Stories about the history of watches

Why the best watchmakers come from Switzerland?

This is one of the questions people who are not into horology tend to ask to watch lovers. And while the world perceives Rolex as the best watch company there is in the world, the biggest part of the iceberg is hidden under water.

The quick answer to this question is that they are really not.

While Switzerland, for many concurrent reasons, and a little bit of luck, has been the Promised Land of watchmaking for the past 150 years does not mean that it still continues to be the One and Only Mecca of quality watchmaking. And we should take a step back and remember history.

A quick history of watchmaking

Even if one of the first historical clocks is the Astrarium by Giovanni de Dondi, made in Padua, Italy around 1350 (that you can see in the top image), we traditionally consider that  modern watchmaking was founded in Germany in the beginning of the 1500s, in the city of Nuremberg. In the museum of the city we can find several Nuremberg Eggs, the first portable watches – which were more like clocks.

John Harrison’s H1 chronometer

These first watches were improved during the 1600s with the invention of the balance spring by Huygens and the discovery of the qualities of jewels by Fatio de Duillers. While these discoveries came by foreigners (Huygens was Dutch, and Fatio was French), both of these improvements happened in England. These technical advances spurred the work of exceptional watchmakers like Mudge (the inventor of the lever escapement) and Harrison (who developed marine chronometers and bimetallic balances). Harrison’s discoveries were instrumental for establishing the dominance of the British Navy at sea during the period. And they brought immense riches to the country which became an international Empire.

Then in the late 1700s to the 1800s another great evolution in horology happened in France with watchmakers like Lepine (the inventor of calibers) and especially, Breguet (automatic winding, tourbillon, shock-absorbing systems).

Breguet Souscription, 1800s

Both transformed the world of watchmaking and rendered it almost modern – check some of their timepieces, which look very different from what was done by their British competitors. This was also the time when the powerhouse of British horology waned into nothingness.

Switzerland came later in the game. Of the Big Three, two companies were founded in the mid-1800s. Only Vacheron Constantin hails from 1755.

From that time we have seen some impressive feats in watchmaking made in the USA, mostly in the period betweeen 1850 and 1900 and in Japan, especially in modern horology history, with the invention of the quartz movement.

Modern watchmakers come from everywhere

The modern global production of watches reaches true excellence.

Credor Great Wave Tourbillon watch

Despite the late start – mostly from the end of the 1800s – the contemporary companies from Japan have little to envy to Swiss watchmakers. Some of the brands like Grand Seiko and Credor rival the best Swiss companies.

This watch from Credor, a brand that is little-known in the West, has technical and artistic contents that far surpass its relative obscurity. It is a rendition of the famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa. While you might object to its style, you cannot deny its craftsmanship and technical qualities.

We can assert the same about the German brands from Glashutte, of which the most celebrated is Lange und Sohne, also a tad more exclusive and expensive than most swiss brands.

Roger Smith Series 2 (courtesy Deployant)

And the best British watchmakers, like the late George Daniels and Roger Smith, have resurrected the excellent tradition of British high-end horology in the UK. The first, who invented the coaxial escapement, has left his entire workshop on the Isle of Man to the second. Today, Mr. Smith makes no more than 12 watches per year, completely handmade. On another note, remember that the same Rolex was originally founded in London.

And we should not forget the modern contributions to horology by a French company like Cartier, which has literally invented the modern “commercial” wristwatch when they launched the Santos and the Tank. Before them, pocket watches were the norm. After the launch of these two models, quickly imitated by other watchmakers, the use of pocket watches started to decline.

A very special edition of the Santos by Cartier

And last but not least, do not forget that while Switzerland might be the place where horology has flourished more extensively in the last 200 years, the “seeds” the blossomed often came from somewhere else.

Foreign watchmakers immigrated in Switzerland

Watchmakers migrated to Switzerland, mainly for religious reasons. Many Huguenots – who were Protestants – originally came from the Catholic France and relocated to Geneva. For example, the Swiss family of LeCoultre had Huguenots roots.

