Hot Air Magic: How Wristwatches And Hot Air Balloons Soar Upward
It’s a strange feeling, leaning over the edge of a rattan basket and watching your balloon slowly rise from the ground, flames fanning it ever higher at regular intervals.
Excitement turns to fear for a moment as the first meters above ground are the most intense: while one hand tightly holds the rope securing the basket to the balloon, the other one lands on a soft, padded edge providing the necessary stability to fight off mild dizziness.
The first glance down can be frightening. However, an unexpected puff of wind calms the mind and the nervousness disappears. The fascinating view of landscape provides relief: scenery enhanced by vivid colors as if nature had been painted only for you.
Even before airplane pilots conquered the sky, the vision of flying was rather a romantic one, an adventurous escapade reserved for the brave. However, humankind’s desire to fly was nothing new: Greek mythology already offered the story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and burned.
Builders of eighteenth-century flying machines had to work more with real visions than wings made of wax. The first crew of a hot-air balloon rising to the heavens on July 4, 1783 comprised an exceptional trio: a duck, a rooster, and a sheep proving that mammals could safely fly in the sky. It was a crew to reduce human anxiety as to whether there was enough oxygen in the high-altitude atmosphere to breathe.
The Montgolfier brothers were behind the design of the first hot-air balloon, which was named for them. It premiered in front of the entire Versailles court, including King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Vacheron Constantin’s Métiers d’Art Les Aérostiers chronicle the beginnings of balloon travel
Strong stories and captivating histories constantly seduce watchmakers to create various special editions. The fascinating history of flying also attracted Vacheron Constantin, whose artists thankfully chose not to recreate a classic pilot’s watch, but rather make artistic renditions of important milestones in early balloon history.
It is most appropriate that the oldest watch company with an uninterrupted history of manufacturing watches should take on this subject, focusing on five unforgettable stories and five impressive balloons in a limited edition called Métiers d’Art Les Aérostiers.
Each of these balloons earned its own gold-encased interpretation in a limited five-part series dominated by the rendition of a detailed, realistic sculpture in plique-à-jour enamel depicting not only the shape of the balloon, but also its crew. The plique-à-jour technique was also used to create clear skies.
Powered by the brand’s Caliber 2460 G4, which utilizes four rotating disks to display minutes, hours, dates, and the day, the whole area of the dial tells the story of each balloon in detail.
The first flight with a human crew followed the successful flight in Versailles, which took place in the same year, 1783, though in Paris. Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes are thus depicted in the basket underneath the balloon decorated with a pair of suns and zodiac signs.
The third story dates back to 1784, when Jean-Pierre Blanchard followed the successes of his predecessors, but used hot water instead of hot air and integrated a carousel system to control the balloon. This inadequate system is not depicted in any of the Les Aérostiers watches.
The engraver alone needs three weeks to produce these balloon-themed dials. No less difficult is the work with enamel: the brown, blue, and green dials follow the dark bordeaux red shade belonging to 1784 and the city of Bordeaux, where the development of aeronautics continued.
The fifth model in the series is a 1785 commemoration of the town of Bagnols as 10,000 people applauded the famous flight.
Five weeks in a Van Cleef & Arpels balloon
New perspectives of hot air ballooning were provided by the famous French writer Jules Verne when he published his first adventure novel Five Weeks in a Balloon in 1863.
It was his thrilling balloon named Victoria flying over unmapped sections of Africa on the way to the source of the Nile that inspired Van Cleef & Arpels in 2011 to make a collection of watches featuring a poetic rendition of traditional complications. The Poetic Complication Five Weeks in a Balloon utilizes a pair of retrograde “hands” at the sides of the balloon to indicate the time: a dove symbolizing hope displays the hours on the left side, while the minutes are depicted on the right depicted by a rope with an anchor that plays a significant role in the story.
A detailed rendering of the dramatic story, in which a three-man crew uses a two-chamber system for the ascent and descent, is shown on the dial using a combination of enamel and mother-of-pearl.
One area of the dial is decorated with dark clouds signifying the balloon having failed before reaching the end of the journey. However, the story ends happily on the Senegal River.
The movement of this nontraditional timekeeper was crafted by Jean-Marc Wiederrecht’s Agenhor on the basis of a Jaeger-LeCoultre Caliber 846 using a double retrograde module.
Up, up, and away with Swatch, Tutima, and Parmigiani
The German crew Berson and Suerig reached 10,800 meters in a balloon in 1901, surpassing the legendary Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard with his uniquely shaped balloon 30 years prior. At that time, however, balloon aviation was already competing with motorized aircraft.
In 1909 Frenchman Louis Blériot flew his Type XI across the English Channel wearing one of Zenith’s first wristwatches, and that same year Omega’s chronographs kept the precise time at the Gordon Bennett Cup in Zurich. That was what is now the most famous and oldest gas balloon race in the world’s fourth year of the competition. At that time 73 airships competed to reach the longest distance without stopping.
