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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