As a tool watch person, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of tool watches, in other words, purpose-driven timekeeping devices, for a very long time. Whether it be divers, pilot watches, or even more specifically, search and rescue (SAR) watches. These types of watches are made for military or civilian groups of individuals managed by governmental agencies that rescue people, mostly those lost at sea. Though, looking at SAR watches more globally, we can see that this type of watch also equips alpine rescue teams. Given their intended purpose—searching and rescuing people—and the environments in which they are used—e.g., in the middle of the ocean or snow capped mountains—they have to be robust. Very robust.
In this article, we’ll take a quick look at the history of SAR watches, their key specifications that were developed to make them reliable in any environment, and look at a few key models available today.
A Brief History of Search and Rescue Watches
Well, there isn’t an actual global history of SAR watches that could explain their rise in popularity in the same way we can pinpoint to the advent of modern dive watches starting in the mid-1950s with Blancpain, Rolex, and Doxa for example, and the creation of the first autonomous breathing apparatus. In one way or another, any country that developed itself near a large body of water eventually created search and rescue teams. And, moreover, equipped them with watches built for that specific purpose. Amongst the examples we will take a look out below, Mühle-Glasshütte connects the development of their SAR models with the existence of the German Maritime Search and Rescue Society (DGzRS) that was founded in 1865.
In my recent articles regarding World War II field and pilot watches, I briefly discussed the fact that the way the watches were designed matched their intended use. In other words, they had to be legible, robust, and comfortable to wear to be used on the battlefields and in cockpits. These requirements dictated how the watches were built and designed. The same goes for SAR watches that were used in extreme weather conditions and alongside heavy machinery, as well as in dangerous situations that could cost the lives of either the rescuers of the people they were trying to rescue. Therefore, SAR watches are typically built like tanks and are extremely legible.
Key Specifications of SAR Watches
All SAR watches share common characteristics in the same way all watches from the Dirty Dozen collection shared common characteristics. First, water resistance ranging from 100 to 300 meters, a screw-down crown and case-back. Since most SAR watches are used to rescue people lost at sea, they have to be water-resistant, however not to the point where they could join the next underwater expedition to the Mariana Trench. Second, they had to be legible: large handsets and a date, monochromatic color schemes and a lot of lume. Given that rescue teams are required to operate during the day and at night, SAR watches must be very legible in all lighting conditions.
Furthermore, they are typically built like tanks: thick cases and sapphire crystals, rubber gaskets protecting the watch from shocks, superior shock resistance inside the case, and even resistance to magnetic fields. (After all, SAR teams operate heavy machinery and are transported in boats and helicopters and are therefore surrounded by electronics.) Some SAR watches also come with over-engineered rotating bezels, robust bracelets, and a date complication that can often be seen paired with a date magnifier. In other words, any search and rescue timepiece could also be used by any branch of the military worldwide and probably on Mars as well.
A Few Modern Examples
Below we will look at two modern examples of SAR watches. These are the most known search and rescue timepieces available today and define the gold standard for robust horology.
As mentioned above, Mühle-Glasshütte is closely linked to the German Maritime Search and Rescue Society (DGzRS) and developed the S.A.R. Rescue Timer for them. This watch is the epitome of robustness, being equipped with a 4mm thick piece of sapphire crystal, a fixed bezel surrounded by a rubber ring to protect the watch against shocks, an ultra legible dial, 100 meters of water resistance, and a reliable Swiss made Sellita SW 200-1 caliber. The S.A.R. Rescue Timer measures 42mm in diameter and 13.5mm in height, which are reasonable dimensions given its actual purpose. It retails for about $2,285.
The Marathon GSAR
Marathon is a Canadian watch brand specialized in military watches. It is one of the few brands that kept using tritium tubes while most turned to luminescent paint. (For good reasons, of course.) Marathon makes three versions of search and rescue watches, each coming in a different size: 36mm, 41mm, and 46mm. Here we are looking at the 41mm in order to put it side-by-side with the Mühle-Glasshütte. The 41mm is known as the GSAR in Marathon catalog which stands for “Government Search and Rescue.” It has a thick unidirectional bezel that comes with deep knurling, 300 meters of water resistance, tritium tubes, and a Sellita SW200-1 caliber. The version on the bracelet retails for $1,800.
Let’s face it, most of us don’t need watches that are built this way. What we need, realistically, are watches that keep good time and that can handle rain and a quick dip in the pool. However, we should collect what we like, and if you are like me, you have a thing for robust and purpose-driven watches. You may be interested, therefore, in a search and rescue timepiece built with purpose and reliability in mind. Although there are more models available out there, the Mühle-Glasshütte and Marathon are the quintessential SAR watches used today by the military of many countries, search and rescue teams, as well as curious collectors.Featured image: www.muehle-glashuette.de