The Life and Times of the Milgauss

Les hommes at CERN—the European Organization for Nuclear Research—are rarely celebrated as icons of style. But sneak a peek under the sleeves of their lab coats, and you might re-think your sartorial assumptions about this band of particle physicists.

As watch lore has it, in the early 1950s CERN asked Rolex to design a timepiece that could withstand the high levels of magnetism in its labs, which can play havoc with a watch’s timing. Rolex accepted the challenge and set out to create the Milgauss, protected by its soft iron inner case.

The secret to the watch’s hermetic movement was its Faraday cage shield. Developed by British scientist Michael Faraday in the early 1800s, the cage blocks external static and non-static electric fields.

The Milgauss could stand up to 1,000 gauss—the unit used to measure magnetism—giving the timepiece its unique name. Nifty as that sounds, it wasn’t its funkiest feature. That distinction belongs to the watch’s sweep second hand, shaped like a lightning bolt to represent Milgauss’ anti-magnetic powers.

Sadly, the model was a bit of a flop. There were only so many engineers and lab workers around, and if Rolex was going after affluent males in other professions, well, they had the Omega Speedmaster worn by most astronauts, or the Rolex Submariner aimed at professional divers.

The Milgauss targeted a somewhat geeky demographic. By the time Rolex discontinued it in 1988, Casio had that crowd cornered.

That horologic exile lasted until the watch was re-issued in 2007 as a limited edition. Today, Milgauss comes in three models, including the ultra-cool, black-faced GV—glace verte—edition, which sports a green-edged crystal.

While recording studios aren’t as magnetic as Three Mile Island, the Milgauss redux has been spied on the wrists of Eric Clapton and Usher among others. Meanwhile, the once-disparaged original has enjoyed renewed interest among collectors. Find an immaculate Milgauss ref. 6541 today and you could shell out more than $100,000 to make it yours.

How’s that for revenge of the nerds?

Ian Cluroe is a Toronto- and Phoenix-based writer who runs Euston, a marketing consultancy focused on technology and professional services. He’s a lifelong fan of England’s Derby County Football Club and is working on his first screenplay. Follow Euston @eustongroup.

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