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Timepiece History

Updated on September 11, 2011

The Beginning of Time Keeping

From the earliest days of mankind, people have been interested in time. Dating well before written history, humans were believed to have used the movements of the sun and moon to tell time. The original timepiece was the sundial, but as civilizations grew more complicated, so did their need to have an accurate way to keep track of the hours and minutes of the day. This is the fascinating history and modern life of a brilliant invention that we all take for granted: the watch.


Origins Of The Watch

As long as 4000 years ago, the Babylonian priests of Mesopotamia began a careful and systematic study of the movements and patterns of the sun, moon, stars, and seasons. They folded all of their accumulated knowledge into a calendar which very much resembles the one that we use today. The Babylonians established a system of timekeeping based on twelve months, seven days per week, and twenty four hour long days. In fact, the only thing that is different between the ancient calendar and the one we use today is that the Babylonians assigned thirty days to each month. When they realized that was about five days too few, they added a thirteenth month to the calendar every six years. The Romans modified this to have months of varying lengths within a twelve month framework, and from then on, we have pretty much used the same standard divisions to track time.

Then it was a matter of finding a mechanism to use for accurate timekeeping, which leads us to the origins of the watch. By 1500, most villages had a large clocktower, as well as watchmen (early policemen) who would call out the time. Small clocks tended to be fairly inaccurate, but there was an interest among the mechanically inclined to come up with new and smaller versions for personal use. It was around this time that a locksmith from Nuremberg, Germany named Peter Henlein invented the first pocket watch. Unlike a large clock which was driven by weights, Henlein's small portable clocks were powered by a coiled mainspring used in conjunction with a ratchet system. The incredible thing is that the mechanism used in the very first watch is not all that different from the way in which many watches are run today.

Watches Improve

The "Nuremberg eggs" as the first watches were known were large ovals designed to be worn on a belt or on a neckchain. They had no crystal covering on the face, and had only the hour hand. The early watches were far from accurate timekeepers; there was really no point in having a minute hand, let alone a second hand. They were entirely handmade, primarily of iron components assembled with pins and rivets. Within 50 years, the iron works were replaced with brass fittings.

            It was also around this time that the Swiss watch industry was born. In 1525 a Swiss mechanic living in Prague named Jacob Zech invented a component that revolutionized watchmaking. It was called the fusee, and it was an element which solved an enormous problem with the early watches: as they wound down, the movement of the hour hand also slowed down. The fusee, which was perfected by another Swiss man named Gruet, equalized the inner mechanism of the watch and thereby dramatically improved the timekeeping ability of the piece. Watches before the fusee had really been just novel adornments; with the upgrade in accuracy, they became more functional. To a point, that is; it was not until the early 1700s that watches became precise enough to warrant including a minute hand.

            In the 1600s, watches really took off in popularity. It might not occur to a modern reader that only a select few had a watch in the 17th Century; they were prohibitively expensive and were only owned by the nobility. Wearing a watch was a status symbol, a sign of wealth and importance. The most interesting thing about that fact is that even today when mass production has made watches affordable to everyone, a high end watch is still every bit the display of wealth and social prominence that it was in the 17th Century. This is why brands like Rolex have such a social cache and are often prominently displayed, especially by those who are newly able to afford such a luxury item. The desire to quickly telegraph wealth is also why they are such hot ticket items in casino gift shops.

Royal Watches

Watches in the 1600s were considered toys for the nobility. Each watch was entirely handmade, with a price tag to match. King Edward VI is rumored to be the first Englishman to own a watch, and others in the top echelons of society quickly followed suit. The aristocracy treated their watches as any other decorative accessory in their jewelry box: an adornments to enhance an outfit, not a functional necessity. Watches were very fashionable in the court of Queen Elizabeth, who was known to own several.

Because they were viewed as jewelry, watchmakers came up with increasingly beautiful designs to entice their wealthy clientele. They were designed to be miniature wearable works of art, and tied in with the other fashions of the day. Watches were created to resemble tiny insects, flowers, musical instruments, and animals. Mary, Queen of Scots was even known to have a watch shaped like a skull in her jewelry collection!

The fledging watchmaking industry was largely based in England, France, and Switzerland. Each nation had its own unique style when it came to creating timepieces. English watches tended to be heavy, sturdy, and reliable. Swiss watches were renowned for their accuracy, just as they are today. In France, the emphasis was on creating exquisitely beautiful cases, something which they did exceedingly well. French watches were handmade in interesting sculptural forms, handpainted with remarkable tiny scenes, and decorated with the finest available materials, such as enamel, tortoiseshells, and precious gems.

