July 2022 21 Min Read

Disciplines that influenced watchmaking

By A Collected Man

Over the course of horological history, we have seen a multitude of innovations. These have ranged from the mighty to the miniscule, whether it be improving mechanical efficiency or an advancement in the materials that make the inner workings or the outer cases of a watch.

While we tend to mark this progress over the centuries in individual innovations within horology, it is obvious that this industry, like any other, has never existed in a vacuum. In fact, the form and function of our timekeepers have been shaped by the forces of our constant progress as a species. Every now and again, when the winds of change have blown stronger than usual, clock and watchmakers have been forced to reimagine the very meaning of their trade. Often when talking about horological innovations during what is a significant span of time, we tend to lose perspective of the wider world that made them possible.

We will consider some of the disciplines, from navigation to aviation and astronomy to metallurgy, that have time and again lent key technical innovations to horology. We will consider some of these key disciplines to the exclusion of one notable example: motoring. This is not because we are discounting the scale of the discipline’s influence on horology. On the contrary – we think that motoring has had such an influence that its connection to horology is now a foregone conclusion. This nexus has already been written and talked about at great length and detail. Instead, we will be offering overviews on the myriad of other influences that have left their mark on horology.

The Needs of an Organised Society

From ancient history, knowledge of the general time of day has served to provide order. In the earliest eras, this was done by simply observing the position of the sun as it traversed the sky. Devices such as a graduated sundial with a gnomon (a simple stick) were born out of our predecessors’ earliest scientific effort to regiment the day in the 8th century BC. Predating the sundial, the gnomon placed parallel to the polar axis of the planet, cast a moving shadow as the sun made its daily journey across the sky. The graduated sector of the sundial in the shadow indicated the hour of the day. Several civilisations of the era, such as the Greeks, Romans and Arabs, created their own iterations, their innovations driven by the unique needs of their people. Arab Muslims, for instance, were driven to this accuracy by their need to know prayer times.

However, the technology had its obvious limitations. As Theodore Diehl, spokesperson and horologist at Richard Mille, points out, “Sundials were very accurate devices, perfectly suitable for the times in which they were used, however, they were of course unable to signal the passage of time”. In an era before personal timepieces, this was essential. This effort to democratise timekeeping provided the impetus for the creation of large, mechanical clocks. Diehl adds, “The goal was societal timing. Without even seeing [the time], such clocks would tell you it’s time to go to church, it’s time for the baker to open his door, it’s time for the stock exchange to open.” This resulted in a more accurate view of the time of day, something that helped societies function in a more coordinated fashion.

This progress, too, had to keep being updated. A.B shows how as other technologies advanced and societies grew more complex, the need for accurate timekeeping became essential. “At first people didn’t have to worry about catching the train, because there were no trains and they weren’t clocking in [at work] because very few people have got clocks or watches,” they says. “So you’re going to use a sundial if you have access to one or you listen for the church bell.”

The movement driving the clock in tower of the late 19th century Dallas County Courthouse in Dallas, Texas, courtesy of Dallas Morning News.

However, these early clocks were often inaccurate. “Clocks and watches could drift by as much as 20-30 minutes a day from mean time,” she says. This meant coordinating with a secondary timekeeper – usually the sun or a sundial. In fact, up until the 19th century, partly owing to issues with accuracy of mechanical clocks, they often had to be adjusted based on the kind of accurate sundials with equal hour graduations that had been in use in Europe since the 14th century. AR adds that this also helped compensate for the ever-changing quality of time. “It was only with the advent of more accurate clocks in the second half of the 17th century that the differences between the time on a sundial and the time on a clock became more noticeable and problematic for setting,” she says. “This difference, known as the equation of time, meant a watch could be up to 14 minutes faster or 16 minutes slower than a sundial through the year because of the tilt of the earth's axis and the different speeds at which the earth revolves around the sun at different times of the year.”

The Demand for Increased Accuracy

While the early clocks presented a basic template for enhanced accuracy, successive generations were increasing demands for better timekeeping. This resulted in the advent of weight-driven mechanical clocks, in which the beat was operated by a verge and foliot escapement – one of the earliest examples of such a regulating device. They were markedly more accurate than anything that had preceded them, but they were delicate, the escapement easily set off balance by any physical movement of the clock case or its weights, or even changes in weather. While they were popular, often being placed in important buildings to chime out the time, their size and weight limited their application.

