For many consumers in 2020, watches are seen as a meaningless commodity used to boast of one’s success in order to simultaneously mask one’s insecurity. Why on earth would someone in their right mind spend thousands on a lump of metal? After all a timepiece’s sole purpose has been since made obsolete by the invention of cheaper more accurate battery powered watches and electronic devices…
Well as I sit isolated in my room, quarantined due to the global spread of a novel virus, I begin to reflect on what is important in life and what I would need were the modern structures of the world of which I’ve always known to collapse around me. One of the most fundamental tools to Homo-sapiens after they invented tools to hunts and prepare food with was the ability to measure and record time. In fact, one could argue that the ability to understand time and subsequently plan and coordinate strategies is what defines intelligent and sentient organisms. However, on the other hand, maybe I have just spent too much time cooped up indoors.
Since the first recorded construction and implementation of a sundial in 290 BC Rome, Humans have effectively been recording and measuring time in order to organize society and implement structure. Therefore, any piece of equipment that has been able to aide man in this task has been that of a tool. As we move through time, these time measuring tools became more accurate and more integral to survival. In terms of the actual mechanics and the cultural significance behind the simple timepiece, I believe the last 100 years have seen the most tangible and important progress. Time pieces have been everything from tools used in war and the evolution of sport, to stark reflections of the society and culture of which they were conceived. As a result, studying the design and mechanical evolution of the simple wristwatch, over the last century, provides a much deeper and profound understanding of the human existence. However, again, maybe I am an enthusiast with far too much time on his hands now I am no longer allowed outside.
In the world of The Talking Heads: "How did we get here?". The evolution of recording, interpreting and presenting interpretations of time has taken us from Sun Dials to The Richard Mille Rafa Nadal.
The next god-knows-how many words shall be a whistle stop tour of the evolution of watch design and mechanics throughout the last century, taking time to acknowledge the most iconic designs and significant mechanical advancements.
1910s - 1940s - The Invention of the Wristwatch and the Military Era Design
The Cartier watch commissioned by Alberto Santos-Dumont to aide him on his flight attempts
This 30-40-year period is arguably the most important period for watch design in this century. This period saw the transition from pocket watches to wrist watches on the wrist of the everyday person and saw the inception of a number of iconic watch designs that have shaped the luxury mechanical wristwatch industry we see today.
Initially, wristwatches were initially conceived by Patek Philippe in 1868. However, this is based on a one-off piece made for Countess Koscewicz of Hungary. Then in 1904, Alberto Santos-Dumont commissioned Cartier to produce a wristwatch that he could wear whilst he attempted the first ever Heavier-than-air aircraft flight in Paris. However interesting, neither of these two can be considered popular or commercialized wrist-watch designs. The popularity of mass-produced wristwatches came after the first world war when surviving soldiers would return from war wearing their military issues trench watches. During the war, the respective militaries deemed pocket watches too impractical during war so commissioned watches that could be worn on the wrists. Then when these brave young men returned home wearing the tools on their wrists, this quickly became the fashion. Thus, the wristwatch replaced the pocket watch as the every-person’s staple for time telling. This also saw the inception of the Trench watch design. This is a design that is very contemporary by todays standard but one that few pieces from Longines, Omega and Montblanc still possess. For example, the “La Grande Classique de Longines” from Longines demonstrates typical trench watch characteristics such as the separately constructed lugs protruding from a round 32mm case. Furthermore, one could argue that typically women’s watch design demonstrates trench watch characteristics such as small round cases with narrow lugs.
This Birch & Gaydon LTD english military watch is an excellent example of archetypical Trench watch design with a round case, narrow separately constructed lugs and legible dials. The below Longines "La Grande Classique de Longines" clearly shares some similar DNA.