Large items floating in the skies are of course great promotional carriers, and it was the watch world’s most commercial brand that began using this medium when balloons began to regain popularity after the 1970s.
That brand also had the watch world’s finest marketing department. Just two years after Swatch’s establishment in 1985, it launched a giant balloon in the shape of a plastic watch touting a dial on both sides.
But it was not just an advertising medium: the legendary balloon has indeed appeared regularly at colorful hot air balloon shows around the world, including most recently the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta and Europe’s largest ballooning event, the Warsteiner Internationale Montgolfiade, which welcomes 200,000 visitors.
With the fresh idea of combining advertising with adventure, German brand Tutima in 2016 introduced a balloon proudly depicting the Grand Flieger Classic Chronograph at the tenth edition of the international Balloon Sail event in Kiel.
For such an important event, the brand not only invited famous Olympian champion high jumper Heike Henkel to ensure plenty of media attention, but also Wilhelm Eimers to service and pilot the balloon. Eimers boasts more than 1,300 flights and a number of Gordon Bennett Cup victories. Both, of course, wore Tutima mechanical watches on their wrists; how else would they measure the lengths of the flights?
Parmigiani Fleurier also became known to the ballooning public in 2006 when it began sponsoring the International Balloon Festival in the Swiss mountain resort of Château d’Oex, held in January and February. The reason for this timing is obvious: in the summer months, balloons can only fly in the early morning and late evening hours, while during the winter these intervals shift closer to noon.
Around the world in a Breitling Orbiter balloon
Jules Verne repeatedly used the balloon theme in his work. Not only did it appear at the beginning of the novel The Mysterious Island, where it was subsequently destroyed by a storm, but it also played a starring role in Around the World in Eighty Days.
A pair of balloonists flying under the auspices of watchmaker Breitling achieved the world’s longest nonstop balloon flight in 1999, which was not 80 days in length like Verne’s, but rather 19 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes.
The Breitling Orbiter, piloted by Brian Jones and Auguste Piccard’s grandson, Bertrand Piccard, flew a distance of 40,814 kilometers around the entire world. The Breitling logo on it, however, was not the only advertising: both pilots wore first-generation Emergency wristwatches.
Following the successful completion of the mission, a special titanium edition was created using the expedition logo. The interesting advantage of this watch, which fortunately did not need to be used, is that it is equipped with a mini radio that allows authorities to locate people in distress. The transmitter working at an emergency flight frequency of 121.5 MHz is activated by pulling the antenna from the side of the case.
Depending on the outside temperature and condition of the watch’s batteries, for 24 to 48 hours the emergency signal confirms it is working once every minute by transmitting the letter B (as in Breitling) of the Morse code alphabet. The range of the signal is, of course, limited and based not only on the position of the watch, but also on the character of the surrounding terrain.
However, the most adventurous balloon-related escapade certainly belongs to Austrian base jumper Felix Baumgartner, a long-time ambassador of Zenith. In his capsule attached to a helium balloon, he traveled to the earth’s stratosphere on October 14, 2012 – an incredible 38,969 meters high – from where he jumped. His body reached a speed of 1,357.6 km/h, and after four minutes and 20 seconds of free fall he opened a parachute to safely land (see more about this feat in Felix Baumgartner Skydives From Space On Red Bull Stratos Mission With Zenith On Wrist).
The whole event was sponsored not only by Red Bull, but also by Zenith, whose chronograph El Primero Stratos surpassed the speed of the sound on the wrist of Baumgartner.
Paradoxically, the record he set that day did not last long, only ten days as a matter of fact: Alan Eustace, senior vice president of Google, successfully jumped from a height of 41,425 meters. And unlike Baumgartner, he was hanging freely underneath a helium-filled meteorological balloon during his ascent.
Eustace’s descent took just four minutes and 27 seconds. And the watch he wore? A Sinn 857 UTC, which was exposed to a temperature as low as -77 ºC as he reached a speed of 1,322.9 km/h during his free fall. Today, Eustace’s, watch and suit are on exhibition at Washington’s National Air and Space Museum.
Quick Facts Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Art Les Aérostiers
Case: 40 x 12.74 mm, white gold
Movement: automatic Caliber 2460 G4/1, 40-hour power reserve, 4 Hz/28,800 vph frequency, Geneva Seal
Functions: hours, minutes, day, and date via disks
Limitation: 5 sets of 5 watches
Price: $135,000 each
Quick Facts Van Cleef & Arpels Five Weeks in a Balloon
Case: 42 mm, white gold
Movement: manual winding Jaeger-LeCoultre Caliber 846 with double retrograde module by Agenhor, 30-hour power reserve, 3 Hz/21,600 vph frequency
Functions: hours, minutes
Price: 113,000 Swiss francs
Jan Lidmaňský is a watch collector and journalist from the Czech Republic; follow him on Instagram at @watch_the_food.