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Feature: 3 Watches That Do The Unexpected

A watch is a watch, wouldn’t you say, a trinket that tells the time and does so, hopefully, clearly and accurately. That’s certainly the expectation, but when it comes to watchmaking, there’s always a surprise waiting just around the corner. If you’re sick and tired of watches doing what you expect, then here are three that do exactly the opposite.

Oris Big Crown Propilot Altimeter Rega Limited Edition 733 7705 42 34

When you think of watches that are built to task, you think of divers’, drivers’ and pilots’ watches. Most of these provide their usefulness with an add-on to the basic timekeeping function, like a rotating bezel that helps a diver mark a fixed point in time so they don’t run out of air; a chronograph for a driver to time consecutive laps; and quite simply a clear, legible readout for pilots so they can keep time.

It makes sense that all this functionality is an extension of the original intention of the watch, simply aiding its user to log time in a way that’s most relevant to them. But what if there was something more that could be made of this wrist-worn platform, an additional beneficial function added in a kind of two-for-the-price-of-one deal? Welcome to the Oris Big Crown Propilot.

If you were lucky enough as a kid to get shown around the cockpit on a flight to somewhere boring your parents wanted to go, then you’ll be familiar with the sheer amount of information pilots need to fly an aircraft. It makes sense—with an additional axis of movement and a lot more speed than your typical car, it stands to reason that a pilot isn’t going to want to be in the dark about anything.

And if there’s one thing a pilot really wants to know, it’s height. Avoiding those pesky mountains is surely the bane of a pilot’s existence, and so they rely on an instrument called the altimeter to tell them how far they are from hitting the deck. Seems reasonable that, for Oris’ Big Crown Propilot, it’s the altimeter it chose to fit.

There are two indicators, air pressure and altitude—that’s how far you are from the floor to you and me—because you can’t have one without the other. Just like the altimeter in a plane’s cockpit, the one in the Propilot relies on changes in air pressure to measure altitude. The air gets thinner the higher you go, and so—with the “Altitude Set” crown open—a sensitive chamber in the watch expands as pressure decreases, moving the needle to the corresponding altitude.

But as anyone with sinus problems will know, with changing weather can come changing pressure, and so before any flight, the watch—like the cockpit instrument—must be calibrated. Pull the crown all the way out and the watch can be set to either a known altitude—the yellow hand—or known air pressure—the red hand—and off you go. You’re not likely to see this on the wrist of a fast jet pilot any time soon, however, because, one, their cockpits are pressurised, and two, the Propilot only goes up to 14,500ft.

Maurice Lacroix Masterpiece Square Wheel Classic MP7158-SS001-301

Whilst the Oris’ additional feature was entirely functional, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case for every watch. Sometimes adding something can be purely for the benefit of visual enjoyment, like a metallic paint finish on a car or a hat on a dog. For Maurice Lacroix, this visual addendum is—just like said hat on said dog—rather unexpected.

Today, a mechanical watch is a celebration of an engineering solution that, although it may be long since outdated, is one that carried a certain air of romance about it. Humans are funny like that; old stuff that’s not as good as new stuff lingers on in our hearts in a way that would have any invading alien species scratching their big, bulbous heads.

It’s everywhere: old cars, old cameras, old hi-fi—you name it, you can put the word “old” in front of anything and there’ll be a niche corner on the internet dedicated to it. There’s just something about the way old things are built and operated that squishes your—I mean our—puny human brains just right.

For watches, it’s a sense of satisfaction about the way a spring provides the power, the way the balance feeds it to the hands—the way everything is connected by a sequence of finely toothed wheels that mesh together one after the other. Most of the time, that display is hidden around the back where you don’t even get to appreciate it. With the Maurice Lacroix Masterpiece Square Wheel Classic, it’s been brought to the front—but not in the way you’d expect.

I’ll be the first to admit that what Maurice Lacroix has done here is extremely pointless, but then, isn’t all of mechanical watchmaking? Our phones have as accurate a clock as we could ever need, updated constantly to keep it within milliseconds—yet we choose to carry around these antiquated tickers, so the fact that Maurice Lacroix has chosen to embellish the visual intrigue of a pair of wheels interlocking together in an endless cycle doesn’t really need much justification.

Although wheels in this instance is a bit of a push, because here we have two gears, as evidenced by all those teeth, that would in no way function with any sort of efficiency if mounted to the axles of a car. With one the shape of a clover and the other a square, we’re bordering on the realms of contraption here, yet from the chaos, as the gears turn, comes elegance, as the moment the two look about ready to jam arrives … and passes, as smooth and refined as you like.

Oris Aquis Depth Gauge 733 7675 47 54 RS

Oris clearly has a thing for making watches that do more than they really need to, because it’s back for a second time—but now with the Aquis diver. Only this time, where the Propilot’s otherwise interesting altimeter maxes out halfway up Mount Everest, the Aquis offers a surprisingly usable—and surprisingly simple—solution to one of diving’s biggest problems.

For those of you who are perhaps unaware, diving isn’t just as straightforward as rigging yourself up with oxygen, pointing yourself downwards and making sure you’re back before it runs out; in the same way the altimeter functions on the reduced pressure of air as you go up, water increases in pressure as you go down.

And there’s a problem with that, because not only is there a depth whereby a human being would quite simply be crushed, way, way before that comes the risk of decompression sickness—AKA the bends. That’s not just a collection of some of the finest music ever created, but also a rather nasty problem where tiny little nitrogen particles sneak into the body under the high pressure of the ocean and then don’t come back out again after the ascent back to the surface. This causes inconveniences like joint pain, dizziness, headaches, numbness, disorientation, weakness—oh, and sometimes paralysis and death.

Stands to reason that something should be done about this little problem, and so divers routinely plan decompression stops as they rise back to the surface, giving time for the nitrogen to escape their bodies. These stops are determined by a multitude of things, like the duration of the dive, depth, time after previous dives and things like that—and it can get quite complicated. The easy solution is a dive computer that tells you exactly what you need to do, but it’s good to have a backup, and that’s exactly what this Oris Aquis is for.

Not only does it tell you the time and offer a unidirectional bezel to measure dive time and decompression stops with, but the Oris Aquis Depth Gauge also has a, erm, depth gauge too. There are a tiny handful of watches that offer this feature, most using complex systems with bellows and whatnot—but the Oris is far simpler.

By taking advantage of Boyle’s law, which states that the pressure of a gas grows proportionally to the reduction of its volume—and vice versa—Oris has been able to calculate the exact dimensions of a channel within the watch’s crystal that acts entirely by itself as a depth gauge. Simply put, the higher the water pressure, the more the air in this tube gets compressed, and the divide between the two can then be read from the dial as the measured depth. And unlike the Oris Propilot, with a 100m maximum depth, this Aquis Depth Gauge is actually pretty useful.

So if you ever have a hankering for a watch that’s not just a watch, know that you’re not alone, that at least two watch manufacturers in the world have heeded this call and created some timepieces that offer a little bit more than what you were expecting. Perhaps you have some suggestions for what unexpected features other watches should have. A Royal Oak with a radio, perhaps, or a Daytona that tells you what its current market value is. Why not share your ideas in the comments below.

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