What would life be like if there were no measure of time? Time gives rhythm to our lives and is of such great importance that for centuries, man has endeavoured to design instruments to measure it ever more accurately. Technology developed in the 20th century has considerably improved our ability to measure time. Some scholars have even postulated that awareness of time is the very essence of our existence.
The advancement of technology led to the development of increasingly reliable timekeeping mechanisms over the years. A hairspring and a weight initiated the movement that caused the hands to tick around the face of a clock. In the early 17th century, Galileo revolutionized mechanics by discovering the principle of the pendulum. Subsequently, by applying this principle to clock making and adding a pendulum, the mechanism was made more accurate, which meant that a hand could be added to mark the seconds. Technological advances in the 18th and 19th centuries enabled the design and development of increasingly smaller and more accurate mechanisms.
The first watches were worn on chains at the court of the Duke of Milan, around 1482. Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples and sister of Napoleon Bonaparte commissioned the first wristwatch. Abraham-Louis Breguet ordered it on June 8, 1810. The watch was delivered two and half years later. The second record of a wrist watch dates back to 1868. It was manufactured by the Patek Philippe house for Countess Kocewicz. This watch was operated by a mechanism developed in 1861 for the International Exhibition in London. The mechanism was only 8.46 millimetres in diameter! Later, the Girard-Perregaux house received an order to make wristwatches for the officers of the German Imperial Navy.
It took some 20 more years before a watch-making company manufactured a wristwatch that could be marketed profitably. This honour went to Cartier. During a dinner at Maxim’s in Paris to celebrate the airship aviation record of Brazilian pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont, the aviator confided to his friend Louis Cartier how difficult it was to take out his pocket watch while operating the plane’s control levers. In 1904, Cartier showcased his first wristwatch, christened the “Santos.” It had a square case, a dial with Roman numerals, a crown with a sapphire cabochon and a soft leather strap. Only a few were made at the time, but in 1978 Cartier launched a new collection—“Santos de Cartier”—which replicated the lines of this famous watch.
The Three Types
As wristwatches evolved, three major types of mechanism developed: mechanical, electric and electronic. There are several variants within the latter category, including the tuning fork watch, analogue quartz, LED and LCD quartz models.
Whatever its mechanism, however, a watch can obtain chronometer certification. To achieve this, it must pass some extremely rigorous tests guaranteeing its accuracy. These tests are carried out at different temperatures, in six positions, over a period of 15 days for mechanical watches and 11 days for quartz watches. They are performed by the COSC (Contrôle officiel suisse des chronomètres), Switzerland’s official chronometer testing agency. Some Swiss manufacturers use other terms to indicate that a watch has passed a series of stringent tests to guarantee its accuracy, such as “BULLETIN DE MARCHE” (certificate of watch performance), “CONTROL 1000 HOURS” and “OFFICIALLY CERTIFIED”.
The terms “chronometer” and “chronograph” must not be confused. The latter is a timing device that is used in certain watches to count elapsed time in seconds to the nearest tenth of a second, or hundredth of a second for the more advanced models. The chronograph watch is both a timepiece and a measuring instrument that counts and displays time intervals. Certain very sophisticated models can simultaneously time two separate events. These more complex watches have more components and are generally thicker. Purchase and repair costs are often higher than they would be for a simple watch.