronometer calibre (not a METAS Master Co-Axial, however) and has a laser-ablated dive bezel.
Last but not at all least, we come to Ulysse Nardin's contribution. Another watch brand that has been enmeshed in the sailing world for many years, UN - which sponsors Sweden's Artemis Racing team - has released a couple of watches to commemorate their involvement in the 35th America's Cup. Of course there was a butch, colourful sailing watch - the Marine Diver Artemis limited edition (oddly not a countdown chronograph but a straight-up diver), but there is also this:
No, it's not a watch you'd ever take on the water (it's 50m water resistant), but it is Ulysse Nardin showing that it has the depth to create something more artistic for its partnership activities. The cloissoné enamel dial depicts the original classic schooner "America", which famously began the America's Cup by humbling every British ship on a one-lap race of the Isle of Wight.
America's Cup action returns to the UK this weekend, with the World Series qualifying match taking place in Portsmouth.