5 places that changed watchmaking history - read the history behind them in The Journal at A Collected Man London illustrated by Prints Harry
August 2021 8 Min Read

Five places that changed watchmaking

By Felix Scholz

The first 'place' you're likely to associate with watchmaking is the manufacture — those artisanal factories full of big machines and focused quiet. That response is entirely appropriate; it is in those Swiss cantons that watchmaking does, indeed, take place. But take it a step further and ask what places really matter to watchmaking, what specific locations — and times — have changed the course of horological history. Ask that, and you suddenly find yourself in the trenches of World War One or the Lunar Module of Apollo 11. We asked ourselves that question and came up with five somewhat surprising answers.


The first landfall successfully predicted by Harrison's H4.

The isolated islands of Madeira, sitting off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic Ocean, are known primarily for tourism, cake and wine. Timekeeping, not so much. In 1761, the Portuguese colony played a crucial role in solving a problem that stumped scientists for centuries. That problem, of course, is Longitude. Until accurate marine timekeeping was developed, determining one’s longitudinal position at sea required complex tables and lunar measurements which were often unreliable, and had far-reaching consequences.

An unlikely place for a historical moment in watchmaking.

Solving the problem was taken very seriously by the governments of the time. In 1714, England passed an act
offering a £20,000 reward (roughly £3.17 million in today’s money) for workable solutions to the problem. John Harrison spent decades working on the problem, constructing a series of ever-more-sophisticated chronometers. Of these, the H4 was Harrison's first sea watch, an impressive silver-cased fuseé-and-chain affair with a large escapement. This watch took Harrison six years to complete, and in 1761 was subjected to the Board of Longitude's required trans-Atlantic trial to assess its efficacy.

On November 18th, John Harrison's son, William, sailed from Portsmouth to Jamaica aboard the 50-gun ship HMS Deptford. On the outward journey from Portsmouth, William Harrison used H4 to successfully predict an earlier than anticipated sighting of land, Porto Santo, the north-eastern island of the Madeira group. Following this it performed admirably well, providing scientific proof of the efficacy of Harrison's invention.

H4's first voyage saw it to have lost three minutes and 36.5 seconds over 81 days, translating to a longitudinal
margin of error of around one nautical mile, a phenomenal result. This achievement was somewhat marred by the postscript to the whole affair, which saw Harrison embroiled in a vicious battle for the acceptance and official
recognition of his work in the years following the successful prediction of landfall at Madeira.


Greenwich became the site for the standardisation of time around the world.

While sighting land at Madeira was the marker of success for Harrison's solution to Longitude, another geographic
location was central to Harrison's work and life and continues to be important to watchmakers today. I am referring, of course, to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. It was founded in 1675 as the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain, back when timekeeping and astronomy were of crucial practical, as well as scientific, purpose. For Harrison, Greenwich served as the institutional heart of the Longitude Board. Today though, Greenwich is synonymous with the meridian and the mean time.

Home of the Meridian Line.

Thanks in no small part to astronomer Nevil Maskelyne's lunar solution to the longitude problem, which was observed from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich became the globally accepted standard for synchronised solar time, with other time zones being calculated in relation to it. As industrial progress advanced throughout the world,
consistent and accurate timekeeping became more relevant in daily life. Greenwich Mean Time was adopted as a standard time for British Railways in 1847. By 1880, it was officially adopted across the island of Great Britain (the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, and Ireland held out a little longer). In 1884 it was recommenced that Greenwich Mean Time — already used by commercial shipping and the USA — become the global Prime Meridian.

Eventually, Greenwich Mean Time became supplanted by Coordinated Universal Time, commonly referred to as UTC, as atomic-based timekeeping supplanted astronomically observed time. But the legacy of the GMT lives on not just in Rolex's product catalogue but a convenient shorthand for any watch tracking both 12- and 24-hour time scales.

Neuchâtel Observatory

The way watches are tested for accuracy was changed forever by Seiko at Neuchâtel.

As we've seen, observatories have long played an important role in the never-ending quest for accuracy. While Greenwich might be the most famous, it certainly wasn't the only observatory making sure the clocks ran on time. In the middle of the last century, it was common practice for observatories to assess timekeepers and award chronometer certificates.

The major names in this space were Geneva and Neuchâtel in Switzerland, Besançon in France and Kew in England. The Neuchâtel observatory doesn't make this list for any particular contributions to the science of timekeeping. It stands out for its impact on the global watch business. With a real impact being felt by applicants from Asia.

Thanks in no small part to astronomer Nevil Maskelyne's lunar solution to the longitude problem, which was observed from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich became the globally accepted standard for synchronised solar time.

Founded in 1858, it wouldn’t be until 1959 that the Neuchâtel Observatory opened up its prestigious tests to non-European entrants, but the uptake was low. Based in the heartland of Swiss watchmaking, the competitions were dominated by brands like Omega, Longines and Zenith. Things started to change in 1963 when Suwa-Seikosha entered a timekeeper, a portable quartz timer known as the Crystal Chronometer, that they had developed for the upcoming 1964 Tokyo Olympics. This timer was the first commercially available quartz chronometer. These movements did not rank as well as chronometers from Patek Philippe and Ebauches SA.