FP Journe Chronometre Bleu

The immigration to Switzerland – not anymore for religious reasons – has attracted a large number of professionals in the land between the Alps.

Among the best modern watchmakers currently dwelling in the Confederacy we find FP Journe and Christophe Claret, who are French. Rexhep Rexhepi, who’s Albanian. Konstantin Chaykin, who’s Russian. Kari Voutilainen, who’s Finnish. The McGonigle brothers, who are Irish. The Gronefeld brothers, who are Dutch. Svend Andersen, who’s Danish.

And last but not least, with a bit of chauvinism. Giulio Papi, Vincent Calabrese (the author of the Golden Bridge for Corum), and Antoine Preziuso, who are Italian. Even the mighty Gerald Genta came from an Italian family originating from the region where I was born myself, Piedmont.

So, to assert that Swiss watchmaking has no rivals around the world is a gross exaggeration.

Swiss watchmaking is still the number one reference in the field. However, the rest of the horological world has not stood still.


You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual. It is a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual
please CLICK HERE

How did the inventor of the first watch know what time it was?

While this question might sound silly, it isn’t – big time (and the wordplay is intended).

One of the first Nuremberg Eggs

The long path towards establishing a universal time system is long and convoluted, and starts from the beginning of history. The first clocks were invented around 1300, but the first watch – that is, a portable clock – comes from around 1505, invented in Nuremberg, Germany, by a certain Peter Henlein.

This would be one of the earlist watches. You cannot see its dial because the lid is closed, but this kind of watch (called Nuremberg Egg) had only one hand – the hour’s – because it wasn’t precise at all. The precision of watches would improve only later, with the invention of the hairspring around 1650.

Also, remember that the calendar was unlike ours, as well.

The old calendar

At that time, people still used the Julian Calendar, as the Gregorian Calendar that we use today was introduced in 1582 only. And the majority of people still used variable hours, not fixed ones as we do. Variable hours were introduced as a divider of the day and the night so to follow prayers which had to be uttered in some moments, dictated by specific books called “Liber Horae”.

A page from a Liber Horae

This meant that in winter, when the daytime is less, the day hours were shorter, and in summer they were longer, and for the night hours it was the opposite. But well, it was enough for the needs of the population.

Of course, this made no sense for scientists. Especially, to track the activities that were not influenced by the hours of the day and the night – and with this I mean the movement of the stars.

Fixed time vs. variable time

The need for a fixed time standard happened very early in the development of human civilization.

Astronomers understood that to measure the movement of the stars (which do not move – the Earth moves, but anyways) they had to use fixed units and not variable units. This would go as far away as the Babylonians and the Sumerians, which established the numerical system that we use even today both for tracking time and angles, based on a sexagesimal division. Of course, back then they did not use it to measure time, because they did not have the tools to do that.

This clay disc, here, tracks the night sky dividing it into eight regions. This Assyrian star planisphere found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (Aššur-bāni-apli – reigned 668-627 BCE) at Nineveh. The function of this clay tablet, in which the principal constellations are positioned in eight sectors, is disputed, but the function seems to be astronomical and magical.

Eventually, people switched to use the current system, that is, fixed time, based on the division of time in 24 hours, calculated from mid-day to the next mid-day, and watches proliferated around Europe.

Every major city had an observatory, and the observatory was the official time tracker for the city and its neighborhood.

This means that each city had its own way of tracking time, as the mid-day depends on where your city is located in respect to any other city of the planet. The astronomers would measure it, and so, decide the official time for the city.

The problems with city-based fixed time

Of course you understand that this was a huge mess, since every city would be regulated on its local time. There was no universal time – but we have to add that there was little need to have one.

Today, the situation is way different.

