How Did Timekeeping Evolve? A Deep Dive into Watch History

Time—it’s a fundamental part of our human existence. It guides our daily rhythms, turning night into day and changing the seasons. It informs our perception of the past, present, and future and underscores the transient moments that make up our lives. Most starkly, it serves as a poignant reminder of our mortality. 

Time is also bound to our nature as a technological species. We have become able to view finer and finer slices of time over the centuries, and our modern technologies and systems are built on the foundation of our current high-precision ways of measuring time. In turn, our lives have become more and more fast-paced.

Our perception of time has evolved in tandem with the development of time-keeping devices, best exemplified by the ubiquitous wristwatch. Yet, this unassuming fashion accessory carries a weighty history. It’s a testimony to mankind’s progress, charting our journey over centuries. Now, let’s delve into how our timepieces have evolved through the ages.

The Dawn of Timekeeping: Origin and Early Methods

The earliest possible method of keeping time is perhaps the observation of celestial bodies. Aside from navigation, early man looked at the sky, using the appearance of the sun, the moon, certain stars and constellations, and the five planets known by the ancients to signal the start of major activities and seasons.

A number of early civilizations also came up with their own ways of keeping time independent of one another. One of these early methods is the sundial, which uses the shadow cast by a stick to roughly tell the time of day. Other methods included using water flowing out of containers or burning candles and incense. The development of glass also led to the hourglass, which uses the flow of sand.

The evolution of timekeeping follows a general trend toward greater precision. A significant leap in technology came with the invention of the escapement. An escapement is a gear that, when integrated into a set of gears known as a “train,” enables a controlled, oscillating motion. This motion can then be used to measure time. The escapement has its own history of evolutions and still lies at the heart of modern-day mechanical watches.

The Advent of the Pocket Watch

Mechanical timekeeping devices have evolved over centuries, becoming progressively smaller and more portable. The pocket watch, which has been around since the late 15th century, was typically kept safe from the elements in one’s pocket due to the watch’s sensitivity to weather conditions during that time.

Pocket watches also underwent their own phases of evolution, becoming thinner and smaller, along with innovations in the design and manufacturing of their internal components. Several innovations were made to its various parts, including Thomas Tompion’s cylinder escapement, Pierre Le Roy’s temperature-compensated balance wheel, and jewel bearings introduced by Nicolas Fatio de Duilier in 1702.

Most pocket watches, however, suffered from a major flaw: unlike modern mechanical watches, they were prone to breaking from knocks or getting dropped. The pocket watches of that time contained fine pivots to minimize friction in their gears, which rendered them particularly vulnerable to shock. It was not until the early 20th century that economically viable shock protection systems were first introduced, and what would have been a survivable knock for the modern mechanical wristwatch meant a trip to the watchmaker for repairs.

Transitioning to the Wrist: The Rise of the Wristwatch

Interestingly, much technological advancement is driven by warfare, and the wristwatch is no exception. While women’s wristwatches were already in existence, the practical limitations of pocket watches became evident amidst the rigors of battle.

Toward the end of the 1800s, various conflicts saw the need for precise timing of infantry and artillery assaults, among other things. Taking out a pocket watch and putting it back in was proving to be cumbersome, and officers started strapping pocket watches on their wrists.

Soon after, men’s wristwatches began to surface, signaling the rise of the wristwatch and the subsequent decline of the pocket watch. The long-lasting impact of this move is hard to overstate—the convenience of a wristwatch is so significant that even in our digital age, where time is ubiquitous across devices, wristwatches maintain their popularity.

Switzerland’s Timeless Legacy in Watchmaking

Switzerland stands out as the hub of the mechanical watch industry; the Swiss are well-known for their precision and attention to detail. This reputation isn’t unfounded. The most renowned watch brands remain rooted in Switzerland, with various Swiss labels continuing to set the bar for quality and precision globally.

One of the best-known Swiss watch brands is Rolex, often seen as a symbol of the luxury watch market. Another equally iconic brand is Swatch, born as the Swiss watch industry’s response to the quartz crisis and made waves with its bold designs when it first launched in the 1980s.

Also, there is another side to Swiss dominance: take a look at any watch made by an active or defunct brand. There’s a chance that its movement—a name for the watch’s internals—was made by ETA, the largest and presently most dominant supplier of Swiss-made watch movements (both mechanical and quartz) in the world.

