Q: What do these three things have in common?
A: All were part of a worldwide fascination with space exploration that influenced the production of the first high-grade solid gold wrist chronometer from Rado.
In recent years, Rado Watch Co. has ranked among the top 20 producers of Swiss chronometer watches.2 In the mid-1950s, it was in the early stages of becoming established as the premier brand of Schlup,3 including expansion into the Japanese market.4 Though the Rado name had been used on watches as early as the 1930s,5 innovations and the development of a cohesive style and futuristic vision appear to have taken hold with the brand in the mid-20th century, supplanting their other brands such as Exacto. New case designs, an innovative dial logo (patents then pending), and the international fascination with space and its exploration seem to have galvanized an exciting brand for whom the sky was the limit.
In an international market that had become saturated with Swiss watches during the post-war period of prosperity, a relatively new brand had some difficulty standing out. Many older, established brands were not only better known than Rado, benefitting from decades of customer awareness and expansive marketing campaigns, but they were also introducing exciting models with new features. Some of these are iconic today: divers’ watches (such as the Rolex Submariner and Omega Seamaster), full-rotor automatics with date and/or calendar functions, and movements certified to be accurate by testing centers based in a handful of observatories in Switzerland, later to be consolidated under the COSC.6 The Rolex Day-Date and Omega Constellation are prime examples of this era of wrist chronometers—a class of watches signifying the producer as being among the most accomplished in the industry. Previously, such accuracy signified success in exclusive timing competitions, conferring bragging rights upon the elite watch-making houses. In the 1950s, certified accuracy became readily available for the wrist of luxury watch buyers.
Coincidentally, observatories were also quite busy at the time making astronomical discoveries. Advancements made during wartime in science and technology were being applied for peaceful purposes across many disciplines and industries. There were keen races among developed nations to explore the heavens via land-based observation methods as well as satellites. This space exploration was expected to lead soon to human space travel.
One of the more notable discoveries of the period was the comet C/1956 R1 (Arend–Roland), observed on November 8, 1956, by two astronomers in Belgium.7 It was spotted by Sylvain Arend and Georges Roland on photographic plates, months before it became visible to the naked eye, and so served as the subject of much preparation and observation across the areas where it would be visible from Earth. A distinguishing feature of the comet was its tail, which at the time was described as having three “beams,” or individual, separate portions.8 Period photographs and other visual representations made the tail of this comet stand out from others previously observed (Figure 1).
It was the discovery of this comet, and the growing Rado brand’s desire to compete with exclusive international brands, that led them to release its first chronometer wristwatch, named model 56-H.
Why was it so named? In 2008, I began researching this model, having obtained a nearly New Old Stock example of a 56-H in steel. I contacted Rado directly, but my contact there was unable to provide any insight into the significance of the name. I persevered over the course of the next several years, and my research, ably aided by members of the Rado forum at www.EquationofTime.com (EOT), initially focused on space exploration events of the mid-1950s. Factors such as the shape of the hands, the crown logo, and the caliber used in early 56-H watches were clear indicators that the mid- to late-1950s were our target. Coming at the beginning of the space race, it seemed sensible to investigate rocket launches or orbits of 56 hours’ duration. These proved fruitless but suggested ways to expand our criteria. COMET C/1956 R1 (AREND-ROLAND; O.S. 1957 III)9 caught the attention of Tim Callaghan on EOT, helping us turn a critical corner. In December 2017, two facts were exposed that we believe were sufficient to confirm the connection: (1) the designation of the Arend-Roland comet as 1956h (“h” signifying the eighth comet discovered in 1956) and (2) the descriptions of the comet’s three-beam tail. This name and the presence of a shooting star with a ternate tail (Figure 2) on the back of the watch’s case is evidence far too corroborative to be mere coincidence. In November 2019, I corresponded with Rado’s public relations department, and they agreed with my interpretation. They also provided additional information from their archives, some of which is shared in my findings below.
Period Rado catalog pages also indicated that a “presentation box made of carefully selected woods” accompanied each 56-H chronometer of that series. Multiple images exist showing such a box, with a medallion on its front replicating the comet-in-flight image from the caseback (Figure 3).
Because the introduction of a fine gold chronometer wristwatch represented a major advancement for Rado as a brand, they published their pride in their product literature. The following text accompanied images of the first generation of the 56-H: “Only half a century’s experience in watch technique could succeed in developing this masterpiece of accuracy.” Hyperbole? Yes, but this progress, arguably, also set the stage for a long period of innovation in case shapes and materials, a hallmark of the brand to this day. It also established a tradition of associating technological advancements with advancements in aerospace and space exploration. In addition to the Comet Arend–Roland connection, Rado released their first mystery dial watch around 1957. Named Satellite, it features a series of layered dial discs that show a Sputnik-like object orbiting Earth. Additionally, an early Rado calendar model was named Jetliner; modern hour-marker shapes and startling dial designs made their debut on mid-1960s Starliner models; Rado’s first scratchproof watch was known as DiaStar (1962); angular cases and crystals combined with battery-powered mechanical (ESA Dynotron) movements defined the Space Flight, Newtronic, and Marstron models (Figure 4). This continued up to the 1970s, with advertising post-Apollo 11 showing Rado watches arranged on a moon-like landscape (Figure 5).