During both World Wars watch making was focused around the war effort, with brands producing military watches for both sides as tools and If brands weren’t producing tools for war, they ceased production temporarily or closed their doors. In watch collecting circle-jerks, the 12 brands commissioned by the British military to make watches for WW2 are referred to as the “Dirty Dozen” and are extremely collectable. The designs across the brands were consistent - very minimal and legible and consisting of a stepped 35-38mm case and a sub second hand. As a result, the military watch design was born. This Dozen includes the likes of IWC, JLC, Omega and Longines all of whom have incorporated this important part of their design history into their modern watches. For example, Omega’s new Bond watch brandishes an upwards arrow on its dial. These arrows were present on the dial of all the watches commissioned by the British military. Furthermore, IWC’s ‘Mark’ series spawned from their military issues Mark X.
The IWC Dirty Dozen brandashing the arrow on the dial and what later became the trade mark IWC numberals
The second World War also gave birth to a now iconic and important watch design – The Pilot Watch. The German Air-force commissioned a number of brands to produce a specific wrist watch that was to be utilized by their air force. These pieces had to be very large to be immediately legible, worn over thick jackets and be able to be operated whilst wearing large thick aviation gloves. As a result, IWC, A Lange & Sohne, Wempe, Stowa and Laco produced very large cased watches with extremely legible, simple dials and large onion crowns. The iconic IWC big pilot’s dial design is archetypical of the B-Uhr design (Observer). This was the name given to the dial design consisting of large, luminous Arabic numerals and indicators and a large triangle at the 12 O’clock. This design lives on in the IWC Pilot series as well as in Wempe, Laco and Stowa’s designs. A lange & Sohne obviously took a different route in their resurrection in the 90s but more on that later.
The IWC B-Uhr comissioned by the German Air force during the secind World War. The ultra legible dial, large onion crows, sword arrow hands, configuration of the "12 hour marker" and large case are all characteristics that IWC carried through into their modern Pilot model.
Finally, as the common man was off fighting the politicians’ wars, the aristocrats and elites still needed something to spend their money on. As is still the case, Patek Philippe was able to facilitate. Joking aside, the 1940s saw Patek Introduce one of their most important watches from a design and mechanical perspective. The 1518 was released in 1941 and would be the first and only perpetual calendar chronograph for nearly 50 years. As, explained in my article on the lineage of the Perpetual Calendar Chronograph (PCC), the raw DNA for this complication is still present in every iteration of a PCC from Patek Philippe and any other brand for that matter. Most importantly, the dial configuration consisting of 3 lateral sub-dials combining the chronograph reader and the perpetual calendar, has remained the core foundation of any PPC designed and produced. In the case of the PPC Patek Philippe wrote the rules.
The Patek Philippe 1518 created and then wrote the rule book for the Perpetual Calendar Chronograph.
1950s - The post-war boom and the invention of two of the most important and iconic watches of The Last 100 Years
The 1950s saw a boom in the industry as the focus shifted from producing tools for war to satisfying the reinvigorated market driven by a new liberal generation, free from the bleakness of the economic depression and war. As a result, time and money could be invested into progressing the manufacturing technology required in watch making. This lead to the quality of movements produced by Omega, Rolex, IWC, Zenith and Jaeger LeCoultre being of a standard that would have been impossible to achieve in the pre-war era due to the limitations of manufacturing technology. In fact, many well-read nerds suggest that the 1950s was golden era of technical excellence. An era where the selling point of a watch was its technical prowess – the industry discovered the commercial potential of the extremely accurate chronometer rated movements and technically impressive design. In many ways the archetypal 1950s watch design is a traditional dress watch style case and dial adapted to house new, exciting movements possessing accuracy never before seen. A perfect example is the exceptionally successful, still to this day, “Constellation” released by Omega in 1952. This was a beautiful dress watch with recognisably pronounced lugs and a chronometer certified bumper automatic movement.
The Omega Constellational was the first Chronometer certified watch Omega produced, typical of how brands at the time were pursuing technical excellence. The Constellation also boasted typical dress watch characteristics of the 50s such as the dramatic lugs and monochrome colour scheme.
