Luxury analog wristwatches are making a comeback as works of art


Luxury analog wristwatches are making a comeback as works of art

During my elementary school days in the early 1960s, one of my dreams was to own a designer wristwatch. Back then, a wristwatch was the preserve of the white man and the few educated black Kenyans who could afford one. My first watch was a simple Oris given to me in 1966.

But for me, what mesmerized my young mind were the watches that James Bond wore in the movies; watches that had multiple dials and were waterproof and could withstand multiple atmospheres below sea level. His favorite wristwatch was the Rolex Submariner, featured in the first James Bond film, Dr. No in 1962.

The modern wristwatch got its start around 112 years ago when a visionary clock salesman in London first designed a watch that could be worn on the wrist. Hans Wilsdorf founded his company in 1905, longing for a proper name for his fledgling company.

Finally, he chose the name “Rolex” claiming that a genius whispered the name in his ear while driving a horse-drawn bus in London. Wilsdorf commissioned Swiss craftsmen to create precision timepieces, like pocket watches but worn on the wrist.

According to the company’s website, “In 1910, a Rolex watch was the first wristwatch to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, issued by the Official Watch Evaluation Center in Biel.”

The wristwatch was originally considered a trendy fashion. The gentlemen still considered the pocket watch as the true portable chronometer.

But in a strange twist of historical fate, the wristwatch gained acceptance as a serious timepiece during World War I, when pilots in particular needed to be able to judge time without digging into their pockets for a shows in flight.

Elsewhere, improvements in communications technology had allowed the military to coordinate their maneuvers more precisely, forcing soldiers to discern the time at a glance. European soldiers outfitted their devices with shatterproof glass to survive the trenches and with radium to light up the screen at night.

The company continued to innovate modern technologies for the personal watch and between 1926 and 1945 precision quality standards were maintained while improvements continued. In 1926 the term “Oyster” was coined for how the watch was completely waterproof.

This claim was tested and proven in 1927 when an English swimmer spent 10 hours crossing the English Channel wearing one.

In 1931, the brand launched the perpetual movement, the self-winding mechanism that is at the heart of every modern mechanical watch. Then, in 1945, the “Datejust” function was added to the dial, automatically displaying and changing the date.

As the century progressed, they began to be found in many places where precision and sturdy construction were essential. Explorers and scientists working on new frontiers and at the edges of the known world, including exposure to altitude, depth, speed and magnetic fields, wore the watch.

The tough and exotic images of Rolex provided unique publicity opportunities, especially to celebrities and explorers.

While little mortals certainly couldn’t afford the Rolex brand, by the end of World War II the pocket watch was obsolete while the wristwatch had become a symbol of sophistication and status.

Other more affordable brands such as Oris, Timex, Kienzle, Pierpont, Roamer, Rado had become available and were popular in the mass market. For the wealthy and discerning, there were designer watches made by specialist houses such as TAG Heuer, Longines, Jaeger, Patek Philippe and Tissot.

It should be noted that Switzerland’s neutrality during the war protected the watch industry.

The next important chapter in wristwatch history was the so-called “quartz crisis” when in 1969 the world-renowned watch company Seiko of Japan created a watch that relied on a quartz crystal , oscillating by small electrical impulses (once per second), to push the hands forward.

This new watch was far more accurate in timing than many mechanical watches, and also cheaper to produce.

About Robert L. Thomas

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