Three dial variants have been seen for the Series II watch. The steel-cased model has a dial of silver with silver-tone markers (Figure 4). The solid gold model was available (per the information in Figure 6) with a silver or gold dial (both with gold markers). The gold-plated model has been seen with the silver dial with gold markers. It is unknown whether any 56-H-Bs were made with a gold dial in a gold-plated case. No advertising has been found that announced availability of the 56-H in optional steel or gold-plated cases, and very few non-18-kt. examples have been spotted or obtained by fellow collectors or myself. Suitable to the prestige a chronometer conferred on their brand, the focus of Rado’s promotion of 56-H was always on the pricier 18-kt. models.
The Series II 56-H was updated around 1968 with the 25-jewel A. Schild caliber 1858 (based on cal. 1903 plates). It is unknown how many 56-H watches were produced. In his book Wristwatch Chronometers, Fritz von Osterhausen asserted that 911 Rado chronometers were produced—including the original and the 1962 and 1968 movement revisions—between 1957 and 1972.12 I believe his numbers include more than just the 56-H, as two other chronometer models were produced with the A. Schild caliber 1858/1903 prior to Rado developing new models, using ETA movements, at the end of the 1960s—more on this below.
Examples of the chronometer certificates accompanying 56-H watches—so far only from 1965–66—have been seen on the Internet and among collectors and show that they were tested and certified at Bienne. A Rado brochure describing the early model claimed “All Rado 56 H chronometers without exception obtain a certificate with the mention <<especially good results>>” (Figure 7). It is hoped that other certificates will surface and provide additional data to corroborate the production dates asserted herein or possibly reveal later dates that 56-Hs were produced/certified.
One additional Schild-powered chronometer was introduced in the later years of the 1960s. The DiaStar 1 Chronometer was first produced circa 1969, according to movement dating codes documented on the EOT Rado Forum.14 This was a chronometer-certified version of the iconic scratchproof watch with an ovoid case introduced in 1962. Additional chronometer variants of the DiaStar family were produced into the 21st century: the early 1970s 1/E (the first ETA-powered Rado chronometer, cal. 2783); the mid-1970s DiaStar-based Balboa Chronometer (also ETA); 2002’s 40th Anniversary Chronometer (ETA 2836-2); and the circa 2006 Original Chronometer Rattrapante, Rado’s first split-second chronograph model (base Valjoux 7770).
It is not yet known how enthusiastically Rado dealers advertised the brand’s first chronometer series or subsequent releases. Collections of vintage advertising and product catalog pages owned and shared on the EOT Rado Forum have turned up few references to the Rado chronometers of the 1950s and 1960s. The most frequently seen are a page in the small booklet accompanying the OEM box and guarantee information (circa mid-1960s) and a slot alongside all the other current models in period catalogs, all specific to the 56-HB. Oddly, the advertising generally refers to the watch as 56H or 56 H without the hyphen, while the caseback and the dial of the watch clearly show the presence of one (Figure 2). Apparently, a fair amount of marketing was focused on Japan; various images collected from Japanese-market product catalogs and print advertising show the initial 56-H (hyphenated, Figure 9), the later steel chronometer, Ref. 11821 (Figure 8), and the DiaStar 1 Chronometer.
The earliest pieces of stand-alone chronometer print advertising I have seen are 1970s examples of the DiaStar chronometer known as model 1/E, largely promoted in Japan (Figure 9). It seems likely that the 56-H, being a small edition of specialty timepieces, was promoted at industry trade shows (such as Baselworld), or within favored Rado retail establishments. The 56-H initially served to showcase Schlup & Co.’s growing capabilities and the innovation of the then-new Rado brand, possibly with the expectation that watch distributors would devote more attention to Rado and that designers and industry suppliers would wish to forge partnerships with them.
In contrast, significant press and marketing campaigns touted the 1962 introduction of the DiaStar (the world’s first scratchproof watch, cased in tungsten-carbide with sapphire crystal), which helped define the course of development of Rado’s case architecture, shapes, and materials to this day. This is a subject worthy of other articles, but its mention serves almost as an epitaph for the 56-H and its successors roughly a decade before they reached the end of their production run. Between 1972—the accepted end of the line for Ref 11821, when five-digit reference numbers were phased out—and 2008, all Chronometer models produced by Rado were cased in scratchproof materials. Only the low-production Golden Horse Chronometers—the first of which was a follow-up to the retro-styled 50th Anniversary Golden Horse edition of 2007 (Japan only), and the second, 2012’s HyperChrome Golden Horse chronometer15—were housed in steel or gold-plated cases of the traditional shape also used for the 56-H.