There was another, arguably more important, reason driving advancements in the technology that underpinned these timekeepers. This had to do with humankind’s desire to use more accurate clocks as the basis to understand the universe we inhabit. Before accurate clocks, the science behind astronomy was vague, says Stephen McDonnell, the Belfast-based watchmaker whose latest collaboration with MB&F has yielded the Legacy Machine Sequential EVO. The advances meant that suddenly our predecessors had accurate ways of measuring everything, from the rotation of the planets and the movement of the stars, by timing things. Crucially, it also helped them work out how long an actual day was, McDonnell says.

The clock at the gates of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich was first installed in 1852, courtesy of the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

In the dawn of the 20th century, research into electronic means of timekeeping seemed poised to replace mechanical clocks. The newer technology would eventually take over, a process that started in 1927 with the quartz-based invention by Warren Marrison and Joseph Horton at the then Bell Telephone Laboratories in the United States. These clocks were the first to use an electric current causing a quartz crystal to resonate at a frequency much higher than could be achieved with a pendulum. Quartz was more resilient to environmental changes too, another reason for its better accuracy.

However, the problem of accuracy had already been solved in 1920 by a London-based company, Synchronome, collaborating with First World War veteran and railway engineer William Hamilton Shortt, to create remarkably accurate pendulum clocks. “Between this modest man and Synchronome, they came up with this incredible clock with two pendulums,” says McDonnell. “Now, the problem with pendulums is that they are susceptible to forces like temperature and atmospheric pressure, which rendered these clocks unreliable.”

This Shortt-Synchronome system was based on a free pendulum. One pendulum was placed inside a vacuum cylinder with no air and it was fed by a second one. “There is a feedback loop between the two; one keeps the other one going,” McDonnell explains. “While I fully appreciate that pendulum clocks have little in common with timepieces that have come to be worn on the wrist, I am always inspired by the thought process that birthed such innovations when I sit down to think about a new watch” he added.

The earliest prototype of the Shortt-Synchronome Free-pendulum clock that began operation at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh in 1922, courtesy of Royal Museums Scotland.

What is even more incredible to McDonnell is that Shortt came up with this clock in his bedroom in his mother’s house. It was a novel solution, working within the parameters of the technology of the day, but its reliability and accuracy meant that every main observatory in the world had these Shortt-Synchronome pendulum systems. McDonnell adds, “These clocks were so accurate that nobody at the time could quantify how precise they were until the arrival of quartz technology … They found miniscule fluctuations in the rate that the clock would run at and it turned out that this was due to the tides likely affecting the strength of gravity. The clocks were so accurate, it was sensitive to those tiny changes in gravity. It is mind-blowing.”

Timekeeping as a Tool for Exploration

The advent and the subsequent popularity of the railways played a big role in the push to standardise time zones in the 19th century, while the popularity of air travel in the 20th led to the repurposing of a technology that allowed the wearer to track a second time zone. However, it was the need for exploration in the 18th century that spurred on a more fundamental development in the science of timekeeping.

A classic advertisement for the Rolex GMT, highlighting its function as an instrument inside the cockpit of commercial airliners, courtesy of Rolex Magazine.

Humankind’s desire to learn more about the planet converged with two other major considerations of the era – increased exploration and a want for trade. By the early 18th century, sailors had grown accustomed to using the time to calculate their longitudinal position. This had been made possible thanks to the miniaturisation of clocks in the 15th century, influenced in no small part by the discipline of locksmithing. It was the initial use of coiled springs in locks that birthed the idea of using the energy stored in these springs to drive the movements in clocks. The development of the mainspring did away with weights that had made clocks big, heavy and delicate. The balance spring, the next application of the spring in movements, is believed to have happened in the 17th century, with the Dutch horologist Christiaan Huygens holding the patent for the development since 1657. It helped regulate the flow of energy stored in the mainspring, ensuring more accurate, linear timekeeping. This meant that for the first time the miniaturised clock was also an accurate timekeeper. Obvious popularity followed and this basic powertrain arrangement still remains fundamental to watchmaking today.

