Watches were viewed as jewelry pieces when they were introduced in Germany and France after 1500. As jewelry pieces, importance was given to decorations rather than functionality, rendering accuracy as slightly relevant to their appeal. However, stuhrling original watch review, social and economic developments made watches more accessible to the ordinary people and they were increasingly viewed as functional pieces. Manufacturer and buyer emphasis on decoration was also diverted, leading to revolutionary change in shapes, sizes and design.
Today’s watches descend from timepieces that are best understood as talismans in the form of mechanical jewels
Most of today’s watches are functional accessories, tools that are worn on the wrist to keep up with a busy schedule. This wasn’t always the case. Earlier in this century and throughout the 19th century, timepieces were carried in the pocket. Earlier still, before there were pockets as we know them, they were worn as pendant jewels, suspended from a chatelaine at the waist or simply held in the hand as an object of wonder.
Not only do early watches look quite different from their modern descendants, but our attitude toward them has changed greatly also. To appreciate early watches, it helps to put aside the modern notion that watches exist mainly to keep time. Initially, clocks and sundials were more tangible representations of time as a concept than devices to measure it.
Watches first appeared in Germany and France shortly after 1500, but they were woefully inaccurate for the first 200 years of their existence. They were so inaccurate that minute hands were superfluous and didn’t appear until nearly 1700. Even if early watches could have kept accurate time, the coiled springs that made them tick would run down in less than a day. These timepieces are best understood as talismans in the form of mechanical jewels.
Watches evolved from small table clocks like the one serving as symbolic decoration in the 16th century portrait shown in Figure 1. The clock of the Renaissance was a metaphor for the sitter’s relatively brief lifetime and insignificant accomplishments as compared with Creation. Because of akribos xxiv watches review, watches also were meant to display wealth, case decoration was usually more important than the mechanism inside. Unadorned, functional cases were the exception until the primary purpose of a watch became timekeeping.
The watch case is a cleverly engineered container designed to protect a delicate piece of machinery so it may be carried around. Unlike other jewels whose form is not determined by function, a watch case must be constructed under narrow constraints that dictate, to a certain extent, the watch’s appearance.
The parts: You don’t have to understand in intimate detail how watches work to appreciate their history. In simplest terms, a watch has four components that must be accommodated within the case. These are the face or dial, a train of gears known as the wheelwork, a coiled mainspring that provides the power to turn the wheels and, finally, a controlling device called the escapement. Each of these components influences watch-case design in its own way.
The first and most obvious component, the dial, has numerals to indicate the time. Initially, the top lid of the case served as a dial, with the hour hand fitted and exposed outside. This was a satisfactory arrangement as long as the watch remained stationary. But it was problematic if carried around or made into jewelry. The hand was too vulnerable and easily lost or snagged on clothing.
These inconveniences may have prompted the first step in the transformation from drum clock to pendant jewel. As soon as watch cases acquired pendant rings that allowed them to be worn around the neck, they also got lids to protect the dial and hands. Watch crystals were not common until the mid-17th century. But once introduced, many early lids were cut away and fitted with crystals to make viewing the dial easier.
The familiar dial with a ring of 12 numerals around its edge appears on the earliest watches. Other highly decorative arrangements were attempted, but few survived for long because most were effectively illegible.
The gears: The second component of a watch, the wheelwork or train of gears, moves the hand to indicate the time. The number of teeth on gears needed to move hands is easy to calculate, but placing the actual gears in a pattern that function as a time machine isn’t straightforward. Consequently, early watches were thick because the wheels needed to make them work properly took a lot of space.
Until the 19th century, most watchmakers made their movements out of two brass plates separated by stout decorative pillars. Think of this as a thick sandwich with the plates as bread and the wheels as filling. A large movement needed a large case, not unlike a bowl. In French, cases of this type are called bassine or basin. Such large, flat surfaces begged for decoration, and casemakers complied.
By the first decade of the 17th century, small clocks became true watches as cases shrank to slightly larger than the size of a jumbo egg. Cases came in diverse shapes: oval, octagonal, fluted or even in the fanciful forms of flowers or animals. Not unlike other pendant jewels of the period, they were made of precious metals, hardstones and sometimes enameled.
By the second quarter of the 17th century, watch cases were constructed pretty much as they would be for the next 200 years. Watches were now small enough to be carried or worn as pendant jewels. But their weight still made them inconvenient and easily damaged when worn. The problem of swinging was solved by a shorter chain or a chatelaine. Pockets would become a good place to carry a watch, but until costume changed to incorporate this convenience, watches remained pendants.