In the same vein, Mid-Century Chronograph watches are known for their marriage of traditional dress watch design and utilitarian technical capabilities. For example, an archetype of the Mid-century chronograph is a two registered chronograph watch with tachymeter scale on the perimeter of the dial. This is the scale positioned around the perimeter of the dial so that the user can calculate speed based on the progress of the central chronograph hand. Simply put, one can usually identify a mid-century chronograph design from any later editions, by the conservative and traditional dial design combined with a tachymeter. Typically, these dials are a single colour with very simple minimal indices. Furthermore, the cases tend to possess more exaggerated lugs, which were very typical of the time.
This 1950s Vacheron Constantin two register chronograph possesses all the hallmarks of a Mid century Chronograph: Conservative dial, Tachymeter and exaggerated lugs.
However, most importantly this drive for technical advancement and impressiveness gave birth to a whole new beast. The Dive Watch. The dive watch is arguably the most popular everyday watch. The “Beater”, the “Ol’ reliable”, the ever-versatile wrist companion. Although Omega is credited as the creator of the world’s first commercial produced diving watch with the Omega Marine in 1932, many brands were creating bespoke diving watches for military and research purposes purely as tools. For example, Panerai, Hamilton, Elgin and Waltham all made water resistant military watches with the current Panerai Radomir’s design still very reminiscent of their original dive watch produced in the 30s. However, the iconic dive watch we know today came into existence in 1952 with the Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms. This Diving watch that featured a black rotating bezel was worn by the likes of Jaques-Custaud and the Frog Men of numerous nations. In 1954 this iconic design DNA gave birth to one of the most iconic watches of this century: The Rolex Submariner.
The Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms was a tool watch to the core. Every aspect was created in order to aide its user. This watch also set the design guidelines for the Rolex Submariner and pretty much every other dive watch to be produced in the last 68 years and probably for the foreseeable future.
Rolex release the reference 6204 picture above was launched in 1953. Although created as a technical competitor to the Blancpain, the Rolex Submariner would become one of the most recognisable and iconic watches every made.
Utilising identical design cues but adopting their patented oyster case and a manual wind movement, Rolex produced a design icon that has gone on to shape an entire genre of watch design that has gone fundamentally unchanged in 65 years. Essentially, Rolex created a watch that both defined a genre whilst simultaneously transcended genres. An oxymoron, I know. Let me explain. The Rolex Submariner set the guidelines for what almost every “Dive watch” of the following 60 years would follow: steel waterproof case, simple and legible dial, uni-directional bezel, screw down crown and a steel bracelet. Everyone from Breitling and to Omega, to the likes of JLC and Grand Seiko have followed these design guidelines over the past 60 years. However, at the same time, the Submariner became a watch that transcended genres. By this I mean the Submariner became one of the first truly versatile watches that could be seen on the wrist of businessmen in board rooms to professional deep-sea divers. The simplicity and legibility of the dial paired with the all steel construction made it a resilient and useful tool for divers. However, at the same time, the thin case and sleek oyster bracelet made it an effortless companion to everyday life. My point is perfectly demonstrated by the fact the Submariner was the original James Bond Watch. From 1962 to 1977, the Rolex Submariner was the infamous spy’s trusted time piece, effortlessly accompanying him on life threatening missions in all conditions as well as to a Black-Tie event in Monte Carlo.
Sean Connery demonstrating the versatility of the humble Rolex submariner in the film Dr. No......
