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10 watches that have made history
Beginner's Guide

10 watches that have made history

Thursday, 28 January 2016
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Vincent Daveau
Journalist, watchmaker and historian

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Certain timepieces have come to symbolise milestones in the history of watchmaking, whether for the techniques they employ, for scientific reasons, or for their recognisable aesthetic. Here are ten of them. Each has a story to tell.

A watch before Christian Huygens: daring to display the time as a means of defying divinity

Anonymous pendant-watch made in Augsburg, Germany in the late 16th century

This anonymous pendant-watch made in Augsburg, Germany in the late 16th century belongs to the collection of the Watch Museum in Le Locle – Château des Monts. This model is powered by a movement equipped with a primitive system for regulating driving force based on the strackfreed simple spring-loaded cam mechanism, rather than via a fusee and chain system. It is an interesting example of what portable horology looked like in its early days. A fascinating miniaturised object in an era that lacked the industrial tools required to produce small components, this watch recounts the first century of the history of individual timepieces. A fantastic story in which the notably unreliable display of the time was in fact less important than the object itself. This extremely rare single-hand instrument – fitted with a sundial and a compass so as to enable resetting in case it came to a halt – was not modified following the 1674 invention of the spiral balance-spring by the mathematician Christian Huygens. Thus, like all watches until the late 17th century, this model with its crown-wheel escapement still has its foliot with inertia-blocks and its two pig bristles designed to impart a reverse thrust and thus push back the embryonic balance-wheel. Most watches fitted with these very basic escapements were modified after 1674 so as to fit them with the famous balance-spring, enabling them to make a quantum leap in terms of precision that took them from a daily rate variation of half an hour to one minute.

© Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle – Château des Monts, Le Locle, Suisse

The H4 marine chronometer by John Harrison: the quest for precision

John Harrison H4 marine chronometer

John Harrison, an artisan-carpenter by trade who developed large wooden longcase clocks, was sent by Edmond Halley to visit his friend George Graham, so that the latter could impartially evaluate the work of this unknown self-taught clockmaker who was determined to take up the challenge of determining longitude by means of his horological creations. The man that the scholars of his era regarded as having lost his mind nonetheless went on to develop the first ever marine chronometer in 1755 and, a few years later, the H4, the first deck chronometer. This large model, the size of a carriage watch, was so innovative and accurate that it already held out the promise of maritime hegemony for the nation that would equip its fleet with such instruments. The stakes were very high, as confirmed by Ferdinand Berthoud’s successive visits to England in 1763 and 1766 to gain information regarding its operation on behalf of France. While John Harrison dismissed enquiries from the competition, Thomas Mudge, a student of George Graham and the inventor of the lever escapement after studying the H4, went on to reveal all the production details to the Frenchman. This watch with its crown-wheel escapement was the first such creation to provide an irrefutable demonstration that a position at sea could be accurately determined by a simple, perfectly adjusted time-measuring instrument.

The Leroy 01: constantly demanding more

Leroy 01 pocket-watch presented at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900

Watchmakers have always had a gift for complicating things that could be done quite simply. To make matters worse, at the height of the industrial revolution in the late 19th century, the up and coming elites were keen to engage in fierce competition. For the movers and shakers of that age, traditional timepieces were no longer enough. The watch, a symbol of power for more than four centuries, was considered ripe to be taken to a whole new level by packing the maximum number of known horological complications into an almost normal-sized case. The first to set the ball rolling in this domain was the Leroy 01, a 71 mm-diameter pocket-watch presented at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900. It was endowed with 24 complications including several unprecedented ones such as the display of the time in 125 cities of the world, a barometer, an altimeter, as well as interchangeable sky maps. This mechanical marvel, which won the Grand Prix at the exhibition, remained – until 1989 when Patek Philippe presented its Calibre 89 – one of the world’s most complicated models, alongside two other creations known by the names of the men who commissioned them: the famous early 20th century Patek Philippe Graves and Packard pocket-watches. These models have now been matched by the Star Caliber also by Patek Philippe, and even surpassed by Vacheron Constantin’s Reference 57260.

Rolex from the Oyster to the Oyster Perpetual: the legend

Rolex Oyster from 1927

Founded in 1908 by Hans Wilsdorf, Rolex quickly distinguished itself in the small but rapidly growing field of wristwatches by offering simple and effective solutions to the recurrent problems of precision and water resistance. From 1910 onwards, the trailblazing brand at least partially resolved the difficulties relating to accuracy by having its models tested with a view to earning chronometry certificates. There was however still the issue of timepieces’ reliability in hostile conditions. While World War I (1914-18) was now history, having effectively contributed to spreading the wear of wristwatches, it had also highlighted the flaws in existing products when it came to protecting them from the infiltration of dust and water. Many watchmakers were working on the problem, but it was Hans Wilsdorf who presented the most convincing solution in 1926 with the first Oyster watch. This model, which he had the brilliant idea of strapping to the wrist of Mercedes Gleitz for her historic Channel swim, was equipped with the first screw-lock crown. Rolex achieved massive kudos in the realm of chic sports watches. The brand with the crown logo subsequently consolidated this position by developing a revolutionary movement capable of winding itself via the wearer’s movements alone. Patented in 1931, the automatic winding mechanism via an oscillating weight performing a 360° revolution was born. These two key technical developments placed Rolex at the very peak of the watch brand pyramid.