However, these clocks were still not well suited for life at sea, as the changes in temperature as well as the many motions of the seafaring vessel took a toll on their ability to keep time. This erratic chronometry often caused crews to be misinformed about their geoposition, resulting in accidents that led to serious loss of life and property.

The problem was acute enough for the British parliament to step in, as A.B tells us. “The 1714 Act [of] Parliament set up the Commissioners for the Discovery of the Longitude at Sea [commonly referred to as the Board of Longitude] and announced a prize of £20,000 awarded to anyone who could find a means of finding longitude that would be accurate to within half a degree,” they says. This navigational need would lead to the innovation that has influenced so much of horology after it.

A 1778 nautical map of the world by the French hydrographer and geographer J.N. Bellin. It presented the world on a Mercator projection based on a meridian running through Paris, courtesy of Ancient World Maps.

“The principle underpinning using time differences to chart longitudinal distance is based on the idea that if you know the time in one place, relative to the time where you are, you can use the difference to work out the longitudinal distance you have travelled,” A.B says. This is based on the understanding that the earth takes 24 hours to spin 360 degrees on its axis. So, if your clock reads 8 o’clock and it is daytime, it is safe to assume it is 8pm on the other side of the planet. That time is exactly 180 degrees, and just under 11,000 miles away at the equator, from where you are at that time.

A.B goes on to point out that the spherical shape of the planet means longitudinal distance is greatest at the equator and negligible at the poles. “So, while half a degree of longitude at the poles does not mean much in terms of distance travelled, at the equator this means around 35 miles,” she says.

The calculations assume that it would take an hour to for the earth to rotate 15 longitudinally. By that maths, 1 degree of longitudinal rotation would take four minutes of time. “The £20,000 prize was for a method capable of finding longitude to within half a degree, which in terms of elapsed time works out to be two minutes, or an accuracy of within 35 miles at the equator,” explains A.B. A useful navigational clock would therefore have to be accurate to within two minutes over the course of weeks-long voyages, meaning a daily deviation of no more than a second or two. At the time, this level of precision was almost unheard of even in clocks based on land.

Based on the longitudinal calculation noted above, 'if you could find the local time of wherever you were at sea, which was possible with an instrument like a sextant, and you were also carrying an accurate clock which you'd set to the local time of the port you'd departed from, and say the clock was exactly an hour ahead of the local time, then you'd know that you were 15 degrees east of where you started,” says A.B.

It was a self-taught English carpenter and watchmaker, John Harrison, whose final design (there were four iterations) would win the £20,000 prize. His successful marine timekeeper, the H4, “featured a large balance which beat at 18,000 bph and an amplitude of about 240 degrees. It had a remontoire which operated every seven-and-a-half seconds and a verge escapement designed to have very little recoil,” says A.B. “It had a form of temperature compensation that helped the balance maintain a constant rate. Crucially, the watch could continue running while being wound up.”

Harrison’s earliest attempt, the H1 was markedly different in form and technology than the H4, that would win him the prize announced by the 1714 Act of Parliament, courtesy of The Planetary Society and the Royal Museums Greenwich.

While many improvements would be made on Harrison’s design over the next decades (by the likes of John Arnold, Thomas Earnshaw and Louis Berthoud), the H4, shaped by the navigational needs, became the first of the fabled marine chronometers that continue to inspire watchmakers such as Raúl Pagès and McDonnell and brands such as Charles Frodsham & Co. today.

Harrison’s achievements are all the more impressive, McDonnell says, when viewed in the context of the era in which he was doing it and the limited technology he had access to. “Any tools or machines he’d need, he had to design and make them himself … To this day, I think he is the most brilliant mind that ever operated in horology,” he says. “All of the mechanical solutions he came up with, like the bi-metallic strip, and the advances in metallurgy [he made], we are still drawing on now. A lot of that stuff finds its way into my way of thinking when I am sitting down to design a watch.”

Changing Fashions of the Day

The H4 wasn’t just a functional leap – it also marked a change in the form of such clocks. Never before had a piece with the form of a pocket watch been thought of as an accurate timekeeper. While it was a purpose-built tool, its form factor was undoubtedly a nod to evolving fashion of the 17th century.

