history of watches is a fascinating story. The earliest of what may be
described as watches, appeared in the early 16th century, although there were
probably even earlier individual examples.
invented the watch is a complete mystery and it is probably the case that they
evolved simultaneously in different parts of Europe. These early watches were
most likely the result of one mans (for it was almost certainly a
male occupation) labour i.e the complete movement and case would be made by
one individual who had all the pre-requisite skills of fine metalwork required
for the task. Probably a locksmith with his own small workshop.
watches tended to be "egg" shaped and their accuracy was limited such that
they only possessed an hour hand with the dial being divided into hours. As
accuracy improved these hours were sub divided into quarters.
the wealthiest of individuals possessed such an object and very few remain
today in various museums of Horology throughout the world. They can also be
observed in some of the many fine paintings of European Royalty & Aristocracy.
Such watches would be handled very carefully as they were extremely fragile &
17th century advanced the prevalence of the watch became more apparent
although its use was still restricted to the aristocracy and senior members of
the armed forces. It also changed its form, became smaller & thinner as
manufacturing techniques improved and many were worn round the neck in pendant
form. As in any other manufacturing technique, with more extensive travel &
trade, ideas were transferred and techniques improved.
the main developments of the 17th Century in terms of mechanisms was the
consisted of a chain or piece of gut wrapped around a cone and attached to the
mainspring barrel. This allowed the force from the mainspring to be maintained
at a constant force as it wound down and hence improved the accuracy of the
became more accurate and robust until around the 3rd quarter of the 17th
century the minute hand appeared. Although not immediately accepted it seems
strange to us now to think of a watch without a minutes indicator.
These watches were often heavily jewelled and gilded, their owners certainly
made no effort to hide their prize possession.
18th century saw tremendous advances made, especially with regard to watch
an aesthetic perspective the 18th century saw some of the most beautiful watch
cases ever produced. The techniques of enamelling were full developed
resulting in watches with lovely miniature paintings on their cases. Some of
these are exquisite. The watch was also becoming slimmer & more rounded and
was increasingly carried in the pocket rather than around the neck.
19th century saw the increasing use of porcelain dials rather than precious
metal dials. Although these porcelain dials were more fragile they were much
less costly to produce and could also be enamelled. Every major town now had
at least one watchmaker and watches, although still relatively expensive, were
quite common amongst the upper & middle classes. There were many fine makers
of this period and their timepieces were both fine objects to behold as well
as accurate timekeepers. There were a number of centres of excellence
throughout Europe including Geneva, Paris, London and indeed Liverpool which
had a thriving watch industry due to its importance as a major Port and home
of many merchant travellers.
century developed and manufacturing techniques improved watches became more
accurate, cheaper & plentiful. The enamel decoration perfected in the previous
century waned and cases became less ornate and extravagant. Indeed the
movements themselves became less ornate compared to the filigree work of the
previous century. One of the most important developments was the adoption of
the lever escapement which, by the end of the century, had almost completely
replaced the earlier detente & duplex
1870's developments were taking place in the USA which were to shape the watch
industry for the next half century. Factories were being developed, as
Capitalism took root, which were specifically designed for watch manufacture.
These were to use mass production techniques using machine made parts,
perfected and then reproduced in their millions.
of companies sprang up, some to disappear after a short while, but others
lasted nearly 100 years. Hamilton, Waltham, Elgin, Illinois, Bulova, their
names are still familiar today to anyone interested in watches. Indeed 1870 -
1930 was the golden age of American watch manufacture with a fantastic variety
of beautiful watches with elegantly engraved dials, lovely jewelled movements
which were both robust & accurate. Cases were solid gold, rolled gold
(sandwich of gold and brass), gold plate, silver, nickel, etc etc.
were invariably porcelain with arabic numerals and, once the century turned,
the vast majority were button (or stem) rather than key wound.
Watches were now affordable to most working men who had at least one to go
with the "Sunday best"
188o's W.C Ball was tasked with defining a set of standards for a Railroad
watch. This followed a number of Railroad accidents. Accurate timekeeping was
deemed a necessity. This was only part of the story but Ball pursued his
task with zeal, maybe partly fuelled by the fact that he had his own
prodigious watch company.
resulting standards, listed below, served as a benchmark for the manufacture
of some of the most accurate and reliable mechanical watches the world has
1. Open Face
2. Wind stem at 12 O'Clock.
3. 16 or 18 size.
4. Minimum of 17 jewels.
5. Adjusted to at least 5 positions
6. Adjusted to temperature of 34 &
7. Double roller with lever
8. Steel escapement wheel.
9. Lever set.
10. Micrometric regulator & overcoil
11. Arabic numbers with bold black on
white dial with minute division.
12. Bold black hands & a seconds
13. Accurate to within 30 seconds a
week (gain or loss)
14. Dust tight case.
first world war first saw watches worn on the wrist (in any great numbers). This was
purely on a practical basis. Following the war soldiers returning from the
trenches carried on the trend. Instead of modifying pocket watches to be worn
on the wrist they began to be manufactured for the purpose. Steadily, from the
1920's onwards the pocket watch was largely replaced by the wrist watch. This
also saw the decline of the American watch industry which failed to maximise
this trend. By the 1930's the vast majority of watches were swiss & wrist
1950's and '60's saw some of the most beautiful and accurate mechanical
watches ever produced. The upper echelons of the market were dominated by the
likes of Rolex, Omega, Movado, Jaeger LeCoultre, Longines, amongst others.
Some American brands such as Hamilton & Bulova still existed but their
dominance was gone. Although Hamilton went on to develop the worlds first mass
produced electric watch "the electric" in 1957. This was followed by Bulova's
"tuning fork" electric watch the "Accutron" in the early 1960's.
of the Swiss watches produced during this period were accurate to within
seconds per day and had automatic movements which negated the need for
Swiss watch industry ruled, everything was perfect until.......
The most momentous year in 20th century watch making history. The famous chronometer trials at the Neuchatel Observatory in
Switzerland was won by a.........Japanese Quartz watch !!!!
Despite the quartz watch having being invented by the Swiss in the early
1920's it was never exploited commercially.(!!!)
effect was devastating, soon the entire world was flooded with cheap but very
accurate Japanese Quartz watches.
era of vintage mechanical watch collecting had truly begun....................
copyright: Chris Robinson 2005 - 2010
Collectible Wristwatches by Rene Pannier (ISBN
The Pocket Watch Handbook by M.Cutmore (ISBN 0
100 Years of Vintage Watches by Dean Judy (ISBN
Collectors Encyclopedia of Pendant & Pocket
Watches 1500 - 1950 by C.Jeanenne Bell, G.C (ISBN L-57432-395-4)
Clock & Watch Escapements by W.J.Gazeley (ISBN
0 592 06513 8)
De Carles Watch & Clock Encyclopedia (ISBN
7198 0060 9)
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