If you think about it, what do you look at more often each day than your watch?
I happen to know a person who has a keen interest in watches. As my co-writer, Samuel Tam gazes at a German catalogue filled with watches, I noticed the watch on his wrist, an Omega Speedmaster Professional (reference 357050).
On the other hand, the watch I wore was a Yazole Quartz 296; unknown and cheap… hey I’m still looking for the watch. Although we do share the same fascination, there is a contrast in our perspectives as how we perceive watches. I see it as a piece of jewellery, a mechanical marvel, fashion accessory and a necessity.
Samuel sees it as the only piece of jewellery or accessory he’ll ever own. We both can agree that watches are also worn for this purpose: to tell the time.
Others might find it as an item discreetly showing off his wealth or a chance to possess the latest innovation whether it is calendars, chronographs or repeaters.
To own a watch is to own a piece of history- the latest evolution of a record of timekeeping dating back to water clocks and sundials.
I’m sure many of you agree that the approach of mechanical watchmaking is an evolution upon clock making. This has helped foster and greatly cultivated mechanical engineering and material science which have made clockwork miniaturisation possible.
The core of each mechanical movement is the mainspring – a long coil of spring steel housed in a flat barrel – which stores energy from winding tension and releases it over the course of a day. This precise release of energy, regulated through an escapement and transferred through a gear train, steadily propels the watch hands over the dial.
The Jaeger Le-Coultre Master Grande Tradition Tourbillon Cylindrique a Quantieme Perpetuel is an example of a Grand Complication, demonstrating the pinnacle of watchmaking prowess. Its 42mm rose gold case holds a 431-part movement which contains a perpetual calendar, a moon phase, as well as a tourbillon, considered by many horologists as the most technically demanding and intricate complication.
As the art of watchmaking has been refined over the centuries, this would later be used to power a multitude of haute horlogerie complications, including perpetual calendars, chronographs, moon phases, and secondary time zones.
To study the history of watches, one must start at the rise of the Swiss watch industry. Currently a CHF 20 billion/year (AUD$28B) industry, the Swiss hegemony found its humble beginnings in 16th century Geneva, when the rulers of the city issued a ban on jewellery and displays of wealth.
Goldsmiths and artisans, their livelihoods destroyed overnight, began metamorphosing in watchmaking, a practice exempt from the laws. In 1657, Swiss watchmakers invented the balance spring, a device that greatly reduced isochronism – the fluctuating release of power during the mainspring’s different stages of charge, paving way for more accurate timekeeping.
Other notable milestones in the mechanical watch’s history include the use of jewel bearings to reduce friction, and the use of keyless work mechanics to allow for watch winding and setting through the crown.
The Swiss watch industry experienced a massive growth in the aftermath of post-world war industrialisation; it would be easy to assume their monopoly on timekeeping would last indefinitely.
What they did not foresee is the rise of quartz technology – watches which keep time via the oscillation of a tuned quartz crystal. In 1969, the Japanese corporation, Seiko became the first to market the Seiko Astron. This wristwatch was more accurate than any mechanical watch.
However, the Swiss watch industry was faced with the threat of extinction via technological obsolescence. They chose to repudiate the emerging technology and remarketed the mechanical wristwatch as the more sophisticated choice for the modern man.
Today, this sentiment is mostly accepted by the watch buying public – although centuries of advances have led to remarkably accurate and durable tool watches which find use in extreme environments such as marine chronometers for open-sea navigation, chronographs for timing engine burns on the Apollo 13, and dive watches for exploring the Mariana trench – it is the rich history and the wonders of the watch industry of an intricately hand-assembled mechanical movement which attracts the modern buyer.
After a brief study of watches, would you call yourself a watch aficionado or simply someone who has a keen interest? Personally, after learning a tonne of information, I would definitely consider myself as the latter.
Although I do have a love of watches, I grew up in a family that has an immense love for Rolex and Omega; personally, I have not found my watch that defines me.
It’s still out there and I’m hoping one day I can find it.