Everything You Wanted To Know About The Watch Business

And where it might be going next

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The story of timekeeping begins eons before the wristwatch actually existed: the need to know the time must surely predate recorded history. We do know that as humankind began to develop complicated social structures, coordinating events became vital. Social cooperation demands structure: people wishing to hunt, fish, or farm together needed to be able to coordinate when to start and stop — and at some point in the far distant past, the concept of keeping time arose.

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For centuries, the sky and the clock were virtually synonymous. People used the sun, moon and stars to calculate time, but this meant the division of time took place on a large scale — weekly, monthly, seasonally. The need to divide the day into smaller increments arose only as civilisation grew complicated.

The Egyptians were the first to come up with the 24-hour day. Their first clocks were sundials with spokes that cast a slim shadow. Originally simple, these sticks grew ornate, with hour markers carved onto the earth, or on highly decorated metal bases.

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But sundials only work when the sun is out, so early timekeepers searched for other ways to indicate the passage of time, such as marking candles with bands that burned at specified rates, or, more famously, the hourglass. Other inventions followed: the most successful being the water clock, or clepsydra, a 3000BC Chinese device that tracks the flow of water into a vertical tank at marked intervals. The Egyptians adapted them along with sundials as early as 1500BC, and Plato introduced the clepsydra to the Greeks, who built fanciful and beautiful specimens, as did the Romans.

Following the collapse of classical civilisation, timekeeping became unimportant in Europe, and it wasn't until the 12th century that interest in timepieces reappeared, specifically, the mechanical clock. The invention that made it possible to build a mechanical clock is a device called an escapement which, by powering an oscillator, controls the release of energy and the rate at which the overall mechanism moves.

The French architect Villard de Honnecourt described an escapement as early as 1250AD, but there's no evidence he actually built a clock containing one. The first escapement clocks seem to have appeared in Europe in the late 13th century. No one knows exactly who first invented it, or where, but England, Belgium, France, Italy and France lead the list of contenders. Norwich, England, had a clock tower by 1352; St Albans, near London, also had one by the mid-1300s.

These clocks had no hands. Their purpose was to ring bells to sound the hours, which is probably why the word clock derives from the Old French word cloche for "bell", which in turn comes from the medieval Latin word clocca.

Slowly, however, hands and wheels came into alignment, and by the late 14th century, large clocks with hour hands were being built in public throughout Europe. The first mechanism that could be considered a watch didn't appear until 1511 when, according to some horologists, a German named Peter Henlein created a pocket watch with an hour hand known as a Nuremberg egg. Others claim Italians had already invented a portable clock in the late 15th century.

Small clocks slowly grew in popularity during the 16th century, especially among royalty. Emperor Charles V commissioned several, and in France, watchmaker Julien Coudray supposedly made two daggers with small clocks in their handles for King Louis XI. Most early efforts were German or French — the Swiss and English did not begin making pocket watches until later in the century — and one of the earliest English pieces may well have been a watch set in a bracelet that the Earl of Leicester presented to Queen Elizabeth I in 1571.

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Portable watches were most often worn as pendants around the neck, or, like Elizabeth's watch, strapped on the wrist. Then, in the 1670s, King Charles II helped popularise the long waistcoat, and men found a place for their watches in their waistcoat pockets, heralding the term "pocket watch".

New devices such as a spiral mainspring (circa 1500) and a spiral balance spring (1675) improved timekeeping accuracy, and helped lead to the introduction of a minute hand, although for many more years, most watches still featured one hand and were not terribly accurate. The man who changed that was Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747–1823), now considered the father of the modern wristwatch (which was just one of his many imaginative horological innovations).

The industrial revolution created the possibility of the watch for the masses. Machinery could now make watch parts, permanently changing what had been a handmade industry. Furthermore, more accurate timekeeping was becoming necessary. For the first time, more people worked in factories than at home, toiling for specified periods that had to be recorded for proper payment. And, the new transportation — trains — worked best if they operated on an invariable schedule: so, hundreds of companies created watches aimed at railroad engineers and conductors.

These were still primarily pocket watches, as men did not take to objects strapped around their wrist. But that changed in the late 19th century, in great part as soldiers discovered the usefulness of a wristwatch in battle. Pocket watches required at least one free hand to operate, so soldiers fitted straps to watches and wore them on their wrists, freeing up hands to operate weapons.

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Girard-Perregaux may have been the first brand to make wristwatches in any quantity for men, when it equipped the German Imperial Navy in 1880. But World War I did more for the men's wristwatch than any other single event. Allied troops were issued wristwatches and their reliability and convenience won their loyalty. Once the soldiers returned home, accustomed to the convenience of the wristwatch, they refused to return to the pocket watch. Male acceptance also rose after a high-altitude flight was set by a pilot wearing a wristwatch; athletes at the 1920 Olympics wore them, too. Soon new brands like Rolex, founded in London in 1905, popularised self-winding and waterproof models. By the end of the Twenties, the wristwatch was outselling the pocket watch.

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World War II interrupted its advance. Many manufacturers either slowed or stopped production, although neutral Switzerland continued making watches for military forces on both sides, which helped give them an advantage over other country's manufacturers, (leading to the country controlling more than half the market by the Seventies). But, when the war was over, watchmaking flourished again. Fancy new models were produced, thinner movements invented and ever smarter complications introduced, including chronograph dials, alarms and moon-phase indicators.

