The History of Time with Watches of Switzerland


Founded in 1997, Watches of Switzerland is Australia's leading official boutique retailer of exclusive luxury watches. Family owned since its founding, Watches of Switzerland specialises in the world's finest watch brands and has boutiques in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Perth. Watches of Switzerland has put together an informative narrative, explaining how the recording of time has evolved over the past 5,000 years. They've also created an entertaining and equally as informative animation that will give you a quick and concise glimpse into the development of time-telling devices from sundials to wristwatches and smartwatches. Have a read below! Who first measured time? It was noted that the ancient Egyptians were pioneers of time who had initially divided the daylight into 12 separate intervals, measuring time with a simple sundial. The Greeks and Romans continued to refine the sundial centuries later, but since the sundial was only practical when there was actual sunlight, they needed to come up with an alternative. Fortunately the Romans figured out a way to use something called a clepsydra, which acted like an hourglass but used water, not sand. But, as innovation normally leads itself to new found problems, the water hourglass proved impractical when it made its way to Northern Europe, which is notorious for its bitter cold winters. Timekeepers were finding that their water-filled hourglasses began freezing solid.

The weight-driven mechanical clock Fast forward to 1283 and Dunstable Priory of England had the first weight-driven mechanical clock installed. By the 1300s, this bit of technology had made its way across Europe, with many mercantiles centres now featuring a clocktower. Innovations in portability and precision By the 1400s, weight clocks were outdated and heavy. There was a new demand: portable domestic clocks. In order to make the clocks lighter, the weight had to be replaced with a tightly wound coiled spring. This made them run at the wrong speed when the tension of the spring wound down. Thus, the fusee came to life, balancing spring tension and improved precision. The rise of the pocket watch. In 1510, Peter Henlein invented the first watch – a heavy 3-inch orb that hung on a chain around the wearer’s neck. It wasn’t a precision instrument. It only had hour hands and it was only accurate to 15 minutes of the hour. In 1675, Christiaan Huygens came up with another innovation: the spiral balance spring. It was essentially a portable version of a pendulum, basically allowing watches to be made smaller. That same year Charles II of England popularised the waistcoat and fashionable nobles wanted a slim watch they could keep in their waistcoat pockets. At the time, a pocket watch was the most desirable thing a man could have. Owning a bespoke pocket watch spoke volumes about his high standing in society. The fashionable industry of time With the Industrial Revolution came the ideology of economic success. This led to the idea of watches being a symbol of status and wealth. By wearing a pocketwatch, you commanded respect and had the airs of a sophisticated and genteel member of society. A change of pace Horologists realised that the demand for inexpensive watches would soon outpace clocks. They would have to reduce production costs through mechanisation in order to keep up with demand. Americans were watching this gap in the market open up. The Waltham Watch Company set out to create a low-cost watch produced en masse. Their mass-produced watch had its roots in the American Civil War. Union forces needed low-cost timepieces that would help them synchronise military operations. And the Waltham Watch Company delivered. Their watches were inexpensive and kept good time. Finally, the watch was accessible to all. Luxury never fades In 1870, American watches caused Swiss watch sales to plummet. Swiss watchmakers had no desire to follow the rest of the world into mass production so they chose to focus on what they continue to do best: precision watchmaking in all its opulence. The bespoke approach of the Swiss watchmakers proved wise. By 1900, Swiss watchmakers like Rolex were exporting 7 million timepieces every year. The rise of the wristwatch in wartime

It wasn’t until World War One that men moved from pocket watches to the wristwatch. Military forces wanted timepieces they could glance at quickly to time manoeuvres. The Rolex Oyster The wristwatch was more convenient for daily wear. By 1923, self-winding mechanical wristwatches had made them ever more so. However, early wristwatches were fragile. In 1926, the self-winding Rolex Oyster changed that It was the first water and dust resistant wristwatch with a screw-down caseback, crown, and bezel. Post-war boom for wristwatches At the end of WWII, for every one person who owned a pocket watch, 50 had a wristwatch. After 250 years of pocket watches, the wristwatch became king. The Submariner by Rolex In the 1950s, functional sports watches became a point of intrigue. They symbolised a dapper yet athletic gentleman. Rolex grew like never before. When Rene-Paul Jeanneret, a Rolex executive, shared his idea for a diving watch, Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, listened. Jeanneret was a passionate diver. He wanted an elegant wristwatch for daily use that he could also use while diving to monitor oxygen time. However, watches at the time would get easily damaged by water pressure. In 1953, Rolex developed The Submariner wristwatch, the first luxury diving watch. To test it, Auguste Piccard fixed it to a submarine and dove 3,131.8 metres into the ocean. When the submarine resurfaced, the Rolex was in perfect condition. In 1960, they tested another Rolex on a 10,916 metre dive to the deepest point of the Mariana Trench. Again, it emerged pristine. Batteries and Quartz In 1957, Hamilton’s Ventura was the first battery-operated wristwatch. In the 1960s, Seiko and Epson developed the first quartz wristwatches. They allowed greater scientific accuracy and longer battery life than any of their precursors. The Digital Wristwatch In 1972, Hamilton introduced the first digital wristwatch. It retailed at a small fortune of $2,100, roughly $12,000 today. By the early 1980s, you could buy a digital watch for less than $10. The Smartwatch The idea for a smartwatch has compelled lovers of geek chic since the early 1980s. In the 1990s, the SPOT Watch allowed you to access news, weather, stocks, and sports scores from your wristwatch. However, it wasn’t until 2015 that a true smartwatch was born: the Apple Watch. Where does mechanical mastery fit in a digital world? If you’ve ever marvelled at the inner workings of a Swiss watch, you’ll know a luxury timepiece is a marriage of high fashion and obsessive precision. Luxury watches have a formidable survival mechanism. They have thrived through revolutions, wars, even to the bottom of the ocean. Swiss watches are having a renaissance as a status symbol. They have something a mass-produced smartwatch will never have – a timeless je ne sais quoi. A luxury watch speaks volumes about the wearer’s impeccable taste and powerful position in society. While smartwatch wearers want to flaunt their productivity and connectedness, those who wear a luxury mechanical watch are saying something different: “I’m building a legacy. I run an empire.”


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This article was written in a collaborative effort with Watches of Switzerland.

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