60s – The Decade of The Steel Sports Chronograph and The Invention of The Automatic Chronograph Movement
The 60s were an important decade for watch design on two fronts. First, from a technical perspective. The 60s saw watch houses build on the technical excellence achieved during the 50s era chronometer movements. Now it was not impressive enough to simply be chronometer rated. This drive to distinguish one’s brand from the other lead to the conception of High Frequency Movements. For those of you who need a refresher in the frequency of movements, the term 'beats per hour' (bph) refers to the number of times a balance wheel rotates within a 60-minute span. A single-direction rotation is also called a vibration. The advantage to a higher beat count is that it will resist fluctuations from external disturbances. This has to do with the frequency of the everyday motion a watch is subjected to while being worn. Without getting into the mathematics, the normal rotational activity of our arm motions usually occurs at a rate very close to the frequency of a lower bph movement. The closer the motion frequencies are to each other, the more it influences the balance assembly's oscillations and the more it will have an adverse effect on accuracy. This partly accounts for why your watch keeps different time on your wrist compared to on your winder. Back to my point, developments in production processing and, more importantly, lubrication technology meant that by the mid-1960s, the top tier Swiss makers saw the potential to increase market share by offering faster running movements than had previously been thought possible. 28,800 beats per hour was reached relatively early on in the race, with the apex being the creation of mechanisms that ran at a lightning fast 36,600 beats per hour, a figure that is still remarkable even forty years later. Girard-Perregaux was the first to offer a 36,600 in the Gyro-matic automatic movement. This level of frequency movement set the benchmark of modern watchmaking with 36,600 rarely being surpassed in modern mechanical movements. In fact, the only mass-produced watch with higher frequency movement is the recent Zenith Defy Lab which has an anxiety-inducing 108,000 Beats per Hour…
The Girard Peregeux Gyromatic was a technically impressive watch that broke new ground in terms of high frequency movements. This example with a 39 jewel 36,000 Hz movement is a level of spec that isn't reguarly exceeded in modern watches.
The second and more mainstream reason why the 60s were so significant in the evolution of watch design is simplythat the 60s were the Decade of the Steel Sports Chronograph. At the time these were developed as integral tool watches. The steel chronograph was used by race car drivers and pilots as an instrument. Therefore, the marriage of new hyper-accurate manual wind movements and a demand for hard wearing timepieces with a stopwatch feature gave birth to a number of truly iconic steel chronographs from a number of brands.
Firstly, 1961 saw Heuer introduce the Autavia and then the Carrera in 1963. Both manual wind steel chronographs inspired by the stopwatches used by racing drivers. The brief for both was to create super legible driving watches that had a stopwatch feature, utilized by professional drivers.
Following closely in Heuer’s footsteps, Rolex began housing their Cosmograph chronograph movements in a steel oyster case in 1963. These are the now very valuable “pre-daytona” Cosmographs. An all steel case, pump pushers and a horizontal tri-compax chronograph register layout, this DNA was inherited by the following generations of Rolex chronographs to give birth to the Rolex Daytona we know today, so named after the famous Daytona Racing event in Florida.
The Rolex "Pre-Dayton" Cosmograph were released in 1963. These, like the submariner, were initially tools but soon became exceptionally iconic and recognisable pieces across all walks of life.
Moreover, from a purely cosmetic perspective, the 60s was quickly becoming the era of artistic expression and less restrictions on colour. Particularly in watch design, up until the 60s colour schemes were typically gold or a white metal cases with either a solid black dial or solid white dial. The 60s saw an introduction of more imaginative and daring colour scheme. As a result, we see Panda dial chronographs becoming very popular in the early 1960s. This was observed by designers of the time and subsequently the 60s is remembered for these awesome panda dial chronographs made by every man and their dog. From Rolex Daytona’s, to Breitling Top Time’s, Heuer Carrera’s and Universal Tri-compax’s the simple idea of having contrasting chronograph sub-dials to the dial (most notable Black and white – Panda) became the 1960s sports chronograph archetype.
The exquisite 6239 Rolex Dayton boasts a quintessentially 1960s style panda dial.
However most importantly, the end of the 60s saw the culmination of all this technical advancement and style trends in one of the most iconic and important chronographs ever made: The Zenith El Primero. Whilst in a race with Seiko, Breitling and Heuer, Zenith released and patented the first ever automatic chronograph movement. This was very significant because firstly, all chronographs up to this point were manual wind. Secondly, most iconic watches and watch movements of the 20th century have been automatic chronographs. Some examples being the Heuer Monaco and Autavia, Rolex Daytona and pretty much every other chronograph produced in the last 20-30 years.
