A love story or a plea for the wristwatch?
Sometimes, when I take a moment out of my day, I find it bizarre that I work in an industry that is increasingly seen as unnecessary. Digital technology is rapidly displacing everything analog, and the smartwatch is ubiquitous. When challenged that no one needs a wristwatch anymore, I reply, in a somewhat unsettled manner, that my wristwatch is not specifically to tell the time any longer. It is my talisman on my wrist, an accessory, an object of fascination. But this is all far from the truth.
An Everlasting Wearable and Collectible Curiosity
The wristwatch is one of the oldest products that continue to hold the same fascination for us today as when they were first invented. They are the most multifaceted cultural asset—the most versatile art object, an everlasting wearable and collectible object that has never lost its importance.
The clock dates back millennia in the history of time measurement. It combines enchanting functions with the art of micromechanics and masterly craftsmanship in a way that leaves us enchanted. This fascination for the centuries-old mechanical watch only grows with more understanding and then the greater its attraction becomes. This journey of discovery leads us into the world of design, architecture, and trends that influence our lives and lifestyles.
The phenomenon of time has always fascinated us, humans. We can consider the time from three distinct aspects. The first is the physics and philosophy of time as a physical phenomenon. Second is the psychology of time, our sense of time passing. Finally, time, defined and measured through mathematics and technology, is used to regulate our lives.
Do we still need wristwatches today? Of course, we do!
Time was already being measured with sundials from about 3000 BC. Later water, fire, and hourglasses were used as the instruments of measure. However, the invention of a mechanical means to measure time, with its wheels and an escapement mechanism that converted the rotational energy into oscillations, was a tremendous advance.
In antiquity, day and night had already been divided into twelve periods, but these vary in length depending on the season. Now it was possible to divide time into hour-long periods that were always the same length.
In the broader sense, the first pocket watches, or portable watches, dating back to as early as the 15th century. These portable timekeepers were made possible by the invention of the mainspring. The mainspring allowed the gravity-driven pendulum of the clock to be replaced by the drive and balance wheel in a watch. The greatest benefit of this was to shrink the time-keeping machine to a manageable size.
As early as the first half of the 17th century, small watches existed on finger rings and sword pommels, and it has been suggested that wristwatches may have also existed at this time.
Women Invented The Wristwatch
Movements continued to shrink over time, which allowed watches to shrink without the loss of precision. In the latter half of the 19th century, the jeweled wristwatch had established itself as a new watch genre. Around 1890, it became fashionable to wear a lady’s pocket watch on a chain or strap as a jewelry piece on the wrist.
This fashion was initially considered “feminine.” Gentlemen, therefore, continued to use a pocket watch attached to the waistcoat via a watch chain. Towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the wristwatch was no longer worn as a decorative watch but increasingly a professional instrument.
The Military Were Early Adopters.
At this time, the wristwatch became widely adopted by the military. These watches were distinguished by their sturdy protective cases. Sometimes a protective grille was installed to protect the glass or a savonnette (a hinged cover). These watches tended to have large luminous numerals, especially those used by soldiers. Once adopted by the armed forces, it was only a matter of time until the wristwatch became popular in civilian life.
During the First World War, officers discovered that their pocket watches were impractical under combat conditions, especially in winter. This gave further impetus to the adoption of the wristwatch and was soon ubiquitous in the military. By 1918, the end of the First World War, the wristwatch was the standard time-keeping instrument for the military. Pilots, too, faced with sparse instrumentation on their planes at the time, soon adopted the wristwatch as they depended on fast and accurate timekeeping to fly.
Watches Become Inseparable From Lifestyle.
The connection of the wristwatch with lifestyle as a jewelry accessory and status symbol is not an invention of the late 20th century. This has been a defining part of a timekeeping product concept practically from the very beginning of time. No wonder, then, that jewelry companies such as Cartier, Tiffany, Harry Winston, and later fashion houses such as Bulgari, and especially Chanel, committed to the watch sector. They compensated for the initial lack of tradition with innovation, novel concepts, and designs.
Lifestyle elements can be defined by the price and functions geared to specific sports or customer groups. In addition, the style of the watch, its design, its shapes, and its colors can define its position in the hierarchy.
From Functions To Complications.
Initially, when new functions are introduced, the value of the watch with the new functions is defined by the value of the new function. I am thinking of chronograph watches and diving watches with strong luminous numerals, pilot watches, watches with a second timezone, anti-magnetic watches, the list goes on. Initially, the minute repeater was exclusively focused on its functional advancement too.