Technological Revolutions: Mechanical to Quartz

The history of watches is always defined by technological leaps and bounds. The era of mechanical watches is divided into two distinct stages: early mechanical watches and automatic watches. The former uses the power provided by a slowly unwinding spring to power the watch and has to be manually rewound every time. Meanwhile, the automatic watch uses the movement of the wearer’s wrist and hands to continually rewind the mainspring.

The biggest disruption to the watch industry came with the introduction of quartz movements, which used the natural oscillation of tiny quartz crystals to measure time. Compared to mechanical watches, this provided a more consistent and reliable way of telling time. More crucially, quartz movements were cheaper and easier to manufacture. Seiko introduced the Astron, the first wristwatch to run on a quartz movement.

This eventually led to what was called the Quartz Crisis, when quartz ate into the mechanical watch market, leading many brands to fold and the mechanical watch industry to almost entirely collapse. There is a case to be made that the complex economic landscape at the time (along with how the Swiss watchmaking industry was structured) was the main driving factor of the crisis and not the introduction of quartz movements itself, but it is clear that the global watch industry crossed its own Rubicon with the introduction of quartz movements.

The current landscape looks like this: quartz occupies the bulk of the wristwatch market and is the standard timekeeping device for electronic devices, while mechanical watches live on in the luxury watch market (many Swiss watchmakers embraced the luxury segment in light of quartz’s dominance in the lower and mass markets). A third category, the atomic clock is the peak of precision and is used in our most crucial areas, from data and communications to GPS.

Fashion, Culture, and Watches

The wristwatch has come a long way from its curious beginnings as a strategic military tool to becoming a manly fashion accessory. Since the very first watch in 1868, the wristwatch has undergone countless transformations in terms of design and trends.

Wristwatches are not only necessary to keep track of time, as demonstrated by pilots, soldiers, explorers, and mariners, among others. It has also fast become a mainstream, mass-produced accessory for personal expression. Its evolution also saw it become a financial instrument, status symbol, and cultural signifier.

Every year, countless new watch designs grace the market. Some trends may be fleeting, but others stand the test of time. For instance, the classic mechanical watch has gone through a renaissance, transforming into a luxury item that could cost thousands of dollars.

The pocket watch, known as the first piece of wearable technology, revolutionized the world. It was instrumental for conductors to keep exacting schedules for trains but proved impractical for those on the move. The task of reaching into a pocket could be cumbersome, especially while riding a horse or driving a car.

Rolex set a new benchmark in the history of watchmaking. They are known for their simplicity and precision in telling time. They hold the honor of making the world’s first wristwatch to be granted the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision by the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne.

During the Cold War era in 1957, the iconic Moonwatch was born. The only wristwatch approved by NASA for all manned space missions, it was made of steel with a 39 mm diameter case and featured a bezel with an engraved tachymetric scale and arrow-tipped hands. Even today, it remains NASA-approved for all manned space flights.

The 1970s was the golden age of luxury watches, characterized by their sophisticated designs and understated elegance. Brands such as Audemars Piguet and Piaget rose to prominence in this era. This era also introduced the cost-effective and disposable Swiss Watch known as the “Swatch.”

In the digital age, trends continue to shift, accommodating the changing needs of people. Currently, the popularity of the smartwatch is growing rapidly. They offer more than just timekeeping- users can track fitness goals, get notifications, monitor health, send messages, and even make phone calls.

Diving Deep: The Evolution of Dive Watches

The rich history of watches extends to their evolution as a tool for timekeeping underwater. Before the advancement in watch technology, exploring underwater while keeping track of time was quite challenging. In 1926, Rolex unraveled the Oyster case. This presented a more elegant, technically accomplished solution to water resistance. Omega soon followed, developing the first diver’s watch intended for commercial use. The Omega Marine used a sliding outer case, which later on became certified as water-resistant, capable of working to a depth of 135 meters.

Eventually, diving grew into a cultural phenomenon. It was all thanks to the invention of the aqualung in 1942. Omega also released its first Seamaster in 1948. Since then, diving watches have acquired enhanced legibility and water resistance, which have become the staples. However, diving watches weren’t really considered practical tools until 1952. The newly formed unit of French combat divers’ leader, Bapt. Bob Maloubier, designed a watch that would assist men while diving.