We all know that the world is today divided into 24 major timezones, all set apart of one hour to one-another, and we have established that the so-called GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) is calculated at the Observatory of Greenwich, in London. The line is known as the Prime Meridian. All other timezones are expressed as + or – X hours from this measurement.

Also, remember that this convention was agreed upon only around 1880, proposed by Sir Sanford Fleming, a Scottish-born Canadian scientist who was very active in railroads.

Sandford Fleming in a ceremonial photo

Before then, each and every city on the Earth had its own time – which proved to be a nightmare for any kind of communications (like telegraphs or railways). As you can see, establishing a common time reference allowed the creation of more reliable communication, and avoiding mishaps, like two trains coming in opposite directions and crashing because of bad timing (most railways were single-track).

The work of men like Sandford Fleming and Webb C. Ball, the founder of the Ball Watch Company, were instrumental in developing the acceptance of the Universal Time and the precision of watches as well: in that time, railroad chronometers were among the most precise watches on the planet.

The solution of Universal Time

As you can see the map here, this system was and is hardly ideal. For example, there are some countries, like China, that adopt a single timezone, but their extension is so great that it spans a five-hour solar time difference!

Spain actually is mostly located on the west of Britain, still it uses the GMT +1 timezone, and so on.

If we were to use the old system, that is, based on the mid-day of each city, it would be much more precise – but it would be impossible to track all the different timezones. And what would happen on trains and planes?

So, if we step back a little and arrive to our friend Henlein in 1505, and his ancestors creating clocks before him, he would set his clock based on the official time set by the city of Nuremberg, as each city set its own time.

And the clock and watch makers and users referred to this “official” time when setting their own watches.


You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual
please CLICK HERE

Diver watches, the history of fighting against water.

Diver watches represent a very modern obsession, starting in the Fifties with the launch of the Submariner by Rolex and the Fifty Fathoms by Blancpain. But the waterproof watch, which today has been renamed “water-resistant”, is the modern heir of another kind of timepiece, which was much acclaimed at the beginning of the century: the dust-proof watch.

People noted that watches subject to extremes in climate, that is, temperature, humidity, and the like, began to behave erratically. Dust was one of the main culprits. It entered into the movements and tended to accumulate in the recesses, namely the settings of the jewels where the pinions of the wheels turned, effectively slowing them down by building friction.

We should also note that watch oils used back then were organically-based, subject to natural decay, and gooing. Water had similar issues because it instead provoked the formation of rust inside watch movements.

The first waterproof watches

The first experiments to get rid of dust and water were pretty rudimental, as it was quite challenging to seal away the movement, creating a complete dust- proof and waterproof case. The first companies which tried to eliminate these issues – and managed to do it – were Rolex and Omega.

The first Rolex Oyster, 1926

Rolex was the first to refine a waterproof case in 1926, patented under the fitting name of Oyster.

Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, presented it with these words:

“The oyster is a ‘model’ hostess and will not tolerate any dust or other impurities. […] Well, gentlemen, we have borrowed its qualities and its name. Here is an example of the Rolex Oyster, so- called because it lives in water and excludes all impurities”.

To reassure the public about the qualities of its watch, Rolex, in 1927, contacted an English swimmer, Mercedes Gleitze, and supported her attempt to cross the English Channel by swimming.

The lady had a new Rolex Oyster hanging around her neck, and made it to the other side of the Channel, with the watch correctly working after the feat.

The first Oyster featured the elements that would render it famous, like the screw-in bezel and back, with the two o-rings and the screw-in crown.

The automatic movement, essential to guarantee that the crown remained waterproof, debuted a few years later, in 1931.

Omega instead followed another path: in 1932, it created and patented a double sliding rectangular case, known as “Marine.”

To ensure water resistance, its crown was kept inside the double case.

This watch was the first real watertight timepiece: it was tested and certified by the Swiss Laboratory for Horology in Neuchâtel to withstand a pressure of 135 meters.

