The true origins of the watch are shrouded in the mists of time. Well, that’s a slight exaggeration. It’s unlikely that there were ever cavemen with sundials strapped to their wrists, but what were arguably the direct ancestors of the watch – portable, spring-driven clocks – were certainly around as early as the 15th century. As you might imagine, they were quite large, heavy and expensive, but the fact that you could hang them around your neck or from your clothing qualifies them as the first ever watches. In fact, given that these timepieces were wildly inaccurate – sometimes to the tune of several hours a day – it would be true to say that the watch was a decorative status symbol long before it was a precise method of measuring the passage of time.
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA. This watch was commissioned by the great German reformer and humanist Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560).
Actually, measuring time was not a major preoccupation in Renaissance Europe. If you lived in a town, there was probably a church with a clock and bells to signal the hour, and maybe even the half hour if you were lucky. It was not necessarily a very accurate clock, so meeting someone at 3.20 or boiling an egg for four minutes were unheard-of. Of course, this was not exactly convenient. Although the perfect soft-boiled egg was still a long way off, many people wanted to know the time even when they were not in earshot of the church bells. The watch had to become more portable, and more accurate.
Technical innovation was slow but steady, spearheaded by the English watchmakers of the 17th and 18th centuries, closely followed by the French and Swiss. The movement, and thus the case, got flatter; the balance spring was introduced; and in 1759 the wonderfully named Thomas Mudge invented the lever escapement. The watch, as we know it, became a fact.
An 18th century pocket watch by the well-known London horologist Thomas Mudge.
Not unsurprisingly, watches at that time were normally carried by men, it clearly being thought that women would have no use for them. They were also all handmade and thus extremely expensive. In fact, it was not until the mid-19th century that mass production techniques started to be used, and watches dropped in price. By that time, the wristwatch had also made its appearance and was worn almost exclusively by (very rich) ladies.
Even after the advent of mass production, a man’s watch was generally carried in his pocket. It took the First World War to change all that. It was not a good idea, when advancing across no-man’s-land, to put aside your Lee Enfield, fumble in your pocket, open your watch, read the time and then replace it again. It was also difficult to go over the top precisely at 03.00 if you didn’t have an accurate idea of when 03.00 was. By 1918, the wristwatch was universal, relatively inexpensive, and appreciably more accurate. But not very, hence the oft-heard command “Synchronize watches”.
By the middle of the 20th century, watches were available to all. They might well have been shockproof, dustproof and antimagnetic, but the cheaper watches still lost several minutes a day and immersing them in water was unadvisable. Of course, the top brands overcame all of these problems, at a price. If your wallet was up to purchasing a Patek Philippe chronometer, you would not only gain all of these advantages but perhaps a few extra “complications” thrown in, such as a perpetual calendar, minute repeater (in case you needed your minutes repeated), star chart or phases of the moon. At its most extreme, the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication had no less than 24 of these. It is also the most valuable watch in the word, sold in 2014 for the truly waterproof sum of $24 million.
The Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication Sells For A Record-Setting $24 Million
The major revolution in watch design happened in 1964, when Seiko of Japan launched the world’s first quartz watch. Now, even the cheapest timepiece could be accurate to within one second a week (by contrast, even the most expensive Swiss chronometer generally loses one minute a week). But more significant yet is that quartz freed designers from their technological shackles. With movements being pretty well standard (actually produced by only a handful of manufacturers worldwide) attention turned to the aesthetics. Suddenly, you were more likely to see names like CK, Diesel or Fossil on the watch face, than established names like Breitling or Omega. Designers became more adventurous, using materials like wood and stripping down the watch to a minimalist look, free of unnecessary “complications”.
Exactly the sort of high-quality, artisan-made watches that you will find on the Debonair website.