Made for the needs of divers, dive watches are known for their high water resistance. Needless to say, this type of watch has undergone several evolutions when it comes to refining the design. A milestone was achieved in 1953 when the Fifty Fathoms produced dive watches that were more intuitive to use, marked with hour markers of different shapes. It also features a rotating bezel with a 15-minute scale and an automatic movement.

Diving watches were constantly developed and refined as indispensable instruments by commercial and military divers. They are mostly more expensive than regular water-resistant watches.

The Modern Era: Smartwatches and Beyond

When Apple announced the launch of the Apple Watch in 2014, the Swiss watch industry waited with bated breath. We have yet to see whether it can cause an upheaval, similar to the time when the quartz revolution devastated mechanical watchmaking in the 1970s.

The era of smartwatches may not yet have the crushing effect feared by many Swiss brands, but they say the worst has yet to come. In 2018, it was reported that Apple shipped 22.5 million Apple Watches, as found by the research firm Strategy Analytics. In the same year, the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry exported 23.7 million watches.

The smartwatch sector keeps growing, with luxury brands such as TAG Heuer and Louis Vuitton even launching their own collections of smartwatches. However, in recent times, there has been a noticeable dip in the sales of luxury smartwatches. This decline is believed to be due to an emerging consumer sentiment that the blend of conventional luxury watch designs with advanced smartwatch features is somewhat off-putting.

Smartwatches continue to surge in popularity, particularly due to the introduction of various health apps. An increasing number of consumers are recognizing their potential for predictive health functionalities.

The Craftsmanship of Watchmaking

More than just timekeeping devices, watches are considered symbols of style, precision, prestige, and craftsmanship. In fact, the skills related to the craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking and art mechanics were inscribed in 2020 by UNESCO on the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. The craftsmanship of watchmaking is a long and painstaking process involving the creation of a case, which can take up to six months for skilled craftsmen to accomplish.

Watchmaking is made even more complex with the addition of watch complications. These are extra functionalities other than the simple telling of time, features like the date or another time zone. A complication is built into the watch movement mechanically. Among these complications, one of the most popular is the tourbillion. This mechanical complication is found in certain high-end mechanical watches created to solve the effects gravity plays on the caliber. It counters the drag effect of gravity on some of the smaller components of the pocket watch when held in certain positions. Collectors consider tourbillion watches as their prized possessions.

In an age of growing environmental consciousness and sustainability efforts, the design and functionality of watches have changed. Luxury watches, while built to last, still have a significant impact on the environment. The watch industry has made some important steps in working toward sustainability, from sourcing raw materials responsibly to supporting conservation projects. Many companies try to reduce energy consumption by running energy-neutral production facilities.

Buying a luxury timepiece is more than just purchasing an expensive piece of jewelry. The craftsmanship behind it means a lot more, making it an object that one can take pride in, knowing the work that goes behind the creation of every little piece.

Peering into the Future

The field of watchmaking continues to evolve dynamically, adapting to the shifting times and consumer needs. The fascinating fusion of traditional watchmaking with modern design is a testament to this evolution. For instance, many traditional watches are now incorporating advanced materials, pushing the design and engineering limits.

Innovative materials like carbon composites, known for their impressive strength-to-weight ratio and high resistance to wear and tear, have become increasingly popular. Ceramic is also a widely used material, offering a scratch-resistant alternative to traditional metals like gold and stainless steel, giving watches a fresh new look.

Moreover, high-tech alloys provide significant advantages in watchmaking. Thanks to metallurgical advancements, the use of high-tech alloys leads to the creation of captivating, long-lasting materials known for their appealing aesthetics and durability.

Final Thoughts

Watches have a timeless allure. Despite undergoing countless revolutions, it has remained a relevant and fashionable piece of jewelry with its quiet elegance and classic functionality. Its various revivals saw it being refined into more than just being a timekeeping instrument. Watches have become intricate works of art that symbolize personal style in the ever-changing world of fashion and accessories.

They have simply transcended their original function, becoming cherished heirlooms and fashion expressions. The world of watches, needless to say, will always be fascinating and will continue to evolve with the times.


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