Nowadays, special instruments (not watches) are available for every watch complication and more. Smartphone applications cover all of the possible display and measurement functions. Therefore, the value of the watch is not defined by its function but by its complexity, innovation, and construction. The watch industry focuses on two distinct aspects of the watch. The first is the technical aspects such as the micro-mechanical development, the materials, and production craft. The second aspect is the artistic design, the shape, and the integrated inventiveness that further distinguishes a watch.
From Complications To Masterpieces.
In Haut-Horlogerie, we speak of complications and not functions. A complication is an additional function of a mechanical movement beyond the display of hour, minute, and second. Each complication, as mentioned above, increases the price and (in the past) the functional value of a watch. Classic complications include the date display, big date, jumping date, retrograde displays, moon phase display, moon age display, full calendar with day, date and month display, an annual calendar, four-year calendar, and the perpetual calendar. The chronometer regulation, stop-seconds, chronograph, rattrapante, alarm, repetition (minute repetition, hour repetition, etc.), the world time, and, last but not least, the tourbillon.
If many elaborate complications are built into a wristwatch or pocket watch, the watch is referred to as a “Grande Complication” or complicated watch.
The Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4 is one of the most complicated wristwatches globally, if not the most complicated. It features 36 complications, 23 indications over 18 hands, and 5 discs. It has 1,483 components, 99 jewels, 91 wheels (!), 7 pushers, and 4 correctors to make all this work. It took five years of planning and, allegedly, a whole year of assembly to achieve this.
From Masterpieces To Futuristic, Micro-Mechanical Time Machines
Today, innovation and mechanical creativity can no longer be defined by complications alone. If this were the case, we would have to expand the term complication greatly. The industry’s innovative power has not diminished with time. Independent master watchmakers, new brands, and new movement manufacturers are more active than ever. These new players have brought new life and inspiration to some of the traditional brands. This is evidenced by how dynamic the watch market is today.
These modern innovations, however, are more focused on how time is displayed. Some stretch for the most esoteric time displays. Watches and their time displays have evolved into a visionary 3D dimensionality. Some of these are verging on futuristic machines, philosophical entities, and imaginative engines. What has remained is the search for complexity, the challenge to solve and realize an impossible representation of time micro mechanically.
Brands like MB & F, URWERK, HYT, CYRUS, and of course, RESSENCE epitomize this search. Pioneers amongst established brands such as ULYSSE NARDIN with the FREAK or HUBLOT with the fusion of materials also represent this drive for innovation.
For example, the TYPE 3 from RESSENCE has 5 separate analog displays integrated into a non-existent dial and rotates together 360° in one hour. The whole time display visually sticks directly to the underside of the crystal. 35.7 ml of oil fills the upper half of the face and improves the legibility from all viewing angles.
The Engine Continues To Evolve
There are no boundaries to creativity. There is an innovative spirit combined with a competitive desire driving the journey of discovery. All we need to do is wait, and the next unexpected iteration of representing time will appear.
My fascination is with the craftsmanship and the micromechanical realization of classic complications and outstanding time presentations. But also, there have been many improvements to the movements behind the displays in the last 15 – 20 years. The catalyst for these advances can be traced to the announcement by ETA that they would no longer supply ebauches and movements to the market in general.
New materials have been deployed in the movements such as silicon, plus improved engineering and manufacturing techniques have made movements more accurate and more reliable. As an example, the power reserve of automatic movements has increased more than fivefold in this period. This development momentum continues today, and I look forward with anticipation to the annual watch presentations of the future.
The exterior of the watch has not stood still from a technical perspective. Seeking a distinctive edge in the market, the watch case has become the sum of complexity and high-tech materials. Open, hollowed-out lugs, concave, sharply cut corners, container constructions held in place with all-round brackets are evidence of an extremely high level of creativity and manufacturing skill.
Time and Life
Even with a purely scientific view of history, it is hard not to drift into the stories and anecdotes of the journey. How did our present division of time come about? What other forms of time-division exist? How did the early seafarers orient themselves before the development of the compass and the clock? Who experienced, calculated, and represented what, when, where, and how?
Time has always moved us and led to thousands of quotes and teachings. Dealing with time inevitably brings us to the big questions of life—the meaning of life, our priorities, infinity, and yes, of death too.
The watch with its representation of time can become a trigger, an incentive to think about time. To question priorities and to set them anew. And perhaps also motivate us to take a different perspective on what has happened and to #seetimedifferently.