The Zenith El Primero Automatic Chronograph movement has was used in the Rolex daytona until the 2000s. The El Primero movement was like the Lemania manual wind chronograph in the sense is stood the test of time under the guise of "If its not broken, dont fix it"
70s – The Rise of the Luxury Steel Sports Watch
The cataclysmic event in the watch industry that changed it forever was, of course, the conception of the quartz movement. However, this incentivized a response from brands and designers whom, as a result, began to think outside the box to compete. One such response was Gerald Genta designing the very first luxury steel sports watch. As the Quartz crisis ruined the luxury swiss watch industry, Audemars Piguet saw inspiration from the Italian market which saw an increasing demand for luxury steel sports watches. This was an absurd proposition at the time as luxury pieces were made in precious metals whilst Omega, Rolex and Heuer made tool watches out of steel. However, AP took the risk and commissioned Gerald Genta to design a luxury mechanical watch that could be used for all occasions and made from steel. Rumour has it, Genta designed the iconic Royal Oak in one evening. This changed the watch industry forever making steel a luxury material. We wouldn’t have £10,000 Rolex GMTs without it! This design also inspired the Patek Philippe Nautilus, IWC Ingenieur and the Hublot Big Bang, all of which were designed by Gentra.
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak at the time was a completely new idea. Hard to imagine now considering the strength of the Luxury Steel Sports Watch now...
This was also the decade that Heuer’s most iconic sport watches were release. The Monaco, actually released in 1969 but who is splitting hairs, was released in response to the Zenith beating Heuer to the chase in producing the first automatic chronograph. Tag Heuer had to come up with something possessing a unique selling point to compete, so they designed the Monaco. Subsequently, this meant that they were responsible for designing the first square cased automatic chronograph. Although this was still very much considered a sports watch at the time, the Monaco became another icon of the luxury steel sports watch after it became a cult classic thanks the Steve McQueen sporting one in the film Le Mans.
80s - The end of the world as we know it: The Quartz Crisis
This was a very tricky decade for watch making. The Quartz crisis was in full swing at this point as the cheap simple Asian manufactured battery watch completely manifested itself in the market and had overtaken and replaced mechanical watches completely.
As a result, this was a decade of many watch brands ceasing to exist after struggling to compete with quartz. The biggest losses were Heuer and Universal Geneve. Two extremely important and iconic swiss Brands that simply could not compete. Although Universal sadly disappeared entirely in 1989, Heuer was purchased by TAG in 1985 to form the Tag Heuer brand we know today. TAG was a manufacture of bespoke high-tech equipment such as turbo chargers for Formula 1 cars and saw a future in the swiss giant. Although many purists believe that TAG Heuer possesses few of the original Heuer DNA, many of the original Heuer models have been faithfully reissued in recent years.
TAG purchased Heuer 1985. The above shows the comparison between the much loved Heuer Autavia Mark 3 from the 1960s and the recent reissue. It is very likely that if Tag hadnt stepped in, the Heuer would have ended up like Universal.
This is an interesting decade for mechanical watch design as suddenly the priority for brands became either differentiating themselves from Quartz and maintaining their mechanical lineage or try to compete. As a result, many large famous brands started working together to create a swiss quartz movement. Most notably Jaeger le-coultre and IWC teamed up to create a quartz chronograph movement. Furthermore, even Patek Philippe and Rolex began introduces models within existing ranges that included cheaper quartz pieces. For example, the Rolex Oyster quartz was introduced in the early 80s. This was a new more angular version of the popular Rolex Datejust that incorporated this new battery technology in the movements. Thankfully, the Rolex Quartz era ended in 2001 when they decided to longer pursue Quartz movements. This is interesting as very, very few brands have followed suit with even the likes of JLC, Patek and AP still having a number of quartz models in their current lineup.
The Rolex Oysterquartz is a demonstration of how even the purest of Swiss mechanical watch makers were experimenting with Quartz watches.
90s – The resurrection of the Mechanical Watch Industry
The 90s were a resurrection in mechanical watchmaking. Those whom survived the quartz crisis had realised that the arrival of cheap mass-produced Asian battery watches meant that they could no longer compete from a “tool” perspective. As a result, Swiss mechanical watch companies were now entirely a luxury item. No longer would your everyday man own a Rolex or Omega because they were reliable and well-made utensils for telling time because a £50 Chinese watch with a battery could do that. Therefore, Swiss watch brands had to market themselves as a luxury and sophisticated accessory.