As A.B explains, “Early watches all feature pendants loops on the top and were designed to be suspended from a cord around your neck or from your waist so that you can show it off to people; it was a beautiful, decorative item and a marker of wealth and your place in society.” The popularity of the waistcoat in the mid-17th century played a similar role in the popularising of timekeepers attached to a chain that could fit inside the pocket. “That was certainly going to change the form factor of the timepiece again,” says A.B.

In the 20th century, war would play a big role in the way our watches looked. “While certainly there are earlier examples of women wearing wristwatches, in large part the wristwatch’s development is a result of war,” says A.R. The earliest known instances of the widespread use of wristwatches happened during the Second Boer War between 1899 and 1902. During the fighting, troops were known to solder wire lugs onto their pocket watches, using leather ties to attach them on to their wrist, so they could read the time even when their hands were otherwise engaged. However, even when the First World War came around a decade later, pocket watches were still being issued to non-combat personnel, such as operators of telegraph and signalling equipment, who were rapidly becoming crucial to military campaigns.

An advertisement from WWI when wristlets or wristwatches started becoming popular on and off the battlefield, courtesy of US National Archives.

By the middle of the First World War, the importance of precise timekeeping to the war effort was becoming more apparent and watch brands were quick to cater to the demand. While wristwatches started being issued to non-combat troops in charge of communication, active-service troops were expected to bring their own timepieces to battle. The basic requirement was that the watches feature ‘unbreakable glass’ (crystal) and were luminous. This gave rise to the ‘active-service’ watches produced by a variety of brands – they usually also featured a degree of water and dust insulation, a nod to the kind of service they would see in the trenches. The watches tested and issued by the War Department in the United Kingdom usually featured unsigned Swiss movements and black enamel dials housed in locally made cases with casebacks screwed on.

The W.W.W. watches were, just like the Army Trade Pattern pieces, an acknowledgement of the wristwatch’s role in warfare. War, for its part, popularised wristwatches. Just like the MoD in Britain, governments of other countries at war also issued watches to their troops.

By the time the war was over, the wristwatch had received widespread acceptance in men’s fashion. Shortly before war came to Europe again in 1939, defence departments of the major powers had invested in watches suited to the needs of the different arms of the military. In Britain, this resulted in the Army Trade Pattern watches produced to a strict set of guidelines – a case between 29 and 33mm in diameter, a 15-jewel movement, light-coloured dial with black numerals, a large sub-seconds dial, luminous hands, fixed lugs, a chrome case and a screw-down caseback. Then there were the Wrist Watch Waterproof (W.W.W.) – pieces made by 12 watch manufacturers commissioned by the MoD during the war, popularly known as the ‘Dirty Dozen’.

With the aircraft becoming a potent fighting force, Royal Air Force pilots started being issued a variety of watches including of the Mk. VII design and the famous Weems Second-Setting watch, designed by US Navy Lt. Commander Philip Van Horn Weems. While Weems had already burnished his reputation as an expert in aeronautical navigation, his most notable horological contribution was this, a watch with the first 60-second rotating, locking bezel. Bomber pilots could coordinate their watches with beeps of the radio signals in their cockpit, using dead reckoning to calculate position and the timing of air raids. This was the first instance where a rotating bezel featured on a wristwatch, even though the technology today is often associated with dive watches (more on that below).

The Military Origins of Dive Watches

For Britain’s naval use, Longines produced a sizeable Hydrographic Survey watch with a 51mm case with luminous hands with a dedicated screw to lock down the crown. However, most modern dive watches trace their origin story back to the wristwatches Panerai created for the Italian Navy. Jason Heaton, a dive expert and author, says that since the 1930s and towards the beginnings of the Second World War, on commission from the Italian Navy, Panerai was producing watches for the navy’s divers.

The Longines Hydrographic Survey is believed to be one of six. They were designed for frogmen of the British Royal Navy who operated manned torpedoes, courtesy of Hodinkee.

“I think that was, arguably, the first use of a watch as an underwater timing device even though it didn't have a timing bezel,” Heaton says. “Panerai was not a watchmaking firm. They were the makers of nautical instruments and compasses. But they had expertise in making luminous dials and using radium, so when the Italian military came asking for wristwatches for their diving corp, Panerai sourced oyster-cased watches from Rolex and replaced the dials, using their sandwich dial technology for high luminosity.”