Omega Marine, modern re-issue

The development of modern diver watches

In 1936, another famous diver watch appeared: it was the Panerai Radiomir, made by the Italian Maison expressly for the needs of the Royal Italian Navy, to equip its force of frogmen. This watch, however, was originally manufactured by Rolex and rebranded by Panerai. The Panerai Radiomir saw extensive use during WWII, demonstrating its qualities in the field.

Panerai Radiomir watch at the wrist of an Italian frogman, 1941

With the end of the war and the diffusion of leisure scuba diving, diver watches started their expansion as reliable tools for divers. One of the rst models available for public use was the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, launched in France in 1953, which was worn by the underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau during his award-winning documentary “The silent world” of 1956.

Jacques Cousteau and his Fifty Fathoms

The Fifty Fathom (its name derives from a nautical measurement of around 1.9 meters, indicating its maximum water resistance) was created at the request of the French Navy. A specific note was that the watch should have a system to show the remaining immersion time left, giving birth to the now typical rotating bezel.

The modern Submariner is still very similar to the first one.

No more “tool watches”

Rolex, which was working on the same concept, launched its model, the quintessential Submariner in 1954, at the Basel Watch Fair. The model surged to glory when it was used by the most famous fictional secret agent of all time, James Bond, in 1962.

From this appearance of the ref. 6538, the Rolex Submariner skyrocketed to glory, bringing the whole brand with it and becoming the style icon that we know today.

The first diver watches were certified water-resistant to 100 meters, like the Fifty Fathoms. Still, technical advancement brought this limit much forward, with many reaching 500 meters and more, to the present record of the Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep Professional, which has safely reached a depth of 10,928 meters.

One of the other devices used to guarantee the watch worked at high depths was the helium escape valve, so to prevent the watch crystal from being blown o by internal pressure caused by the buildup of helium.

The use of diver watches today to monitor safe diving has been superseded by diving computers. However, a diver watch is a testament to the more heroic times of undersea exploration – and it looks perfect as well at the wrist.


You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual
please CLICK HERE

In the mid-1800s, watchmaking was much different from what we are used today.

Horology spread throughout the world at the beginning of the 1800s. Still, watches were quite costly. One of the main problems was that the escapement used was still quite complicated to make.

The most used was the cylinder escapement, which was less complicated and costly than the verge-fusee that was in use precedently. Still, it had its drawbacks all the same.

How a cylinder escapement works

The problem was with the escapement wheel. It was very tiny – and still, it had a very complex shape, as the teeth at the end of each “arm” had to be placed in an orthogonal position – that is, with an angle of 90°. You understand by yourself that making such a complicated exploit of micro-mechanics was not a small feat back then.

More, the shape of the balance wheel staff rendered it more prone to breaking while in use.

The result of this two concurrent factors is predictable.

The watches made with this kind of escapement were still quite costly to make and to buy, so they were reserved to the most affluent classes.

The alternative to the cylinder escapement was the lever escapement, which was still very costly. It used a two-pronged anchor, which had to be fitted with two jewels so to ensure the best performance. And until the invention of synthetic gemstones in 1902, these jewels were made of real gems, which had to be cut appropriately for the task.

So, the escapement mechanism had to be simplified more and made more affordable and robust to render it suitable for mass production.

This feat eventually happened with an almost forgotten watchmaker, who instead deserves a primary position in the watchmaking Hall of Fame. Along with Breguet and the others who revolutionized the industry.

Georg Friedrich Roskopf

The industrial development of the pin-pallet

His name was Georges Frederic Roskopf (1813-1889), the inventor of the pin-lever escapement and the so-called Proletarian Watch.

By splitting the function of the cylinder escapement in two simpler elements (an escapement wheel and a pin-pallet), Roskopf rendered them much easier to make and lowered the production costs of movements significantly.

In 1860 Roskopf began to design such a watch, with just 57 parts instead of the usual 160 parts or more.
His timepiece could be manufactured industrially and could be sold for 20 francs (which was about two weeks of wage of the average worker) while remaining simple, robust, and of good quality.