During the 90s, brands were trying to find their feet and reestablish themselves in this new world. Much like Europe after the War, the survivors in the watch industry had to build it back up again. As a result, brands were sticking to what they knew best mechanically but, at the same time, trying to focus on marketing and appealing to this new market of consumers more interested in the statement of a watch. Therefore, bigger, bolder cases and dials as well as a more flagrant use of diamonds and gold. You only have to look at the diamond covered Jacob and COs sported by rappers and celebrities to understand. In the same vein the AP Royal Oak Offshore was introduced to great success. The big, bad, vulgar brother of the original Royal Oak, it saw great success after becoming the first choice of celebrities and sportsman alike.
Omega were already deeply established with enthusiasts but they knew that they had to penetrate the mainstream. As a result, they secured a position on the illustrious wrist of Mr. James Bond. This was a big deal for Omega and James Bond fans as it was contrary to the books. Ian Fleming had made specific reference to Mr. Bond’s Rolex explorer throughout “The Devil May Care” and “Casino Royal”. However, the Seamaster 300m with the wave dial was first sported by Piers Brosnan in 1995 during “Golden Eye”. This led to a whole new generation associating the Omega Seamaster as The James Bond Watch. I am included in this category.
Who doesn't want to be Bond am i right?
Contrary to my previous argument, as the mid-tier brands were all squabbling over market share of the mainstream showoffs and enthusiasts, the classic high-end brands that were always seen as luxury accessories maintained their position. The likes of JLC, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet were never seen as tool watches. Therefore, the thinking was that someone who would buy a £50 Chinese quartz wouldn’t have bought a Patek anyway and so there was no loss of market share. Subsequently, the 90 saw a “new” entrant into the super high end contemporary mechanical watch market. The German family owned brand A Lange and Sohne was resurrected by the original founder’s great grandson. This was significant because it was the first “brand new” brand to compete with the historic houses such as Patek, JLC and AP, rivaling them on their in-house movements, excellent finishing and general purist execution.
A. Lange & Sohne came onto the scene sacrificing no quality and cutting no corners in order to break into the very top tier market.
2000s - The Big, The Brash and the Shiny
The 90s saw very little advancement in complication and mechanical advancement. This was potentially due to the fact brands didn’t have a great deal of spare capital for R&D after scraping through the Quartz crisis. Therefore, the 2000s saw progress in new complications and new materials whilst also continuing the 90s attitude toward mechanical watches that they were a statement of luxury.
Firstly, the very end of the 90s and the early 2000s saw Omega purchase and commercialise the Co-axial escapement. Designed by the late great George Daniels, the Co-axial escapement, simply put, was a new escapement that completely minimized friction and the need for lubrication between the lever escapements. This would greatly improve the longevity of a watch movement. Very nerdy I know. But extremely significant in the watch world and demonstrates how the 2000s saw technical innovation in the actual watch making become a priority again.
By Omega Purchasing the Co-Axial movement created by the late great watchmaker George Daniels, they demonstrated how the industry was looking to once again push the technical boundaries and innovate again after a mechanical dark period following the fall out of the Quartz Crisis.
Secondly, when Rolex introduced the likes of the Yacht Master and the Deep-Sea Diver, they perfectly demonstrated my point about the 2000s being the decade where the consumer still wanted a statement piece aesthetically but now also wanted mechanical innovation to match. These were watches that were mechanically very impressive and innovative but with little realistic every-day application, essentially again they were big boy statement pieces.
The Rolex Yacht Master II was a perfect combination of technical innovation and a design that embodied the lifestyle of the Premiership footballers, celebrities and watch purists alike.
However, my point is no more perfectly demonstrated than through the entrance to the market of a brand known solely for being one of the biggest, bad-est, most expensive and most over the top statement pieces in the business. In 2001, a 50-year-old watch and jewelry mogul called Richard Mille launched his watch brand. Richard Mille watches were completely unique for their never before seen designs, mind-boggling complications, completely novel materials and eye-watering price tags. Richard Mill