Swiss Watch Makers Become Leaders

By 1625, the Swiss watch industry was already coming into its own, based out of a Geneva craft guild for jewelers and watchmakers. Founded by Charles Cusin, the guild tightly controlled the numbers of artisans permitted in the field, the quality of work that was deemed acceptable, and banned the importation of watches from other countries. If you wanted to work in the watch industry in Geneva, you had to be a member of the guild. Craftsmen who could not gain access to the guild had to find another line of work or a different city in which to practice their craft.

Being a Swiss watchmaker in Geneva was a highly respectable position in society. Precision and well-executed technique were highly prized by the Swiss, and the men who made the watches had these qualities in spades. It was a Swiss man named Nicholas Facio who invented a technique that is still the gold standard in watchmaking today: the use of rubies or sapphires inside the watch workings. The precious gems were not placed inside the watch works to make them more valuable, but rather to reduce the friction of the internal mechanisms. Holes could be drilled in the tiny gems and bearings placed into the centers to reduce friction. This ingenious idea reduced the wear and tear on the works of the watches and made them more accurate timekeepers. News of the quality of Swiss watches soon spread, and in the 17th and 18th Centuries, artisans came to Geneva in droves to train with the masters. As they learned the trade, these pilgrims took their skills home and exposed the rest of Europe to the fine workmanship of a Swiss watch. Nearly four hundred years later, Geneva is still the world capital of top quality watches.

Geneva was not the only town in Switzerland to become watchmaking hub. By 1799, the town of Geneva was producing 50,000 pieces annually; within 20 years, Neuchatel, Switzerland was making 130,000 timepieces per year. Unlike Geneva, Neuchatel watch production was not ruled by a guild; anyone with the right training and tools was free to try his hand at the trade. According to the proud Genevans, this made the watches of Neuchatel inferior quality product, although the Neuchatel artisans would have disagreed.

English Watches Competitive For A While

Meanwhile in England, the watchmakers founded their trade guild in 1627. Named the Worshipful Clock-makers, the English guild operated much along the lines of the one in Geneva. A watchmaker named Thomas Tompion earned the title "The Father of English Watchmaking", and he was patronized by the nobility. Tompion's timepieces were very fashionable among the well-to-do in the British aristocracy.

            British watchmakers were responsible for many improvements in the field. Over time, watches evolved from merely a fashion accessory to an integral part of modern life, and better accuracy was desperately needed. This was particularly true when it came to navigating the oceans, and the heads of European governments offered a reward for the first man to design a chronometer that could accurately determine longitude at sea. It was an Englishman named John Harrison who won the award in 1762.

            Although England was at the forefront of watchmaking in the early days, they lost ground over time due to their refusal to adopt new innovations. The guild was extremely conservative and proud of the high quality of English watches; unfortunately this also made them resistant to change, along the lines of the old adage "if it a'int broke, don't fix it".  It was the English loyalty to the fusee in particular that caused great problems; over time the early innovation had been replaced with lighter mechanisms, but British watchmakers refused to make the switch. As the Swiss, French, and eventually also the Americans adapted new technologies that made their watches lighter, thinner, and quicker to produce, the English stubbornly stuck with their tried and true techniques, which led to the eventual demise of the English watch industry.

Patek Phillipe calendar and moon phase watch

Today's Favorite Watches Have Long History

One thing that is truly fascinating about the history and evolution of watches is that the main components that are in the watches on the market today are essentially the same as the ones in watches made in the early 1800s. Certainly, refinements and additions have been made (there were no watches with GPS in the early days of America!), but the foundation was in place by the beginning of the 19th Century. Equally impressive, many of the best known watch brands today were founded in the 1800s. Elite brands like Patek Phillipe (1851), Tag Heuer (Heuer founded 1860) and Cartier (1847) were all born in this era. Luxury giant Rolex was not far behind; it was established in 1908 in Switzerland by Hans Wilsdorf.

            As commonplace as watches were becoming, they were still primarily made in the form of pocketwatches, necklaces, and brooches. The first ever wristwatch was debuted by Patek Phillipe in 1868, as a decorative bracelet for ladies. Patek Phillipe was the driving force behind a number of innovations, such as the chronograph and the perpetual calendar watch. The Swiss watchmaker is unique in that even today it still manufactures the mechanical components for its fine timepieces. Of course, this attention to detail does not come without a price. Patek Phillipe watches are among the most costly in the world, and are highly collectible. In fact, a 1933 Patek Phillipe pocketwatch went for an astonishing $11 million at a 1999 auction.