This radical approach was met by hostility, as Roskopf and his democratization of time-keeping were considered “dangerous” for the status quo of the industry, and he was openly boycotted. Eventually, he managed to produce his watches in 1867, using ebauches and cases from the Malleray Watch Co., and assembling them in Damprichard, Doubs, France, by M. Chatelain.

Roskopf watches were not fantastically accurate, but they were finally affordable, and everybody could eventually afford to buy one.

From 1867, when they were presented in the Universal Exhibition in Paris, the Roskopf watches sold like crazy through Europe and the USA.
The pin-pallet watches helped bring down the cost of the high-end timepieces as well, which had to be rendered more affordable through the refinement of the so-called Swiss anchor escapement: the one we still use today.

A typical Roskopf movement

Watches and mass-production

The history of Roskopf and his Proletarian Watch matches with another very particular one: the story of an American in Switzerland, who founded a company known as International Watch Company in 1868. He was an engineer and watchmaker called Florentine Ariosto Jones.

And yes, we are talking about the modern-day IWC.

Workers in the IWC production plant

He aimed to combine the Swiss watchmaking excellence with the modern techniques of mass-production, and to export the final products to the USA, a vast market which highly regarded the quality of Swiss watches. It was the beginning of the great industrial boom that would take the USA to become a world leader for 150 years. And the booming internal market of the USA offered lots of possibilities for the most adventurous and bold manufacturers.

The plan of Jones was spot-on. Back then, Switzerland was a rather poor country. People carried out their watch-related activities in rather small, family-run labs, and still had little idea about how to industrialize their skills.

Jones’ plan of opening a modern factory in the traditional watchmaking area was revolutionary. So much that it raised the firm opposition of the French-speaking community who lived in the cradle of Swiss horology, the region around Le Locle. This was the main reason why he would select another place for his dream to come true: Schaffhausen, in the German part of the country.

Finally, in 1875, a modern factory was built – a 45-meter long edifice that could accommodate 300 workers under one roof.

Jones introduced the American mass-production concept, defined as the “sequential series of operations carried out on successive special-purpose machines that produced interchangeable parts.”

Florentine Ariosto Jones

We need to make it clear that he did not invent this system by himself: Jones – then a young man – went to work for one of the best watchmaking firms in America, E. Howard & Co. He eventually rose to the rank of the superintendent of the factory. Still, in 1867 he applied for a passport, and he traveled to Europe, looking for a place to establish a watchmaking business, using the so-called “American System” of watchmaking that he had learned professionally when in the USA.

This system derived from the manufacturing methods developed for the Federal armories at Springfield and Harpers Ferry. And the aim was quite similar: high precision, interchangeable parts were needed for assembling weapons – something that made the system perfect for watchmaking as well.

Jones, though, was more an innovator than a manager: he went bankrupt, and had to sell his company in two years. Still, his contribution was fundamental to launch a business model that would render Switzerland the powerhouse of watchmaking that it is today.


You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual
please CLICK HERE

 

We often think that digital watches are a modern thing. Well, they are not.

We are not accustomed to thinking that our grandfathers could have been daring and extravagant and innovative. Yet, they were. They were the ones giving us things like the radio, cars, planes.

And digital watches as well.

Cortebert jumping hours pocket watch

This is a lovely Cortebert jump hour watch.

And as you can readily see, it is digital (well, mostly: the second hand is analogic).

Our grandfathers loved modernity as we do, I can assure you – so they created these interesting, and complicated, watches to differentiate them from the usual ones working through an analogic display.

Specifically, this solution, with rotating discs placed under the dial, was used later in the day/date displays that we readily use today.

The way of displaying information has nothing to do with the mechanics of a watch. Indeed, modern digital displays are quite easy on the eye to convey the information in a simple manner without us having to decode it from the position of the hands.