Undeterred, Suwa-Seikosha was back in 1964, only this time they entered timepieces in the mechanical wrist chronometer category. Even then, they did not excel, with their best entrant ranking 144th. Sister company Daini-Seikosha also entered, and fared even worse. In 1964, the Japanese did not appear to be a significant threat to the Swiss.

Over the next few years, the Japanese persisted, with a Daini-Seikosha 052 movement cracking the top 10 in 1966. A year later they managed to get four watches in the top 10. In 1968 the Neuchâtel Observatory ceased running competitive trials for wrist chronometers after being levied by the Swiss manufacturers. So, the Japanese went to the Geneva observatory instead. In Geneva, they won the top seven mechanical spots, with the first three places going to experimental quartz beta-21 movements. Shortly after, the Geneva Observatory cancelled its trials.


One of the centres of the modern watch world.

The Swiss city of Basel has been important to the world of wristwatches for as long as there have been wristwatches. Its position on the Rhine and location near the borders of Switzerland, France and Germany has meant that Basel has been an important trade town for centuries. In 1917 the city held the Schweizer Mustermesse Basel, a trade fair, open to the public. In 1931 the watch industry had grown to justify its own dedicated pavilion and name — the Schweizer Urhenmesse. Patek Philippe has been participating at Basel since 1932, and Rolex from 1939. The Basel Watch Fair bore witness to the public launches of countless innovations and now-iconic models, such as the El Primero and the Royal Oak. It was in Basel in 1982 that Jean-Claude Biver launched his vision for Blancpain, while sleeping in a van outside the train station. The fair remained relevant for such a long time by changing with the times — over the years, jewellery, quartz watches and (in the 80s) international representation ensured that Basel remained the global public face of the watch world.

A design that will forever be linked to one man.

The true impact of Basel isn't something you can sum up through the press releases and gala parties; it's the chance meetings and connections. An inevitable by-product of the who's who of the watch world mingling in neutral space for a few days. Nothing sums up the spirit of Basel quite like Evelyne Genta's — the life and business partner of famed designer Gerald Genta – recounting how the Nautilus was born on the back of a napkin. On Geraldgenta-heritage she says, 'I can only tell you the story Gerald told me. He was sitting at the Euler Hotel at Basel Fair, and the Royal Oak had been done a few years ago, and Mr Stern, who Gerald had a lot of respect for walked in – the owner of Patek Philippe. And he [Gerald] created a porthole shape and then went over to see Mr Stern, and that's how the Nautilus was born.' A chance meeting of like minds, the kind that Basel did best.

Le Mans, Daytona, and Sebring

Racetracks have always played a key role in watchmaking.

Marking three famous racetracks down as a single location may seem to be stretching the premise of 'five places' beyond breaking point. On the other hand, you could equally argue that the place is the racetrack itself, and its geographic location plays second fiddle.

Not only do these three tracks — sites of the most famous endurance races – speak to the pre-electronic, purpose-built world of the golden era of motorsports. They speak to the golden era of watch marketing.

The Basel Watch Fair bore witness to the public launches of countless innovations and now-iconic models, such as the El Primero and the Royal Oak. It was in Basel in 1982 that Jean-Claude Biver launched his vision for Blancpain, while sleeping in a van outside the train station.

Few images of a watch have quite the cultural capital as Steve McQueen on set in Le Mans, looking effortlessly cool
in a gulf-striped Nomex racing suit, complete with Heuer logo on his chest and a Monaco on the wrist. That Heuer isn't there by chance, it's there because of Jo Siffert. The Swiss racer was the first Formula 1 driver to be sponsored by a watch brand. In the 1971 film, McQueen races in a Porsche 917, with the number 20. In 1970, it was Siffert behind the wheel in the actual race. McQueen is on record as saying, 'I drive the same car as Jo Siffert, and I want to wear the same suit as him.' As for the watch, well, it had to match the suit, and Jack Heuer, who provided watches for the film, saw an opportunity to promote his distinctively shaped and cutting edge, calibre 11-powered Monaco. The rest, as they say, is history.

The combination of race cars and precision timing instruments has always produced fantastical results.

Over in the United States, another watch brand had already made its relationship with racing known. Rolex first served as official timekeeper of the Daytona International Speedway in Florida in 1962, one year before they released the Cosmograph ref. 6239. It took until 1965 for the name 'Daytona' to appear on the dial, but the association with Rolex and the racetrack was firmly ingrained from that point on.

Daytona isn't the only Florida track with a watchmaking link. Sebring, home of the eponymous 12-hour endurance race, might not have the same recognition as Le Mans and Daytona, but it occupies a significant footnote in the watchmaking history. At Sebring in 1962, Jack Heuer met the parents of Mexican racers Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez, who told him how thankful they were that their children did not take part in the short-lived and lethal Carrera Panamerica race. Heuer, struck by the evocative sound and global appeal of the word 'Carrera' quickly registered 'Heuer Carrera' as a trademark, and in 1963 the first Carrera was released. From pioneering product placements to chance meetings, the racetrack has played an important role in how watches are marketed and sold.

From trade fairs to scientific discovery and the silver screen — the development of the wristwatch has taken a long and winding road. The journey of the watch from precision instrument to status symbol is as fascinating as the places it stopped at along the way.