Watches are like people. There’s more behind the face than meets the eye.
The History of Time
Time has been told many ways: by sun, moon, temperature, stones, and even shadows. Billions of minutes have passed as these rather archaic methods have slowly ticked into the mechanical and electronic age.
The origin of mechanical watches is lost in time. There are many theories and little agreement over which is accurate. Early drawings suggest that the French produced the first watches. But there’s no hard evidence – either these watches were never manufactured or they were lost.
A famous legend from Nurnberg, Germany, holds that the German craftsman Peter Henlein developed the first watch in 1480, when he placed a timepiece movement in an iron casing. (Henlein also developed the steel mainspring.) This iron timepiece reputedly had a gold top, a dial with an hour hand, and small Braille-like knobs that allowed the time to be read even at night. Called Nurnberg Eggs because of their unique elliptical shape, they were worn as a pendant on the breast of a jacket or shirt – a forerunner of future pocket watches.
British Puritans, including the poet John Milton, are credited with the idea of putting watches in pockets. Because Puritans didn’t believe in displaying gold and silver in an ostentatious manner, their timepieces were placed discreetly in their pockets and called pocket watches.
Pocket watches remained the standard timepiece until the early twentieth century, but their development was hardly stagnant.
In 1675 Holland’s Christiaan Huygens developed the balance spring, making watches accurate to within minutes a day – a staggering leap from old-world timekeeping.
Mechanical improvements continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at a hurried pace. Before electricity the development of repeater watches allowed time to be determined in darkness with a chime that sounded the hours or minutes – much like a church bell.
The Englishman John Harrison designed the first marine chronometer, which was accurate enough to enable navigators to calculate longitude. Chronometers later established new accuracy records for watches.
In the mid- 1700s two of the first luxury watch companies were established: Blancpain, in 1735, and Vacheron & Constantin, in 1755.
In 1778 Abraham-Louis Perrelet invented the automatic watch, a timepiece which automatically winds in response to the wearer’s movements. In 1821 the French watchmaker Rieussec invented the chronograph, which recorded intervals of time.
Design and function merged into one memorable timepiece after another. Led by the genius watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet and a select group of others, most of the major watch developments occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Widely considered the greatest watchmaker ever, Breguet’s inventions were so far ahead of his time that they carried watchmaking well into the twentieth century. Breguet is credited with creating the tourbillon, which reduces position errors; the perpetual calendar, which automatically accounts for long months, short months, and leap years; the gong spring for the minute repeater; a shock-resistance system called the parachute; the hairspring curve; and the engine-turned dial. Almost 175 years later, these rare features are still sought by collectors.
Another key feature, developed somewhat later, came from Antoine LeCoultre (the founding father of Jaeger -LeCoultre) in 1844. He invented the millionometer, which reduced the smallest measurable distance to a thousandth of a millimeter and enabled watch movements to be smaller and more precise.
While the watchmaking industry was dominated by men, women were key consumers of many of the most famous watches from this period. And it’s likely that women are the reason we wear watches on our wrists today.
According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, Jacquet-Droz and Leschot produced the first known wristwatches in Geneva in 1790. But Patek Philippe and Breguet both claim to have produced the first wristwatches for noblewomen. Breguet’s sales registers confirm that the company 3 produced a wristwatch for the Queen of Naples in , 1810. Patek Philippe say sit produced the first 3 known wristwatch in 1868 for Countess Kocewicz, a Polish noblewoman who specially requested it.
These early wristwatches were ornate and designed exclusively for women. Most men, who still preferred pocket watches, considered the wristwatch a fad.
Cartier made its first men’s wristwatch in 1904 for Brazilian aviator and socialite Alberto Santos-Dumont, who requested a hands-free watch for use while flying. This watch was later called the Santos and sold as the first commercial watch in 1911.
Longines had already begun its wristwatch production in 1910. And by 1914 about half of all Movado watches were wristwatches. Wristwatches were finally coming into their own.