But at the same time, apart from exceptions like this one above, digital displays do not go well into the luxury style. It is very difficult to provide a sense of quality and luxury through a digital display, and the best-known specimens that have been made – while daring and provocative – did not fully achieve this goal.

The next evolution: quartz-based watches

While the mechanical jumping hour watches were nifty, they had this problem. Which was not really resolved with the next generation of watches using a digital way of showing the hours: LED watches.

The Hamilton Pulsar, in yellow gold

The Hamilton Pulsar was an amazing phenomenon in its time – it was launched in 1969. Still, we can safely assert that it has not aged gracefully, especially if we compare it with another watch that was presented to the market just a few years after:

A Patek Philippe 5711

Also remember that both watches had around the same price at their launch.

So, to end my rant, analog watches still represent the quintessential watch, and a watch is much more than a device to keep track of time. A watch defines the style of its wearer, and becomes one of the few ornaments a man is allowed to wear.

Choosing a digital device still broadcasts an image to the others, but it is way different than the one of a – let’s say – Patek Philippe Nautilus like the one above. I am not saying that it is better or worse: just different. And this fact justifies the continued existence of our old friends, the analog-display watches.

Analog watches did not go extinct in the end of the 1800s, when digital jumping hours watches came out.

They did not get extinct in the 1970s, when LED digital watches came out.

And for sure, they did not get extinct in the 2010s, when smartwatches came out.

Even this Apple Watch agrees: there is something reassuring in that old face that we are accustomed to seeing, don’t you think?


You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual
please CLICK HERE

The spectacular fall of some Maisons leaves space for a comeback.

The watch market during the years has registered a huge number of ups and downs. Let’s consider together just the last century: two World Wars, two significant economic crisises, and one watch-specific Armageddon, the Quartz Crisis.

The first brand that comes to my mind is Longines.

Back in its days, Longines was on the same level as the most prestigious companies of Switzerland. But as you probably know, Longines after the Quartz Crisis was gobbled up into the Swatch group, and it represented just another brand in the cauldron. More, its marketing placement was in the same league of Omega, with the distinct possibility of the two cannibalizing each other in terms of appeal, and thus, sales.

Longines Lindbergh pilot’s watch

This means that it was downsized and repackaged as a mid-range brand, just a bit better than the entry-level Tissot, while Omega was kept in the higher niche, as the brand to fight against Rolex.

The group did not try to place it in a higher positioning to compete directly in the luxury segment, as it would have competed against Breguet and Blancpain. So, the poor Longines was cut down and left as an average brand, without having the possibility of returning to its former glory.

A beautiful Longines movement, with sapphire jewels

Another brand that is sadly under-appreciated is Girard Perregaux.

It was one of the most technically-endowed horology brands back in the end of the 1800s.

Its Esmeralda was considered the best watch of the world for several years, and the Three Golden Bridges represented one of the most beautiful movements ever made in horology – a design that was well in advance of its times.

A modern Girard Perregaux Three Golden Bridges

However, Girard Perregaux sadly fell from its position during the Quartz Crisis, as it “betrayed” more than other manufacturers the mechanical cause in order to develop quartz-based movements, which equipped the watches it made back then (someone remembers the Laureato perhaps?)

The quartz quickly became a cheap technical solution, and everything that was connected to it was considered cheap as well.

This is how the once-mighty Girard Perregaux was drawn to the bottom, in a position that it still mars its efforts to recover and find again its right place in the Olympus of watchmaking..

Do waches from these companies represent good value?

Indeed, they do. While some models are definitely costly and difficult to find, the majority of the vintage production of these brands is much more accessible, and represents a very good value for the expenditure.

In particular, the in-house movements of both companies are of a very high level of craftsmanship, while their prices are still low because these companies have “fallen from grace”. So, if you have a little money, if might be advisable to buy a few simple models from the Fifties and Sixties: they are bound to rise in value eventually.


You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual
please CLICK HERE