            It was Patek Phillipe who designed the first wristwatch, but Louis Cartier was the watchmaker who made it popular. He was already a premier jeweler and watchmaker by 1904 when his friend Alberto Santos-Dumant asked Cartier to create a wristwatch for him. Santos-Dumant, an aviator, found pocketwatches to be impractical when flying his plane; necessity being the mother of invention, Cartier obliged with a watch that was to revolutionize how we wear timepieces. The Patek Phillipe wristwatch was regarded as merely a piece of jewelry for ladies, but when Cartier put his men's wristwatch on the market in 1911, it was a smashing success. Aptly named the Santos, the wristwatch was very appealing to men looking for an easier way to check the time.

            Cartier would go on to design some of the other best known watches in the world, most notably the Tank, released in 1917. It was not only aviators who realized that a wristwatch would be more handy than one tucked away in a pocket; by the time World War I broke out in Europe, military men were also seeing the benefit of a wristwatch. Cartier's expensive timepieces were not worn by the average enlisted man in the foxhole, but his legendary Tank watch was directly inspired by the battlefields of the Great War. The Tank watch was designed to look like a Renault tank, right down to the wristband with links that resemble the war machine's caterpillar wheels. As the soldiers returned home from the war wearing their wristwatches, any lingering associations of the wristwatch with femininity disappeared.

Rolex Yacht Master watch

Rolex First Officially Certified Chronometer

Of course no discussion of the history of watches would be complete without a mention of Rolex. As mentioned above, the Swiss company was launched in 1908. Only two years later, Rolex was the first officially certified chronometer in Switzerland. Other innovations followed: the first waterproof case in 1926 (the Oyster model), a self-winding rotor in 1931, the first watch with a date function in 1945, and the Submariner in 1953, which is waterproof to 100 meters. Rolex watches have been atop Mt. Everest, kept time for sporting events, and the serial number on one was even used to identify the body of its deceased wearer. It is also the luxury brand favored by many celebrities; everyone from Paul Newman to Fidel Castro has a Rolex. This is thanks, in no small part to the ingenious and concentrated marketing efforts of founder Hans Wilsdorf in the early days of the brand. Status does come with a price (not to mention a substantial pricetag); Rolex is one of the most widely counterfeited watch brands.

The Americans And Japanese Make Watches Affordable

It was the Swiss who invented the wristwatch, the French who popularized it, but it was the Japanese and Americans who made it widely available at incredibly low prices. The emergence of quartz and electronic technologies in the 1970s nearly destroyed the Swiss watch market, while bringing huge surges in sales to Japanese companies like Citizen and Seiko, as well as American competitors Timex and Bulova. As much as 70% of the pricetag of a fine mechanical Swiss watch can be attributed to labor costs. The price of a mass produced quartz or electronic watch, by comparison, is only about 10% labor. With these immense discrepancies, it is no wonder that by the 1980s, the Swiss had lost almost their entire low-to-mid range watch customer base. On the other hand, the handcrafted mechanical timepieces made in Geneva still control the high end and luxury watch market. Unable to adapt rapidly enough to the changes in the 1970s, the Swiss firms ended up as a niche market for the consumer looking for one of the finest watches in the world.

Today, everyone has a watch (although low end sales have been declining in recent years due to the fact that every cell phone has a clock on its face). Some wear them merely for function, but they are still seen as valuable jewelry as well. Giving a watch as a gift is a popular way to mark a rite of passage, whether it is a graduation, a birthday, or a retirement. Although not favored for everyday use, pocketwatches still hold a special place in the pantheon of timepieces. They are often given in honor of weddings, both for the groom and as groomsmen gifts. The elegance and vintage charm of a pocketwatch makes it an especially appropriate gift for a sentimental occasion like a wedding. Another reason why pocketwatches are popular for gifts is that they offer a large surface for engraving a special message.

As long as there has been time, people have wanted a way to keep track of it. From the early sundials to the original watches to the designer timepieces of today, these timekeepers are a critical part of running a civilization smoothly. While technology continues to advance and improve, there will always be an interest in the latest and greatest watches, existing side by side with the connoisseur's appreciation for the precision and skill of a handcrafted mechanical watch.


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    • Seabastian profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Raleigh


      Thank you for your comments.Weeks of between 4 and 20 days have been used historically in various places as explained at

      It would seem that the seven day week may have been around from the earliest accounts of Jewish history going back to Genesis and the creation of the world as well as the seven-day week appearing in the narrative of the flood.

      Your question sounds like a good basis for one or more hub pages.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      9 years ago from Chicago

      This is a fascinating history lesson. I enjoyed it thoroughly. The 7 day week does not correlate to any planetary movement. Do you have an idea where the 7 day week came from?


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