A Panerai issued to a German Kampfschwimmer diver that was acquired by British Army Captain Alfred Packer of 43rd Reconnaissance Regiment. The rare example was auctioned in 2019 along with effects from Packer’s military career, as well as a photograph of the man, courtesy of Fellows.

While the lack of a rotating bezel would have limited useability, Heaton says that having a reliable, water-tight case and “merely knowing the time so that you can roughly know the duration of the dive” would have been useful enough. Divers often used these watches exclusively to time dives by setting the watch to 12 o’clock so they could clock elapsed time.

Heaton goes on to highlight the proliferation of amateur and commercial diving after the Second World War which significantly influenced the advent of the dive watch archetype we know today. “Blancpain’s CEO at the time, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, was a very keen diver,” he says. “Diving was still in its earliest days. [Jacques] Cousteau and [Émile] Gagnan had partnered on developing the Aqua Lung in 1943, selling them after the end of the Second World War. Fiechter was an early adopter.”

Using this device that allowed him to breathe under water made him realise amateur divers would also need to know how long they’d been underwater to be able to dive safely.

At the time combat swimmers of the French Navy were also on the lookout for such a timekeeper, Heaton tells us that a captain, Robert Maloubier, approached Fiechter. The two joined forces and started devising a tool around the basic functionality that would be needed in such a timepiece. “[It had to be] watertight, highly legible, self-winding and with some method by which you could track elapsed time,” he says.

It is a popular belief that the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms laid the template for the dive watch, a design where form totally followed function. It has proven to be an enduring set up with modern dive watches still following a very similar formula, courtesy of Haute Time.

The rotating bezel first seen on the ‘Weems’ Second-Setting watch, and subsequently on others such as the Rolex Turn-o-Graph, seemed like the natural progression of the technology. This resulted in the first true dive watches featuring a ratcheted, unidirectional rotating bezel, pioneered by brands such as Blancpain, Rolex, and Zodiac.

Maloubier, seen here after a dive with a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms on his wrist, courtesy of Blancpain.

Over the years, due to the utilitarian nature of their function and the form that followed it, dive watches have continued to be influenced by the needs of military and commercial diving. The helium escape valve is an example of this. Saturation divers who worked in helium-rich environments found their crystals popping off their watches during decompression. Rolex and Omega developed very different solutions to this while competing for the illustrious partnership with COMEX. Omega’s Ploprof would seal the watch off completely, not allowing helium inside the case. Meanwhile, Rolex would add the one-way helium escape valve that would go on to be adopted by many other dive watches over the decades to come.

The helium escape valve, another innovation in dive watches, was also a result of saturation diving professionals bringing the problem of crystals popping off during decompression to watch brands, courtesy of Rolex.

The 1950s to the 1980s marked a period of such intense research that, according to Heaton, the first generation of dive watches from the 1950s still can't be beaten. “It’s hard to improve on, which is why what we have seen since then are small, constant incremental improvements, whether in terms of materials or movement technology,” he says. “However, the basic formula of the dive watch has remained unchanged for good reason.”

Material Approach to Sports

The proliferation of wristwatches in the early 20th century coincided with improvements in accuracy. Theodore Diehl explains how greater accuracy was now needed in all forms of competition. “Whether it was a race on foot or in a car in the 1920s, or the moment in which two beams of light intersected in the lab, the available accuracy in the 1950’s, 1960’s or 1990’s needed to be improved,” he says. “The speed at which the cars or runners were moving in a race were getting measured down to the hundredths of a second or even smaller amounts. So that need radically pushed the envelope of more popular sports timekeeping, after atomic timekeeping definitively took over laboratory timing in the late 1970’s.”

Races were often timed using a series of stopwatches or chronographs, big pocket watches mounted on to a frame, with a lever to operate them. “Whenever a car completed a lap, they would clunk the lever that would stop one of the watches and start the next one in series,” McDonnell says. In the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Omega – the first watch brand trusted with timing the entire games – used a very similar setup. The brand showed up to the event with 30 chronometer-grade mechanical chronographs put together by a single watchmaker. At the time their timepieces could time races to the accuracy of one tenth of a second.

A Heuer Multisequence, a traditional mechanical arrangement for auto races, with several stop watches in sequence, with stopwatches set off and stopped by the pull of a lever, courtesy of Heuer Timers.