The increased use of tissot watches for men as jewelry in the mid-17th century coincided with the rise of the newly developed technique of colored enamel painting. Some of the finest 17th century polychrome enamels survive as watch cases. The early 20th-century horologist G.H. Baillie aptly called this period “the great age of decoration.”
It’s unlikely that watches, particularly enameled examples, were carried around much because existing ones seldom shows sign of wear. Instead, they often appear to have sustained injuries from a single accident after which they were retired to prevent further damage.
Power source: The third important watch component, the mainspring, is the power source that drives the gears. Mechanical movements are driven by this spring wound into a tight coil with a separate key. The earliest watches had to be taken out of their cases to be wound, a great inconvenience that suggests they probably weren’t used regularly.
Watches work far better if they remain protected within their cases. To keep the movement enclosed, watchmakers began to cut a hole in the case through which to wind the spring. English and Dutch watchmakers preferred to have access from behind, so their holes were cut into the case back. Even with this improvement, holes still let in dirt and moisture. To prevent this, the movement eventually was put into an inner case, pierced with a winding hole and then surrounded by an outer case. The two comprised a “pair case” that divides the protective and decorative functions between a closely fitting inner case and an often extravagantly decorated outer case.
The cases are made of many materials, but silver and gold predominate. Inner cases are absolutely plain, pierced only by a single hole through which the watch can be wound. If the watch was designed to indicate the time by striking a bell (a repeating watch or clock watch), however, the inner case often was elaborately pierced around the circumference so the sound could escape. This piercing often was engraved to imitate a complex latticework, usually inhabited by exotic birds or serpents with grotesque faces among vines and foliage.
Sometimes outer cases are severely plain, relieved only rarely by a monogram or crest, but some feature hardstone and shagreen (granulated, untanned leather). The most interesting outer cases are gold with intricate repousse and chased scenes, often from classical mythology. The art of gold chasing flourished during the mid-18th century, particularly in England.
The movement of a pair cased watch is held within the inner case by a hinge adjacent to the pendant and a small latch and spring under the dial at 6 o’clock. A tightly fitting, hinged bezel holds the crystal and serves as a protective lid.
Winding a pair case watch requires some dexterity. After the outer case is opened, the inner case is removed to expose the winding hole. As one hand inserts the key, the other must hold both cases. To avoid dropping the watch, pair cases are best wound sitting at a table.
In contrast, French and Swiss watches generally are wound through the dial, which eliminates the need for two cases. Just as in a pair case, the crystal, movement and single case are secured by a common hinge. Because the movement is inside the case during winding, an outer case for dustproofing is unnecessary. Though winding through the dial is easier because there’s no extra case to handle, chips in the dial’s enamel are inevitable unless the winder is careful.
In the early 19th century, a new case with two back lids was developed. The inner lid has two holes, one for winding and one for setting. This solved most of the earlier problems, but the best solution to the dirt and damage dilemma was eliminating the key. Keyless winding was an important development of the 19th century. The most successful scheme for this transformed the pendant of the watch into a winder. At last, the watch case no longer had to be opened to be wound.
The sound: The fourth important component of a watch is more often heard than seen. The familiar ticking sound of a watch is produced by the “escapement” as it gradually releases the mainspring at a constant rate. The timekeeping mechanism of the watch, escapements alternately lock and release the gear train. Without an escapement, a watch would unwind in an instant.
Together with the gear train, the escapement influences a watch’s thickness. Until the early years of the 18th century, watches had to be thick because the escapement took up a lot of room. In fact, French watches of the 1690s were so thick they were called oignons (onions). A state-of-the-art watch of 1700 could easily have been an inch thick.
The 18th- and 19th-century quest for precision produced new escapements, most of which took up less vertical space and consequently allowed watches to be thinner. By 1800, for example, a sophisticated watch would have been 1/4″ thick or less. The pursuit of thinness reached its 19th-century peak in the 1820s when Geneva watchmakers produced movements thin enough to be concealed in a coin. The equation of thin with elegant reemerged during the Art Deco era with Cartier’s ultra-thin dress watches.
Decoration: Once the watch ceased to be a metaphoric talisman during the 18th century, its decoration reflected tastes evident in other small gold-work of the time. Snuff boxes, containers with tight-fitting lids for storing snuff (tobacco), greatly influenced watch case design.
The English produced repousse gold snuff boxes made with the same techniques as pair cases. The French used enamel, varicolored gold and precious stones with virtuosity.
But watches and snuff boxes were luxury items. The notion that ordinary people could own watches did not become a reality until the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution made greater accuracy and mass production possible.