Extreme Watch Testing

Think about the product testing of wristwatches. What do you imagine? Tedious tests by carefully calibrated machines under meticulously controlled conditions, right? What about wrestling with crocodiles or tracking Komodo dragons?

Such activities are part of the regimen that National Geographic watches are put through by field specialists, explorers, photographers, researchers, and filmmakers of the National Geographic Society, the famous 119-year-old nonprofit educational and scientific institution.

To ensure that the timepieces—made and distributed by EganaGoldpfeil—will fit consumers’ active lifestyles, they must meet specific technical needs of professionals who travel around the world on behalf of the society. These scientists and explorers undertake expeditions to increase knowledge in geography and natural science and promote conservation of the globe’s cultural, historical, and natural resources. This is “field-testing to the max,” says Markus Hutnak, the society’s director of licensing of apparel and outdoor equipment, whether it’s climbing South America’s Andes Mountains, conducting deep-sea research on sharks, or studying Indonesia’s poisonous Komodo dragons.

One field specialist putting watches to the test is Dr. Brady Barr, the National Geographic Society’s resident herpetologist and one of the world’s top reptile experts. He was the first scientist to capture and study in the wild all 23 species of crocodilians, including alligators, caimans, crocodiles, and gharials.

“One thing important to the success of our research expeditions is a durable, reliable watch,” he told JCK during the relaunch of the National Geographic watch brand at The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas in June. “My essentials [on expeditions] include good field shoes, a headlamp, snakebite medicine—and that watch.”

Barr and his fellow specialists do more than strap on a wristwatch. They fill out questionnaires and take part in phone conferences and meetings with Maria H. Bast, director of marketing and operations for EganaGoldpfeil USA, on what they require and prefer. “We sit down with Brady and talk about what he needs specifically in a timepiece and what it has to stand up to,” Hutnak says.

The discussions result in features like durable, comfortable casings (stainless steel coated with ion plating); rugged polyurethane straps to withstand wear and extremes of weather and temperature; precise stopwatch functions; high dial luminosity (for nighttime, cave, and underwater use); water resistance that ranges from 330 to 3,300 feet; and digital compasses, even in analog watches (now in two new models of the brand).

Once a prototype is developed, “it becomes part of the gear we take on assignment,” says Midwest native Barr, who looks and sounds more like a farmer than he does Indiana Jones. Depending on the assignment, a watch’s field test can take weeks or months.

“When you work with sharks, Komodo dragons, crocodiles, or hippos, as I do for filming or research, an accurate watch with precise chronograph functions can be a lifesaver,” says Barr, who’s appeared in some 60 National Geographic films and TV shows, including the popular miniseries, Dangerous Encounters.

When Barr says lifesaver, he means it literally. One example, he says, is “when we take a croc out of the water to study it. I’ve got to know exactly when we put it down with a sedative, to know how long it’s down and can release it in time before waking.” That’s not just because an awakening crocodile can be an angry, thrashing animal. It’s also because stressful situations—like being captured—cause a buildup of lactic acid in the animal’s system, which can kill it within 30 minutes.

You might think any watch would provide precise timing, but Barr says that’s not necessarily so. A friend of his in Africa, along with other professionals, had a bull elephant sedated and on the ground to examine. It awoke sooner than expected, suddenly stood up, and furiously knocked over and trampled people around it. Barr’s friend and others, including a veterinarian, were badly hurt. “He used an unreliable watch,” notes Barr.

“We aren’t playing games when we go into the wild to study these animals,” he says. “We can’t use faulty equipment. Our lives can depend on them. It’s essential that they hold up in the field.”

Such durability was demonstrated recently by Brady’s newest National Geographic watch. While filming for an upcoming show, he had a nearly fatal encounter with a giant python in an Indonesian cave, suffering deep flesh-ripping injuries the size of shark bites. Showing a flair for understatement, Brady later wrote to the watchmaker: “I wore your watch throughout.”

Such reliability is useful, whether you’re struggling with crocodiles or going on a family fishing trip.

The National Geographic watch brand debuted in 2004. It’s being relaunched, says Bast, to “put more of the society’s essence and heritage into the collection” and focus on the “brand identity and concept” of travel and exploration, incorporating relevant, tested features. The collection—with retail prices ranging from $69 to $695 (30 percent higher than its original price range)—combines precise timekeeping and stylish design with “features for the diver, adventurer, traveler, photographer, or explorer” in three lines. Those are Signature (the premium line, designed for “extreme adventure and travel”), Pioneer (with task-specific functions like weather forecasting, timing ski runs, and calculating diving depths or wind speeds), and World Traveler (the least expensive, with world timers, dual time zones, alarms, day/date functions, and solar and radio-controlled options for the “everyday traveler”).

The renewed line, available worldwide, is sold at independent jewelers, major sporting goods retailers, and specialty stores. Net proceeds from sales support the society’s exploration, conservation, research, and education programs.