By 1948, the brand was already moving on from mechanical chronographs. Its ‘Magic Eye’ technology consisted of a timing device triggered by a starting gun and a reflective mirror. At the finish line, the athlete ran through a beam of light that recorded the time. Four years later Omega relied on its quartz clock that was accurate to one hundredth of a second. The introduction of electronic means of recording time presented a world of possibilities that yielded innovations such as the brand’s pressure-enabled Swim-O-Matic (succeeded by the Eight-O-Matic) starting blocks and photo-finish systems that can take up to 10,000 digital images every second working in tandem with its atomic clock technology-based Quantum Timers, accurate to one millionth of a second.

All this is to say that the advent of quartz and continued research into the technology took mechanical timekeeping out of contention in the race for accuracy. A discipline that had played a major role in popularising watches and chronographs had outgrown it. This shift, which was happening everywhere from cockpits to under water, has resulted in watchmaking innovations of a different kind.

“We are not worried about measuring a gazillionth of a second with a mechanical watch, which is by definition impossible,” says Diehl. “We’re utilising sports as a driving force to develop new methods of watchmaking, the creation of new complications and new approaches to movement and case design.” he added, summing up the spirit of Richard Mille. The brand, born decades after the quartz crisis, sought another way to make watchmaking relevant in sports.

Diehl points to the RM 006 Tourbillon Felipe Massa, designed for the Brazilian F1 driver in 2004, as a pivotal moment on the journey that has seen the brand become a pioneer of materials in watchmaking. “It had a very thin base plate of carbon nanofibre on which the complete tourbillon movement was mounted on one side in an extremely visually striking manner, unlike everything else in the market at that time,” Diehl says. Richard Mille had to licence the material from the US Air Force which used it in the cockpits of fighter jets to help evade radar. “We had to sign papers that promised we would only use this material for watches; we couldn’t use it for anything else,” says Diehl. It was the ideal material: incredibly tough, even when sliced very thinly. Not only was it light and robust, it offered resistance to the kind of vibrations, accelerations, and sharp decelerations required of a watch that was to be worn in the cockpit of an F1 vehicle.

The RM 006 Tourbillon Felipe Massa featured a baseplate made out of carbon nanofibre, a technology licensed from the US Air Force which uses it in aircraft cockpits, courtesy of Richard Mille.

Richard Mille has since followed up its lightweight take on the performance sports watch with pieces suited to the requirements of tennis star Rafael Nadal, golfer Bubba Watson and sprinter Yohan Blake. The watch went from being a crucial timer to a timekeeper that could withstand 10,000G and that “you could absolutely forget was on your wrist,” says Diehl.

While carbon as a material has been used in watchmaking before, reimaging its application in sports was a novel approach. While Richard Mille has other mechanical innovations in its portfolio, its mastery of materials still stands it apart. TPT is another example. “It is a form of layered carbon, used in many fields, from F1 racing and attack helicopters to yacht masts and spacecraft,” Diehl says. “TPT material is built up by layering 600 to 700 layers of microscopically thin carbon tissue, which is thereafter heated in an autoclave. If you know a part is going to have a specific crash or contact point, you can weave it and shape it in a manner that offers extreme resistance.”

Since mechanical timekeeping was no longer suited to sports, brands like Richard Mille invested in research in materials aimed at lightness and rigidity, like TPT, credit Hypebeast.

Developments in materials have always proved crucial to watchmaking, whether it was the first jewelling of watch movements in 1704 or when Auguste Verneuil substituted them with his synthetic rubies at the turn of the 20th century. The invention of stainless steel in 1913 would prove to be another invention that was a revolution then, and again when consumer tastes changed with the advent of the modern sports watch.

But to Gaël Petermann, one half of young independent brand Petermann Bedat, it was the invention of invar (a nickel-nickel alloy) and elinvar (an alloy of nickel-iron-chromium) by Swiss physicist Charles Édouard Guillaume that was an inflection point. Guillaume seems destined to have made an impact on watchmaking have been the son of watchmakers and raised in Neuchâtel, his invention invar, short for invariable, had a very low thermoelastic coefficient, while elinvar (short for élasticité invariable) was resistant to elasticity.