Omega Speedmaster: the space traveller

Omega Speedmaster

The Speedmaster Omega chronograph, the legendary Moonwatch, was launched in 1957 in the midst of the Cold War era. The brains behind the only wristwatch approved by NASA for all its missions were Pierre Moinat, Head of Omega’s Creative Department, backed by designer Claude Baillod. Made of steel with a 39 mm-diameter case, it was equipped with a bezel bearing an engraved tachymetric scale and arrow-tipped hands. Powered by the sturdy and accurate hand-wound chronograph, Lémania Calibre 321, this instrument was tested by the NASA in 1962 and evaluated against 10 other models from competing brands. In 1963, it evolved to a version named ST 105.012 and was treated to an asymmetrical case middle (42 mm) designed to protect the pushers and crowns from unwanted shocks. Approved in 1965 as the onboard watch for U.S. manned space missions, it was officially worn by Virgil I. Grissom and John Young, on March 23rd of that same year, during the Gemini-Titan II mission. Space missions continued without any notable modifications to the watch, apart from replacing its metal bracelet by a strap in Velcro – another Swiss invention. In 1966, NASA’s intensive use of this Speedmaster led to certain rectifications in 1968: the column-wheel Lemania Calibre 321 was replaced by the Lemania shuttle cam-actuated calibre, reference 861 (that has now become 1861 albeit without any significant changes for the traditional versions). This equipped, the Speedmaster chronograph was given a new reference: ST 145.022. Since then, the Speedmaster chronograph has continued its journey with only a few minor tweaks, such as the introduction of different finishes and a sapphire crystal, but without any in-depth transformations. You don’t challenge a myth from outer space.

Zenith El Primero 1969: an automatic legend

Zenith El Primero de 1969
Zenith El Primero de 1969

Manufacture Zenith – founded in 1865 by Georges Favre-Jacot in Le Locle, a small industrial town in the Swiss Jura – celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2015. Renowned for the precision of its instruments confirmed by 2,333 chronometry prizes, this flourishing company with 300 patents and 600 calibre variations launched its famous El Primero in 1969: the first mechanical chronograph movement with automatic winding via a central rotor operating in both directions and over a full 360°. Another fairly rare feature of this 13 ¼-ligne calibre is that its regulating organ vibrates at 5 Hertz (36,00 vibrations/hour), meaning a sufficiently high frequency to guarantee excellent precision in any situation and short-time measurement to the nearest tenth of a second. This reliable and visually appealing movement was to equip a certain number of models until the quartz crisis. Its reappearance in the 1990s is said to be due to the fact that certain employees, including Jacky Vermot, were wise enough to safeguard part of the industrial equipment required to make it. This legend also owes a great deal to brands such as Ebel and even Rolex which, by purchasing historical Zenith calibres, enabled the Manufacture in Le Locle to regain its footing and even to offer ranges now much sought-after by collectors such as Chronomaster, Rainbow, DeLuca. Bought up by the LVMH in 2000 and now associated with the Tour Auto car rally as well as partnering Felix Baumgartner and Spindrift racing, the Manufacture is continuing the El Primero saga. The most iconic and timeless instrument in the Zenith catalogue is doubtless the El Primero Chronomaster 1969 chronograph: a perfect embodiment of the founder’s notable ability to effectively combine the finest existing technologies.

Seiko Astron: in the beginning was absolute precision

Seiko Astron

One must be wary when speaking of this particular model, since several Seiko products are named Astron. Any amateur enthusiast not well acquainted with the brand history could thus easily be misled. The model we are referring to is not, as one might think, the new quartz and solar-powered model guided by a GPS in automatically setting the watch to the latest timezone where its wearer may find himself. It is instead the first analogue-display watch ‘driven’ by a quartz calibre and first released for sale at the end of December 1969. Many tend to forget that quartz at that time – viewed as a pinnacle of achievement for watchmakers seeking timekeeping precision – was not plasma-cut nor automatically shaped by machines, but individually hand-cut under a microscope. The prices were correspondingly high and indeed equivalent to that of a small car of that period. It was thus not this watch that so severely challenged the Swiss industry. Nor was it that particular date that marked the start of the watch industry crisis. The latter began around ten years later, when giant electronic corporations got hold of LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) technology to produce cheap instruments matching the aspirations of the time. At that point, the watchmaking profession had little choice but to undergo a transformation so as to offer products that were doubtless less useful due to their relative lack of precision, yet did far more in terms of affirming individual identity.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak: the rule of design

