Text: Rony Aleman, BRENMI Contributor
Image Source: Various
As generic and cliche as saying “time is money” is, there’s no denying the credibility behind the infamous Benjamin Franklin quote, who would ironically go on to represent wealth in the form of the hundred dollar American bill.
With that in mind, how ironic is it that the best watches on the market cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars? Is looking towards your wrist in order to know the current time all that important? If you’ve ever been stuck in a situation where you run into your ex-girlfriend and are in desperate need of excusing yourself through means of saying, “well, would you look at the time,” you might be inclined to say “yes.” Or, you could simply live as an existentialist believing that time doesn’t exist. Regardless, you may find yourself in a situation where you silently thank the creators of these aesthetically pleasing, yet functional timepieces. As such, this is the part where I come in and drag you with me through time in search of the origins of our present-day watches in order to add a sense of knowledgable accomplishment to your day. Either that, or you’ll think that reading this was a complete waste of your time, pun slightly intended.
Time, as we conceive it, has always been used as a measurement in relation to events taking place and the intervals in between. Before we began following the 24-hour method of tracking time, our folks over in Ancient Egypt were using the sun to guide themselves throughout the day as far back as 3500 B.C. with the use of tall obelisks casting large shadows. It’s fun to imagine how chaotic cloudy days would have been back then. From here on out, the precision of these early clocks would be perfected over the course of the next three thousand years, eventually reaching a point where the day would become divided into hours, discovering solstices in the process.
Soon after, Ancient Greece would not only give birth to the first philosopher, but also the most productive period in the development of the sundial. Besides the obvious problem that exists with regards to its solely solar-powered capabilities, sundials were created to tell the time in public places, such as a market. In other words, if you were as much of an introvert as I am and chose to live a nomadic life free from people, time would mean as much to you as a bathtub does to a cat. Not that it would matter in the end since you’d essentially be living a life as empty as my soul.
Photo courtesy of History of Watches (I wonder what kind of topic that website covers).
Luckily, the invention of portable clocks would come to fruition during the 1500s in the form of sundials appearing on bracelets and necklaces. There was, however, one minor problem: THEY WEREN’T MEANT TO ACCURATELY TELL THE TIME. These inauthentic timepieces were simply novelty items for those belonging to nobility. Yes, believe it or not, the people you always see on social media flashing their jewelry for no other reason other than to flaunt their supposed wealth have always existed (I’m looking at you Instagram bloggers). What makes this seem worse is that Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks apparently outlined more accurate versions of the clock during this time period, pendulum clocks to be exact, though no one would really make the leap until roughly 200 years later. I don’t what it is exactly, but there’s something about talented Leos that makes them far undervalued until much later on in their careers (I’m looking at you, Academy Awards).
Knowing that clocks during this time period were nothing more than glorified jewelry, one can’t help but realize that maybe Flavor Flav and the rest of Public Enemy were onto something.
Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Reporter. Ah, the good ol’ days from hip-hop’s golden era.
It was basically the equivalent to posting a picture of yourself in a fresh new outfit on social media… while inside a change room at a department store with the security tags clearly on display as the sales associate knocks on the door asking “how are you doing so far?” All for a likes, I suppose. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
No, of course it doesn’t make any sense. As it turns out however, everyone’s concern with regards to time were overshadowed by an even more pressing matter: everyone’s timepieces were exposed to the elements and prone to damage. As you can imagine, the horrors of such a monstrosity were completely inexcusable, thus leading to the development of pocket watches, as the timepieces were much safer in people’s pockets rather than hanging from your neck or wrist if it wasn’t necessary (once again, I’m looking at you Instagram bloggers). After having figured out that watches are best protected inside one’s own pocket, the attention was finally diverted unto the reason why watches were even invented in the first place: TELLING TIME.
The first wristwatch, according to many, was created in the early 19th century by Swiss-French watchmaker, Abraham Breguet. However, the concept itself has been around since the 16th century, when English nobleman Robert Dudley gave Queen Elizabeth I a watch described as an “arm watch,” presumably in an attempt similar to when guys buy girls drinks at the club, but don’t worry, they’re “just being friendly.” Guys, please stop being weird around girls.
It wasn’t long until the creation of the first wristwatch became a historical event. Initially being marketed towards women as bracelets with the ability to tell time, it was soon adopted by the military as a convenient way of coordinating timely manoeuvres without scrambling into your pockets towards the late 19th century. Historians credit the idea of outfitting soldiers with wristwatches most likely originating from the Second Boer War in 1899and even the German Imperial Navy a few years prior, although it wasn’t until World War I that the idea found its place in military history, followed by men’s fashion shortly afterwards.
A modern depiction of a World War I flying ace. Photo courtesy of the NY Times. If social media existed back in the day, this would make a killer profile picture.
Originally beginning as a complaint that it was inefficient to plan a bombardment using a pocket watch due to the fact that one had to reach into one’s pocket, it wasn’t until 1880 when an officer from the German Imperial Navy reportedly showed his superiors an idea for strapping a pocket watch to one’s wrist. On military orders, watchmaker Girard-Perregaux provided the German Navy with wristwatches, a move that also marked the first reposted event in which wristwatches were being commercialized.
Arguably the best representation of the emerging wristwatch market for men and its importance to the military is Cartier’s iconic “Tank” watch,inspired by the bird’s eye view of- and you’ll never guess it- a tank. This further emphasized the idea that the watch would “make a man more soldierlike, more martial, more masculine,” often being advertised through the use of imagery that portrayed war heroes, aviators for example, wearing wristwatches. By the time World War II took place, pocket watches were essentially obsolete. The following years would present to the world some of the most iconic wristwatches in timepiece history, the likes of which include the Rolex’s “Submariner” in 1953, Audemars Piguet’s “Royal Oak” in 1972, Ulysses Nardin’s “Freak” in 2001, Seiko’s “Astron” in 1969, Zenith’s “El Primero” in 1969, OMEGA “DeVille Co-axial” in 1999, and even (please don’t crucify me for this) Casio’s “G-Shock” in 1983.
Photos courtesy of CNN.
As it currently stands, the market for wrist watches continues to be strong and regardless of the lack for a direct need for them, there are some who genuinely appreciate the history and watch-making craft that laid the foundation for there to exist wonderful wrist watches in our everyday lives.
I feel like I’ve just given you all a history lesson on wrist watches even though no one really asked for it. This must be what being a grandpa feels like. Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed your stay and see you for your next class on the history of… well, I haven’t thought that far ahead just yet.
‘Till next time!