How was the crown invented? What does it hide?

The watch crown, which is a common sight nowadays, is a somewhat recent addition to the watches arsenal. Prior to its invention in 1842, watches used a key, as most clocks already did: after all, watches are just small, portable clocks.

To wind them or regulate them, you inserted the key (which came in different sizes) in a slot, and you could recharge the watch by turning the mainspring, or regulate the hands.

On the image on the left you can see the two slots used to this end. You might also note two keys, on the right of the image, as most probably this particular watch had been serviced in the past and one of the elements changed, needing the watchmaker to add one key to the set.

You might understand that this solution was not exactly ideal: to properly use a watch, you would have had to carry it around, as well as its key – which would possibly scratch the case.

So, companies started to tinker with this concept in order to supply a watch that would not need any keys to wind up or regulate.

So, in a word, which used a “keyless” system. And eventually, a watchmaker managed to invent the first system, which was perfected in time to become the one we are using now.

His name was Jean Adrien Philippe. And yes – it was THAT Philippe – one of the founders of Patek Philippe.

Jean Adrien Philippe

The inventor of the keyless works

Jean Adrien Philippe was a French horologist, who worked to perfect the keyless works system. His solution – which is very similar to the one that we still use today – relied ona mechanism that could operate two different sets of wheels to perform either functions of the watch – namely, winding it and regulating it.

He patented his invention in 1842 and presented it at the French Industrial Exposition (World’s Fair) of Paris in 1844, and winning a Gold Medal. In this same occasion, he met Antoni Patek, and the two started to cooperate.

The relation went so well that in 1851 Philippe entered into Patek & Cie as a full partner, with the company renamed Patek Philippe.

Coming back to our keyless works, they were improved by another watchmaking legend, Charles-Antoine LeCoultre in 1847, with the invention of the sliding stem activating a small lever to activate the second function, which he called “remontoir à bascule“.

Coming back to Philippe , he created the first concept of the crown. The crown was connected to the keyless works through a stem, and the whole assembly was protected by the ring that was used to link the watch to its chain. The naming of this element came almost naturally, as the crown was normally placed on top of the watch, at twelve o’clock, and its shape and design indeed reminded people of one.

A beautiful Patek Philippe pocket watch

The evolution of the crown

The standardization of calibers and the development of etablissage brought the companies towards the creation of “standard” sizes of stems, and so, crowns. In time, stems started to have a screw end, which went into the crown. This is the system that we mostly use today in common watches.

However, let’s check the typical watch crowns that you might encounter when examining a typical watch.

As you can see, we have many. Some are simple, and others instead are quite complex, offering a sort of recess where they meet another part of the watch case: a tube that gets out of the main case, in order to secure a better  water resistance to the watch.

If we take a look at diver watches, instead, we see that it is rather common to see crowns screwed to the tube so to offer better resistance to water. This is why every watch – and every case – is different, and so the crown must be fitted case-by-case to ensure that it makes a perfect fit to the overall style of the watch.

A screw-on tube on a diver watch

The screw-on crowns and diver watches

The need to ensure a more secure resistance to water prompted the watch companies to create screw-on crowns. As you can see on the image, screw-on crowns connect through a screw-like system on the tube that that is fitted on the watch case.
This system, which is also fitted with different rubber/silicone gaskets, ensures that the crown completely insulates the watch from water when submerged.
Of course, it is impossible to operate the crown of the watch when it is closed: it is impossible to wind the watch or regulate the hours. This is the main reason why diver watches always use automatic movements. This was the solution that Rolex adopted when it launched its first Rolex Perpetual movement in 1931, and other companies followed.

Crowns and personalization: do I need the original crown?

A Seiko watch crown + stem with the logo

Today, many famous brands personalize the crowns with their brand logo.

This means that, if you somehow lose yours (stems are a rather delicate element, and only the pressure of a small screw secures them to the movement), you are going to pay a sizable sum to find an original crown.
While finding one ensures the originality of your watch, in the case when you do not care about it, your watchmaker could always fit a “generic” crown (without logo) to your watch without issues.
However, please take note that, historically spealing, this “branding fad” is quite recent, starting in the mid-Fifties, as in the beginning of the last century, few crowns displayed an impressed logo (most did not). So, if you see a shiny crown with a logo on an older watch, beware: it might just be a later add-on.

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

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