Watch History

The 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.

. Who 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. Early 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. Only 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 & precious. As the 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.

One of the main developments of the 17th Century in terms of mechanisms was the fusee. This 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 watch. 

 Movements 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. The 18th century saw tremendous advances made, especially with regard to watch escapements. From 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. The 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.  As the 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 escapements

By the 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.  Tens 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. Dials 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” In the 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. The resulting standards, listed below, served as a benchmark for the manufacture of some of the most accurate and reliable mechanical watches the world has seen

Watch Requirements.

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 plus isochronism.

6. Adjusted to temperature of 34 & 100 Farenheit.

7. Double roller with lever escapement.

8. Steel escapement wheel.

9. Lever set.

10. Micrometric regulator & overcoil hairspring.

11. Arabic numbers with bold black on white dial with minute division.

12. Bold black hands & a seconds dial.

13. Accurate to within 30 seconds a week (gain or loss)

14. Dust tight case.

.The 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 watches. 

The 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. Many of the Swiss watches produced during this period were  accurate to within seconds per day and had automatic movements which negated the need for winding. The Swiss watch industry ruled, everything was perfect until……. 1967. 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.(!!!) The effect was devastating, soon the entire world was flooded with cheap but very accurate Japanese Quartz watches. The era of vintage mechanical watch collecting had truly begun………………..

      copyright: Chris Robinson 2005 – 2020