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak from 1972

At the dawn of the 1970s, the Manufacture Audemars Piguet – founded in 1875 in the village of Le Brassus in the Vallée de Joux and specialising in the production of complication watches – called upon the talents of a young watch designer named Gérald Genta. His mission was to dream up a luxury watch featuring a futuristic design that would match the expectations of “rebellious youth”. Right from the first sketches, the brand responded positively to his iconoclastic proposals for an octagonal watch that was neither truly round nor entirely geometrical. Pulling a major media stunt before the term was invented, this timepiece with its original design and high price – a steel watch that cost as much as a gold timepiece – rapidly established itself among jetsetters as a benchmark model on the contemporary luxury watch scene. Even the watch crisis did not curb the growing legend of a Royal Oak that became highly strategic for the brand. A legend cleverly cultivated 20 years on with the launch of the Royal Oak Offshore. This even more sports-styled range was teamed with Alinghi in 2003, the Swiss challenger for the America’s Cup that won historic back-to-back victories in 2003 and 2007. This partnership further contributed to the image of excellence associated with a watch model that celebrated its 40th birthday in 2012. Today, the Maison remains as ever in the hands of its founding families and has its own full-fledged R&D unit in the shape of Audemars Piguet Renaud et Papi. It offers connoisseurs high-quality time-measuring instruments inspired by the past and incorporating avant-garde technologies.

Swatch: the age of reason

Swatch GN701 from 1982

In 2016, the Swatch will be turning 33. A ‘venerable’ age that is truly remarkable for a watch that was eagerly awaited as a new lease of life for the industry in 1983. However, to understand this creation properly, we must look at it within its own context. Between 1977 and 1983, the value of Swiss watch exports had dropped by half and the share of Swiss watches had collapsed from 43% to less than 15% worldwide. The result was a steep reduction in watch industry jobs, plummeting from 90,000 to 40,000 over that same period. The Swatch – a contraction of Swiss and Watch – emerged in the nick of time. Designed by Marlyse Schmid and Bernard Muller, this plastic watch triumphed thanks to the marketing genius of Nicolas G. Hayek. The latter had clearly sensed the full potential of the first prototypes developed by the two talented researchers, Elmar Mock and Jacques Muller. In 1981, the trademark was registered. A year later, the adventure got under way with the United States launch of the first Swatch generation: an entertaining watch with a classic design weighing just 20 grams and water-resistant to 30 metres. The plastic instrument appeared to be made all of a piece, whereas the Plexiglas watch glass was in fact ultrasound-welded to the high-resistance plastic injection-moulded case. The quartz movement, which comprised 51 components in the first series, was directly built into the case and thus part of an inseparable whole. The countless variations, the reasonable price and the sturdiness of the Swiss Made models earned them spectacular success. Especially since the 1980s was a propitious consumer-driven decade that turned the spotlight on these products produced with a sufficiently powerful identity to make them collector’s items. The ongoing enthusiasm for this watch is a marketing model well worth examining…

Piaget Emperador Coussin XL 700P: the future is in the making

Piaget Emperador Coussin XL 700P

To celebrate the 40th birthday of its first quartz movement made in 1976, the Manufacture Piaget workshops located in La Côte-aux-Fées are presenting the Emperador Coussin XL 700P. This model with its traditional design is resolutely unconventional from a technical standpoint, since it houses an original calibre drawing upon the best of two worlds: mechanical and electronic. In other words, this model produced in a 118-piece limited series has a “hybrid” heart. The latter is composed of a classic driving force mechanism (barrel, mainspring and primary going train) and a new-generation regulating organ that replaces the customary Swiss lever escapement. The movement of the new Emperador Coussin XL 700P is in fact based on a principle registered in Switzerland in 1972 by Jean-Claude Berney under patent number CHF 597 636 (Partial). This horological construction – very similar to Seiko’s Spring Drive mechanism presented at Baselworld 2005 – involves a device that drives a generator by means of a classic going train. The latter’s rotation speed of 5.33 turns per second is regulated by a quartz circuit (operating at a frequency of 32,768 Hz) via an electromagnetic system acting on the generator shaft, exactly like the electromagnetic driveshaft retarder on a heavy vehicle. This original movement thus makes it possible to combine two technologies that combine to guarantee a degree of performance and precision almost equivalent to that of quartz. It is also worth noting that this mode of construction is entirely compatible with traditional horological complications.

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