Monday, 29 June 2009

Wristwatches: History & Evolution (part 8)

1969 was a very important year for the watch industry. Hamilton produced the first electronic solid state model, the Pulsar, with a digital display and no moving parts. The face and hands were replaced by a black screen on which, at the press of a button, the time appeared utilising light-emitting diodes.

In 1972, the first watch with liquid crystal display (LCD) was produced. There was an immediate boom in the production of this model but it did not last long. The market leadership was instead taken over by the analogue quartz model which had a face and hands. This new technology won out, together with an outward appearance that could even be termed classical.

During the subsequent 20 years, the wristwatch has been challenged by all manners of electric and electronic gimmickry but in the end, it has been able to ward off all opponents. In the nineties, all the major companies brought out new and more complex watches and introduced remakes of the classics.

The mechanical wristwatch has now triumphantly imposed itself on the market. It has celebrated the great events of the twentieth century and has withstood attacks from the electronic watch.

To continue "telling the time", the major companies must continue to "create" master watchmakers, the true artists behind this phenomenon.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Wristwatches: History & Evolution (part 7)

The wristwatch started on the road to success at the beginning of the twentieth century. The twenties can be defined as the period of the greatest technical change in the wristwatch industry.

The first really "revolutionary" discovery was made by a British, John Harwood, who developed the automatic wristwatch. Hans Wilsdorf, a German, made the second, carrying the Rolex name to the pinnacle of fame with a waterproof model, the Oyster wristwatch.

By 1922, the possibility of a self-winding watch had already occurred to the great eighteenth and nineteenth century masters. On October 16, 1923, John Harwood and Harley Cutts finally succeeded and they applied for a patent for their model in Switzerland. It was granted almost a year later.

The twenties also saw many successes from the other great manufacturing companies. In 1925, Patek Philippe, for the first time in the history of wristwatch manufacturing, introduced a model with a perpetual calendar which included the time, day of the week, year and the date. But the cost of this perpetual was too high and the Geneva-based company delayed production for 15 years.

Thus, it was not until 1941 that the perpetual wristwatch complete with chronograph, appeared in the Patek catalogue, the dream of every collector.

In the thirties, Patek Philippe produced, on order, a number of unique timepieces equipped with a simple perpetual calendar. In 1925, the company began manufacturing wristwatches with a repetition of minutes. In the 40 years between 1925 and 1962, the company delivered about 40 of these watches, at an average of one every 12 months.

The thirties were the Golden Age of the wristwatch. The decade saw the firm establishment of this new way of wearing watches. But the Golden Age of the wristwatch got off to a difficult start: it came during the financial crisis that hit Wall Street and the United States in October 1929.

Among the special watches first produced in the thirties were the unforgetable Digitals. They were watches closed by a flat piece of metal with small windows which allowed one to tell the time with the help of numbers that moved in little circles.

Some unusually shaped models were also put on the market at that time. They included the so-called Barrels, very large watches that were usually curved to fit the shape of the wrist.

Another success that dates to 1956 was the invention of a semi-automatic timekeeping device which could distinguish the order of arrival of eight competitors almost simultaneously. In 1961, the first time-inset appeared on the television screen.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Wristwatches: History & Evolution (part 6)

The seeming marriage between the wristwatch and the aeroplane continued throughout the 1990s and was analogous to the development of the sportscar, driven as a rule by "lovers" of the most sophisticated watches, with one model ahead of all the rest: the chronograph.

The first experimental era was now over and a period of sustained growth and success followed between 1910 and 1930. From the 1930s, pocketwatches lost their supremacy. The wristwatch became the rule, with an increasingly more refined and perfected form with technical characteristics.

During the fifties and sixties, more innovative projects followed: experiments with the electric watch; confirmation of the Accutron of Bulova, up to the electronic watch and the "invasion" of the Oriental watch.

The Swiss passed through a period of crisis but came out of it with hard work and emerged with the launching of the Swatch watch onto the market, the most famous quartz watch in the world.

But it is the mechanical model, the classical watch that dominates collections. The attraction of the period pieces that became popular during the eighties captivated collectors from many different countries and stimulated the most important manufacturers to make reproductions of very complex models.

The story of the wristwatch therefore comes down to an analysis of the evolution of fashion and its products and the originality of the producers.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Wristwatches: History & Evolution (part 5)

The English led the way in modern watchmaking but they were soon caught up with and then overtaken by the Swiss. By the eighteenth century, the popular models of master watchmakers working around Lake Geneva were already highly esteemed in the market.

The nineteenth century witnessed a period of great masters in the art of watchmaking: from Audemars to Breguet, to Adrien Philippe who with Count Antonine Norbert de Patek created the most prestigious watchmaking company in the world. The patents and inventions of that era were fundamental to the successive growth of the watchmakers' art and technique.

In fact, one of the basic technical developments dates back to 1842 when the Frenchman Adrien Philippe conducted research into ways of substituting the key with a winder that anyone could use, even if they had bad eyesight or were old with trembling hands. But the idea was not taken up by the French manufacturers of the time, so Philippe emigrated to Switzerland where he met a fellow exile, the Polish Count Antonine de Patek. Together, they saw the project through to success. The invention was awarded a prize at the 1844 Paris exhibition.

The winder was accompanied by another technological development: the miniaturisation of the mechanisms of the middle 1800s could have been inserted without any problem into a hypothetical wristwatch.

Between 1880 and 1910 came the first real attempt to "launch" the wristwatch as an alternative to the pocket variety. During those years, not only were prototypes of ladies' wristwatches produced but also men's, with emphasis on military models.

Specifically around 1880, the minister of the Imperial German Navy commissioned the Swiss firm Girard-Perregaux to manufacture wristwatches for his naval officers. They were made of gold with a large dial and hands and were held to the wrist with a chain. This was the first attempt to make time-reading easier without having to take off one's gloves and unbutton one's jacket in order to get to the inside jacket pocket where the pocketwatch was kept.

The innovation was later adopted by other military corps and the first aircraft pilots. Among the latter was the Brazilian, Santos-Dumont who marked the official birth of the wristwatch in 1904 when an extremely famous model was custom-built for him by his French friend Louis Cartier.

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