Words by Natalia Taylor.
Time: a concept that is intangible yet ever-present. We are powerless to speed it up, slow it down or reverse it. And yet we obsessively chart its passage. In the frenetic world we inhabit, the time is everywhere: flashing from computer screens, home appliances, cell phones, billboards and bus stops.
There was a time, however, not so long ago, when it was necessary to carry the time about one’s person if one wanted to know what it was. The invention of the watch therefore was inspired by necessity, its evolution driven by technology. But in an age when the time is all around us, the survival of the watchmaking industry depends not on need but on desire – desire for identity, luxury and ownership of something extraordinary.
Although clocks had been developed by the 13th century, it was another two hundred years before a portable timepiece – the pocket watch – was invented. With only an hour hand to indicate the time, however, the earliest pocket watches were inaccurate as well as cumbersome.
Patek Philippe is most often credited with inventing the first wristwatch in 1868. Wristlets, as they were called, were initially worn by women as fashion accessories and were widely considered a fad that would soon pass.
Europe, and Switzerland in particular, had led the way in watchmaking from the outset. The arrival of quartz technology in the 1970s however, sounded a potential death knell for the watchmaking industry. The miniaturiastion of electronics meant that the basis on which watches worked – a highly complex system of tiny wheels, cogs and springs with hundreds of parts – could be eliminated completely and replaced with a battery-operated electronic device that was far more accurate and could be produced in vast quantities at very little cost.
Many a watchmaker in Switzerland was forced to close its doors as demand for their old-fashioned, laboriously built watches evaporated in the face of electronic alternatives that were the height of modernity.
It was only the nostalgia of a discerning minority for the old-school, handcrafted mechanical watch that saved the industry from complete collapse.
Thirty years on watches looked threatened with extinction again – this time as a consequence of cell phones exploding on to the market. With almost every adult in the western world carrying a cell phone on them at all times, which not only displayed the correct time but automatically adjusted it to daylight savings and changing time zones, the need for watches was swept away.
This time, the survival of fine timepieces was ensured by top watchmakers, who repositioned the mechanical watch as a desirable fashion accessory and collector’s item.
Today, just 13% of all watches produced are mechanical. It is a very small slice of the watchmaking pie, but there is a growing sector of the population who recognise the aesthetic value of beautifully made, handcrafted timepieces.
At the top end of the market, fine watches are works of art: skilled artisans, who often come from a long line of watchmakers, spend hours, days, weeks and even months pouring over the hundreds of parts that compose these timepieces. Centuries’ worth of technology to perfect the precision of the movements comes together with the highest quality materials to create unique pieces. Every watch has been painstakingly created by hand and each has a unique story behind it.
Keith Strandberg, a notable expert in horology, equates ownership of a quality mechanical watch with membership of an exclusive club: the average man on the street may be oblivious to your Vacheron Constantin or your Jaeger LeCoultre, but those who share a love of fine timepieces will nod appreciatively and admire the many complications it embodies.
To wear such a watch on one’s wrist, knowing how much work went into it and knowing that hundreds of components spin and whir inside with every tick of the hand, makes wearing a quartz watch look like a meaningless exercise, for behind the face there is nothing but a circuit board and a battery.
A far cry from the attitudes of the 19th century when men were quoted as saying they would "sooner wear a skirt as wear a wristwatch,” men’s watches today are marketed as an expression of individuality. Men’s ability to express themselves sartorially is limited but there are now watches for almost any personality: there are rugged dive watches, classic vintage watches and watches with altimeters and heart rate monitors for mountaineers and athletes.
Marvin Watch C° 1850’s Malton 160 strikes a perfect balance between refined elegance and exquisite craftsmanship with its sophisticated lines and classically enduring style. Ulysse Nardin describe their Maxi Diver Marine limited edition watch as “Conquering the Oceans.” Similarly, Vogard’s collections include the Business Officer, Bogey Golfer and Licensed Pilot customisable timepieces. The message leaves one in no doubt: these are watches for real men. Women’s watches have similarly come full circle, becoming fashion items once again. These timepieces range from sporty, durable timepieces suited to the contemporary women’s lifestyle, to classically elegant, diamond encrusted pieces that are as much jewellery as they are watches. In particular, the collections from Parmigiani are elegant inside and out, with exceptional beauty and detail in the dials and Patek Phillipe movements.
The very best watches can take more than a year to assemble and contain more than 800 parts. These are watches that are built to last, not just for one lifetime but for many, and if properly cared for, will stay in a family for generations. These are the watches that sit well on the wrists of prominent public figures and powerful businessmen. They silently yet eloquently convey that individual’s status in a way that a simple, digital watch never could.
And so, despite a somewhat troubled history, even if watches are no longer strictly necessary for telling the time, they still serve a purpose and have a place in our lives. As long as people continue to appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of a handmade timepiece, wristwatches will tick on.
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