These qualities had obvious applications in precision instruments, including in watchmaking. “It had a big impact in watchmaking because it allowed watchmakers to create balances that don’t change with the season, allowing for more linear timekeeping,” says Petermann. The discoveries won Guillaume the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Meaning of Watchmaking

By the early 20th century, more accurate technologies had begun overtaking mechanical timekeeping, relieving it of the burden of accuracy. However, it would not be until later in the century that quartz watches would force the watch industry in Switzerland to rethink its very meaning. The pivot to luxury was an admission of this change in purpose. Instead of looking to incorporate newer functionalities, watchmakers started looking to the past, and its emphasis on craft, for inspiration.

As a result, today’s watchmaking’s biggest influence comes from within, with brands increasingly referencing past innovations. However, this isn’t born entirely out of nostalgia. The idea can often be to reimagine technologies from the past and try to improve upon them by using modern materials and techniques. McDonnell’s design for the Legacy Machine Sequential EVO is the perfect example of this. Inspired by mechanical chronographs that used to be lined up in sequence to time laps in races, he imagined an architecture where one watch would be able to do the job. “While that functionality has been around for at least 100 years, the idea of doing that in a single watch – no one has really evolved that idea,” says McDonnell. His solution was complex architecture for a dual chronograph featuring 585 parts that had a sequential mode to allow a wearer to time laps one after another without having to reset. It also includes split-second functionality, allowing two things to be timed simultaneously.

The Sequential Evo solves the problem of being able to time two events simultaneously, despite the fact that mechanical chronographs are almost never used to time professional races any more, courtesy of Monochrome.

This is despite the fact that as Diehl noted earlier, no one is using a mechanical chronograph to time races of any consequence. The goal now, McDonnell says, is like with any artisanal craft: “I am interested in the ethos of doing things as well as possible, in a beautiful way, the way the parts are made, the way they look, even the details the wearer of the watch will never get to see. This sort of mentality is vitally important and thrilling to me.”

Petermann, one of the youngest independent watchmakers, represents a quality not usually associated with this traditional craft. “We wanted to show that watchmakers don’t have to be older men smoking pipes. We wanted to show that watchmakers can have a sense of humour too,” he says. It is reflected in the watches he makes, named the Reference 1967. “It is named after the year quartz technology first started appearing in a significant way in wristwatches,” Petermann explains. It is an unusual choice considering that the movement powering it, the calibre 171, is inspired by classic German pocket watches. “We wanted the watch to feature deadbeat seconds, making it look to the casual observer much like a quartz watch. Initially I didn’t even want to show the movement on the dial side so people would assume it was quartz-regulated,” he says.

The Petermann Bedat Reference 1967 with its deadbeat seconds complication references what was the beginning of a difficult period for the Swiss watch industry with the rise of quartz technology in watchmaking.

While he was more than comfortable with this chapter of watchmaking most traditional watchmakers in Switzerland think of with horror, his customer base, Petermann says, wasn’t prepared for it. Petermann and Bedat’s concession was a partially exposed movement, visible on the dial side that meant it was obviously a mechanical watch.

The Verdict

Centuries of human evolution have hinged on our ability to become a more precise species. This has in no small way shaped the timekeepers we have designed and these mechanical devices have, in turn, charted the story of our progress. The disciplines we have discussed, and many others, have shaped and guided this progression. It has brought us to a point in history where a mechanical timekeeper is no longer the most accurate way to record any quantum of time that is crucial to the way we function.

However, instead of becoming obsolete, we think that mechanical watchmaking has again successfully managed to adapt itself, like it has done to the forces that have shaped it for hundreds of years. “It’s because horology is a lot like having a piece of art in your life … like listening to a piece of music … it brings an enrichment to your life. Watchmaking’s value is the emotional response we have to it,” McDonnell says.

While critics might argue that this might stymie technological research in a discipline that is based in a cold, hard function, the evidence points to the contrary. Admittedly, traditional watchmaking has had less of a footprint on the story of our progress, its ability to look within and focus on improving materials and movement architecture, along with a renewed focus on craft has ensured that it hasn’t just survived but thrived.

We would like to thank Theodore Diehl, Stephen McDonnell, Jason Heaton, A.B and Richard Stenning for their time, knowledge and perspective that made this piece possible.