A mere 72 years after Thor Heyerdahl’s legendary Kon-Tiki voyage, Revolution looks back at the Eterna watches that crossed the Pacific with this brave team of Norwegian pioneers.

For a nine-year-old boy, addicted to Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard, it was a no-brainer: I just had to read the book with the promise of such excitement in its pages. More than a half-century later, I can still picture the gold cover of Pocket Books US paperback edition of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki.

And I wasn’t even particularly drawn to tales of the sea: it was the ineffable sense of adventure and achievement that had such pull, especially as all one heard about back then was space travel. Wind-lashed sails, fearless men struggling with the crude rigging, the mighty waves – it was Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels rolled into one. Only it was real, and occurred in 1947, not 1747.

Wristwatches conveniently accompanied all daring exploits since they replaced pocket watches at the behest of pioneering aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904. The Speedmaster Professional provided Omega with glory through death-defying exploits in space and on the moon. Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay wore the watch that would become the Explorer when climbing Mount Everest, doing the same for Rolex. And so did Eterna acquire a true “hero” watch before its rivals, thanks to the journey by raft across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands, led by a Norwegian academic, explorer and writer.

Thor Heyerdahl
Thor Heyerdahl

Thanks to the acclaimed 2012 motion picture Kon-Tiki (nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film), Heyerdahl’s centenary in 2014, periodic recreations of the voyage and the building of a replica Kon-Tiki raft in 2015, the world continues to be reminded of the expedition, now at its 72th anniversary. “Kon-Tiki” was the name given to the raft itself, after the Inca sun god, Viracocha; Kon-Tiki was believed to be an ancient name for the god.

First Settlers

Heyerdahl’s book, published in Norwegian in 1948 as The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, was later reprinted as Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft. His own documentary – which won the Academy Award in 1951 – recounted this experiment to prove that sailors from South America could have journeyed to Polynesia.

For the Kon-Tiki itself, he recreated a 15x30ft craft such as would have been used by those earlier mariners, constructed with only the materials and technologies available at the time. Despite this mid-20th century recreation also enjoying the support of some modern equipment including a radio, watches, charts, sextant and metal knives, Heyerdahl’s point was that that the raft itself could make the journey.

Kon-Tiki Raft
Kon-Tiki Raft

Embarking on 28 April 1947, Heyerdahl and his crew of five sailed for 101 days, covering more than 4,300 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean, ultimately smashing into a reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands on 7 August. The crew reached land and returned safely, having shown that explorers from pre-Columbian South America – rather than Asia, as had long been presumed – could have settled the islands in the South Pacific. The original raft is now on display in the Kon-Tiki Museum at Bygdøy in Oslo.

Across the Pacific
Across the Pacific

As Eterna puts it: “The seaborne adventure of a young Norwegian – who, in 1947, decided to demonstrate the validity of a historical and geographical hypothesis of his – was to have consequences both unexpected and welcome for a manufacturer at the heart of the Swiss watch industry. It would later lead Eterna to issue a watch called KonTiki, which gradually grew into a dynasty of sports, diving and dress watches.”

The Big Watch Sail

Now this is what “ambassadorship” should be all about: each Kon-Tiki crew member wore an Eterna wristwatch, chosen because of its water-resistance. During the journey, the role of the watches as navigation tools recalled the work of John Harrison two centuries earlier, helping to determine the distance covered by calculating longitude. The crew grew to depend on the accuracy and reliability of their watches, the timepieces being part of a limited series created by Eterna expressly for the expedition.

Although the voyage ended with the wreck of the raft, Eterna was able to state that the watches, “for their part, were running as smoothly as ever, unaffected by water, moisture, salt corrosion and temperature variations”. Back at the factory, Eterna’s technical teams “drew the appropriate conclusions. From a legendary figure and name, Kon-Tiki would now become an exceptional horological dynasty.”

Deleting the hyphen, Eterna launched the self-winding Eterna-Matic KonTiki in 1958. Its distinctive visual feature was a dial with oversized, luminous triangles containing the hour numerals at 3, 6, 9 and 12. That same year, Eterna produced a smaller women’s KonTiki, featuring the same functions as the men’s model but with a dressier dial and a calendar added to it.

Eterna KonTiki from 1958
Eterna KonTiki from 1958

Naturally, the KonTiki’s construction was paramount, in keeping with the spirit of the undertaking that provided its inspiration: the case was water-resistant to 100m. As Eterna delights in recalling: “So efficient was its construction, that a watch lost overboard and found by chance after two years underwater started running quite normally after a simple cleaning job.”