World War I made wristwatches even more popular. Aviators followed in the footsteps of Santos-Dumont, while companies such as I Hamilton, Omega, Breitling, and IWC realized that pocket watches hindered a soldier’s ability to engage in battle (imagine putting down a weapon and fumbling in a pocket in the heat of the battle!) and provided wristwatches to the armed forces.
Following World War I, these military watches gave male consumers the confidence to wear wristwatches. In the 1920s, wristwatch production overtook that of pocket watches and the industry has never looked back.
Accuracy and design became more important in this era. In 1925, Patek Philippe produced their first perpetual calendar wristwatch. 1926, Rolex produced the first water-resistant watch, the Oyster, which was the first official chronometer wristwatch.
Hamilton created the world’s first electric watch in 1957, the Ventura; Bulova followed suit with the electronic Accutron tuning-fork technology in 1960; and Girard-Perregaux produced the first high-frequency mechanical watch in 1966.
Around that time, NASA representatives walked into a Houston jewelry store searching for a watch that could take the rigors of space flight. The Omega Speedmaster Professional passed the test, and the rest, as they say, is history.
On July 20, 1969, Omega became the first watch to reach the moon. Today it is still NASA’s only flight-qualified watch.
The moon landing shocked the planet, but the watch world reeled after the development of quartz watches in the 1970s (see “The Quartz Revolution“).
Affordable watch brands, all of which run on quartz technology, took center stage in the early 1990s, including: Timex’s Indiglo night-light technology (also available in mechanical models), which is still a hot trend; Seiko’s Kinetic batter;-less watches; Citizen’s battery-less Eco Drive watches; and Tissot’s battery-less watches.
Quartz watches have nearly fulfilled the mission of all watchmaking: perfecting time measurement. And with continually advancing technologies, true perfection may not be far off.
The Trivia of Time
What time is it? It’s 10:10 But why? Many people wonder why most watches they see in stores or in advertisements are set at 10 minutes after 10 o’clock It wasn’t always that way. In the past, watches were set at 8 18 so the hands were out of the way One logical explanation for the change is that a 10 10 setting frames the watch-brand logo and is psychologically positive, showing a smile in place of the 8 18 frown
Another theory it was the hour President Abraham Lincoln was shot.
Here is more watch and time trivia:
The Oldest Watch: Some say the craftsman Peter Henlein’s Nurnberg Eggs are the oldest watches, dating back to 1480 But according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, the oldest known pocket watch is a gilt bronze model that dates back to 1574 The cover pictures Saint George slaying a dragon while the back depicts the crucifixion It is initialed, but the watchmaker is unknown
The First Wristwatch: The earliest known wristwatch was made by Jacquet-Droz and Leschot of Geneva in 1790.
The Largest Watch: A Swatch, displayed on the Commerce Bank of Frankfurt, Germany, and in Tokyo, which measures 531.5 feet long and 66 feet in diameter.
The Heaviest Watch: A Swatch displayed on top of the Swiss Pavilion at Expo ‘S6 in Vancouver. It stood at 80 feet high and weighed more than 31 tons.
The Smallest Wristwatch: A Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso timepiece measuring just over 1/2-inch long and 3/16-inch wide. The movement and case combined weigh under 0.25 ounce.
The Most Expensive Wristwatch: Vacheron Constantin’s Kallista watch was sold for $9 million. Designed in 1977 by the artist Raymond Moretti, the watch features 118 diamonds, weighing 130 carats. It’s sculpted from an ingot of I 18-karat yellow gold.
The Highest Price Paid For A Pocket Watch: Patek Philippe’s Calibre 89 fetched a record $2.7 million ($3.2 million with taxes and commission) at auction in 1989. At the time, it was the world’s most complicated timepiece with 1,728 parts and 33 functions.
The First Water Resistant Watch: A Rolex Oyster watch worn by Mercedes Gleitze in November, 1927, during her daring English Channel swim. The watch survived more than ten hours of submersion and maintained perfect time under the most trying conditions. No moisture penetrated the watch. Today, water resistance is a standard for most watches.
The First Quartz Watch: The first quartz wristwatch was completed in 1967 by the Swiss company ETA. Seiko was the first company to bring quartz watches to the general public, on Christmas Day 1969.