Watches specialist Alexander Clement looks at a remarkable wristwatch with an extraordinary story to tell
Pushing the boundaries of human endeavour has been a pursuit of courageous men and women for millennia, ranging from breaking speed records on land and in the air, climbing the highest peaks and venturing into the most inaccessible and hostile places on the planet. And the adventures of these explorers and athletes have captured the imagination of often global audiences. Occasionally we have the opportunity to look at and even handle objects associated with some of these celebrated expeditions, most often in the collections of museums. Sometimes, though, we are lucky enough to find them appearing at auction. At Halls we recently consigned a Rolex GMT Master wristwatch that was owned and worn by the maritime pioneer Vital Alsar.
Born in Santander, Spain, in 1933, Vital Alsar Ramirez studied economics and then began his career working in Europe and Canada. But he was fascinated by early oceanic exploration and was much inspired by Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 crossing of the Pacific between South America and Polynesia on a primitive raft called the Kon-Tiki. This was intended to demonstrate that ancient civilisations were capable of making long sea voyages successfully. Thus inspired, Vital made a series of Pacific crossings in various craft during the 1960s and 70s. His first, in 1966, set off from Ecuador using a raft constructed from balsa wood but was shipwrecked after only 90 days. His next attempt in 1970 on a similar raft, called ‘La Balsa’, successfully saw Vital Alsar reach Mooloolaba in Australia after 163 days at sea, having travelled over 8500 nautical miles. He led a further successful mission in 1973, this time on three rafts, and then in 1977 built three small brigs in Guayaquil which he and his crew sailed down the Amazon river and then across the Atlantic to reach Santander, a distance of 11,000 nautical miles.
Alsar’s expeditions attracted not only media attention but interest from the Swiss watchmaker Rolex, who became an unofficial supporter. Vital had worn a Rolex GMT Master on his journey aboard ‘La Balsa’ and the company were delighted to send him replacement watches whenever he needed them. He was even featured prominently in one of their advertising campaigns, such was the interest his maritime journeys had generated. The example that Halls have consigned was that worn by Vital in 1977 during his Amazon and Atlantic voyage aboard the three hand built galleons. The watch was later given as a gift to his brother who handed it down to his daughter, Vital’s niece, and now the time has come to part with it.
Vital favoured the GMT Master watch, designed to allow up to three time zones to be read simultaneously, and was an indispensable navigational tool for the explorer. This stainless steel example with the ‘Pepsi’ red and blue bezel is now a design classic. The model is highly collectable, like most Rolexes, and it is the vintage examples from the 1960s and 70s that can command the highest prices at auction. But this example, with such fascinating provenance is sure to attract a great deal of attention when it goes under the hammer in March 2024.