It was the birth of a range that, in 2016, will be the focus of Eterna’s efforts, this revered brand re-booting itself after a patchy decade or two. Over the years, the KonTiki family has included all manner of diving watches, as well as dressier variants – still water-resistant, but less obvious.

The Evolution of a Legend

And there are standouts: discerning collectors of diving watches covet the early Eterna-Matic Super KonTiki of 1959, with easy-to-read dial, massive rotating bezel and water-resistance to 200m.

1959 Super-Kontiki
1959 Super-Kontiki

In 1973, Eterna introduced a Super KonTiki with a clever bracelet extension that allowed the watch to be fitted over a diving suit. Its Milanese-style bracelet imparts looks that make the watch fashionable in the current climate, while enhancing its collectability.

1973 the Super KonTiki diving watch
1973 the Super KonTiki diving watch

In the early-1970s, Eterna addressed the “onset of electronic precision” with the Eterna-Sonic KonTiki. For years, the Eterna-Sonics, like all early quartz timekeepers, were embarrassingly affordable. With the burgeoning interest in vintage electrical and quartz timepieces, the Eterna-Sonic KonTiki is enjoying renewed desirability thanks to both its period styling and the presence of a 1970s quartz movement.

Some variants would depart from the original KonTiki ethos, though core models would always adhere to the spirit of Heyerdahl. In 1976, the Royal Quartz KonTiki in gold-enhanced stainless steel became the thinnest calendar-equipped watch of day, with special versions produced over the years for a number of markets, starting with Italy in 1984. But with the mechanical watch revival of the 1990s, Eterna returned to its roots.

1970 Eterna-Sonic KonTiki
1970 Eterna-Sonic KonTiki
1976 KonTiki Royal Quartz
1976 KonTiki Royal Quartz

For 1992, the catalogue featured the Eterna-Matic 1856 KonTiki officially certified chronometer chronograph with tachymeter scale. Addressing the move toward massive timepieces, Eterna launched the KonTiki Four-Hands in 2004, revisiting the design of the original KonTiki model with its distinctive luminous triangles, but in a 42mm case and with date read by the fourth hand. It would be followed in 2006 by the Eterna KonTiki Four-Hands XXL, with an even larger case, at 44mm. Also in 2006, the radical KonTiki Diver appeared, with its movement fitted inside a pivoting inner case that clamps to an outer frame, providing water resistance to 1,000m.

1992 Eterna-matic 1856 KonTiki Chronograph
1992 Eterna-matic 1856 KonTiki Chronograph
2004 KonTiki Four-Hander
2004 KonTiki Four-Hander
2006 KonTiki Diver with pivoted movement
2006 KonTiki Diver with pivoted movement

Eterna’s CEO, Robert Dreyfuss, is unequivocal about the importance of the KonTiki family for the company’s future plans. “KonTiki is a key backbone to the brand. Alongside our movements, it symbolises perfectly the pioneering spirit of Eterna, in much the same way as the engineering and innovations were game changers over the past century, in terms of paving the way for the Swiss watch industry and setting the standard followed by so many today.”

He’s also cognizant of the difference between mere promotion, and the value of a truly historical moment that defined the value of a watch. “The Kon-Tiki expedition was a game changer, overcoming the boundaries of what was thought to be unachievable. The Swiss watch industry today is filled with some great products, but the consumer has become far more discerning in this digital era of multimedia, expecting much more romancing. Therefore, storytelling and emotional engagement are key to differentiating between the brands. There are few heritage brands like Eterna with such a rich history. To this end, ultimately the consumer buys into the story and emotion, and KonTiki is key to this.”

Recent Years

Last offered in 1992, the Lady KonTiki was re-launched in 2016, as well as the Lady KonTiki Diver. Also unveiled at Basel 2016 was the Super KonTiki Chronograph, the first to use the EMC Caliber 39 Chronograph in a special, numbered edition. This watch inaugurates Eterna’s three-year programme for the rebirth of its own EMC manufacture calibers. The target is to have an EMC movement in at least half of what they hope to be selling by 2018.

KonTiki Chronograph
KonTiki Chronograph
Super KonTiki Black
Super KonTiki Black

One must be reminded of Eterna’s past, prior to KonTiki, to appreciate this re-boot. 2016 is Eterna’s 160th anniversary. Among its innovations are the Eterna-Matic ball-bearing-mounted rotor, its five bearings forming the company’s logo. Assorted ultra-thin timepieces pepper its history. Eterna produced watches with Porsche Design and devised the Eterna Spherodrive, a spring barrel mounted on ball-bearings.

With the study of history having diminished in importance of late, too many people are unaware that Eterna split into two companies in 1932: Eterna SA to produce watches and another little ol’ brand to make movements. You just might have heard of it. It’s called ETA.