By 1950, about 40m watches a year were being manufactured: today's total is about 300m. For the most part through the mid-20th century, dial designs of the major watchmakers remained conservative, although some smaller manufacturers and many US designers played with popular art forms. Some of the most outstanding new designs were the irregularly cased watches designed for Patek Philippe and Hamilton by Gilbert Albert and Richard Arbib, respectively. And, for Movado, Nathan Horwitt came up with a face that was simple, clean, and used only one mark, a gold dot at the 12 position, but still with an hour and minute hand (eventually it was known as the "Museum Watch" since it was the first to be displayed in New York's Museum of Modern Art). Then disaster hit the mechanical watch: the quartz crisis.

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Looking for new ways to power timepieces, as well as to ensure accuracy, technicians experimented with new electronic regulating devices, one of which was quartz, a common mineral which vibrates when an electric current is applied to it. The first battery-operated quartz clock driven by such pulses was produced in 1929 by Canadian Warren Morrison at New Jersey's Bell Laboratories, and soon quartz clocks became popular in places where exact time was necessary.

The watch industry realised quartz could play an important role in wristwatches and by the Fifties, the Swiss were developing prototypes. But Japanese brands Seiko and Citizen beat them to the market with quartz watches that offered consumers something new: extremely reliable timepieces that cost a fraction of the price of a mechanical watch. By 1969, Seiko had introduced its first line of quartz watches, the SQ Astron. While demand for these watches grew exponentially, sales of old-fashioned mechanical watches plummeted.

The quartz crisis changed the industry. Many well-established companies, such as Angelus, Enicar and Record, were never heard from again and by the late Seventies, the mechanical watch industry reached its nadir. Fear, anxiety, and joblessness swept through the valleys of the Swiss timepiece industry and from 1970 to 1988, that nation's watchmaking workforce collapsed from 90,000 to 28,000.

Then came two unexpected developments. First, in 1983, Swatch introduced a line of inexpensive, well-designed quartz watches. Selling for as little as $35, it was a Swiss-made watch with Swiss design and reputation and tens of millions of them were purchased within a few years of its release.

The other development may have been a psychological reaction to the rapid changes taking place. The quartz watch was a stunning success, but perhaps because of the need to counterbalance cold technology with humanism, the hand-made, mechanical watch was reborn. Not every consumer wanted a mass-produced, sturdy quartz watch. Some preferred a small piece of hand-tooled technology that fascinated by virtue of its beautifully designed faces and remarkably intricate complications.

A decade after the quartz panic set in, failing watchmakers began to see a resurgence in orders, with new companies emerging to take advantage of this high-end interest. They quickly found consumers who wanted mechanical watches, extra complications and unique dials. In the early Nineties, IWC debuted its Il Destriero Scafusio, at the time the world's most complex wristwatch, with 21 different functions.

It was soon eclipsed by models from companies such as Patek Philippe and Gerald Genta, the latter another new phenomenon. A Swiss designer who created the first stainless steel sports watch for Audemars Piguet (the Royal Oak), as well as the Nautilus for Patek Philippe and many other iconic pieces, Genta founded his own brand, which flourished, and then sold it to luxury jewellery conglomerate Bulgari.

Meanwhile, designer Daniel Roth, who helped create Breguet's new image, started a company to produce watches with a distinctive ellipto-curvex shape (also now owned by Bulgari). Soon numerous watchmakers' brands sprang up, like Roger Dubuis, Franck Muller and FP Journe (whose stunningly crafted dials have made him one of the most highly awarded of all watchmakers).

Dormant brands were revived, including Blancpain, Glashütte and A Lange & Söhne, while veteran companies such as Jaeger-LeCoultre and Omega, which throughout the 20th century sold mid-level watches, were now producing high-end, complicated ones. With the economy in its favour, the watch business shook off its Seventies doldrums. In 2014, Swiss watches set a record of 22.247bn Swiss francs (around £14.8bn) worth of exports. Hong Kong is the leading consumer, the US second, China third.

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Still, clouds loom on the horizon: the smartphone fulfils the function of a timepiece. The watch industry counters that nothing beats a timepiece on the wrist. Apple has responded with the Apple Watch, while other tech companies have launched similar smart wristwatches.

Will the basic mechanical watch compete? If it succeeds, it may be due to a group of remarkable young watchmakers like Finn Kari Voutilainen, who is making escapements that cost a fortune but are enrapturing horologists, or Denis Flageollet, a Swiss watchmaker trying to redefine the laws of physics inside a watch. Romain Gauthier is manufacturing Swiss watches that are awesome. Stephen Forsey, half the duo behind the Greubel Forsey brand, is creating enormously inventive pieces while training a new generation of watchmakers.

Likewise, venerable companies like Girard-Perregaux, with its true constant force escapement; Omega, with its mindboggling anti-magnetic movement; and Rolex, with its so-called "playless gears", are conjuring up inventions that don't compete with smart watches for apps, but make the mechanical watches more desirable than ever.

Other watchmakers are looking to fight the Apple Watch on its own terms. At the 2015 Baselworld watch fair, several brands debuted their own line of smart watches: Mondaine's Helvetica 1 Smartwatch records its wearer's activity and sleep information; Breitling's B55 Connected uses Bluetooth to set time and store data; and Bulgari presented a concept watch that allows secure access to its owner's personal and private data.

Just as the beginnings of the watch are unknown, so is its future. For now, the mechanical watch is staying on the wrist, but in what form? Will it be part-smart, part-mechanical? Will one wrist be for a mechanical piece and the other for a technological one? Or will the mechanical watch revert to Elizabethan times and be worn on places other than the wrist? Even a smart watch can't answer that. 

Taken from Esquire's Big Watch Book, out now.

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