watchmaking

A Brief History of Watchmaking: From the Early Days to Now

The watchmaking industry has certainly come a long way.

Date Published
November 28, 2021
Author
Gnomon Watches
Category
Shop Highlights

The rise of interest in watches highlights the growth of curiosity in the watchmaking industry. For one carefully crafted timepiece, how many makers, materials, and hours are required? For most watch enthusiasts sometimes, it is thrilling in knowing the intricate details of a watch.

I, too, love my self-learning of watchmaking; the history, process, and market. Some like to make it a hobby, while others are eager to earn a living. Regardless of the possibility, there’s no right or wrong to appreciating the beauty of art in horology.

This article will be the introductory one for the simple picture of watchmaking history. I will be sharing information about some highlight moments throughout the development of watches under a series of articles. The mini-series consists of: 

So, stay tuned for the interesting and detailed explanation of the three articles above. 

What is watchmaking?

Watchmaking is, simply, the art of making a watch. The term goes hand in hand with exquisite timepieces. Do we have to call it art, though? My view on this is yes. An art features the relation between creators to the product.

Rado Centrix Automatic Open Heart Steel Ref. R30179114
Rado Centrix Automatic Open Heart Steel Ref. R30179114

This is one form of communication, the bridge to connect the creative and innovative mind to the material world. A process of creating a piece that presents creativity and liberty, that is watchmaking. From a technical perspective, watchmaking includes the crafting of intricate movements. The design of a watch’s outer components represents its aesthetic value.

The historical record of wristwatches

A watch, clock, every timekeeping device has a job; to inform the time. This functional purpose hasn’t changed over the passage of the history of horology albeit some complications are present. Here and now, we can enjoy the company of a wearable watch, a wonderful timepiece around the wrist. Before though, a wristwatch wasn’t a popular thing. How so? Let’s dig a little deeper into the history of watchmaking.

The creation of timekeeping devices

Time is perpetual. The flow of day and night piqued the interest of humans since the earliest civilizations. This led to many inventions of timekeeping devices such as sundials, water clocks, sandglasses, and candle clocks.

The frustration of their inaccuracy furthered the formulation of many others. It was known that the Earl of Leicester presented a portable watch in the form of a bracelet to Queen Elizabeth I. The development of the mainspring by a German clockmaker, Peter Henlein, led him to make the first pocket watch around the 1500s. This desirable creation however lacked the accuracy to keep time. A Swiss mechanic Jacob Zech learned of the problem and developed the fusee, a cone-shaped pulley to contain the mainspring.

Another groundbreaking invention was by an English watchmaker Thomas Mudge in 1754. He created a lever escapement that lets the balance wheel swing freely during its oscillation. The continuation of this invention furthered the beginning of more accurate and portable domestic watches.

The trend of wristwatches

Abraham-Louis Breguet was known as the one who made the first watch fitted for the wrist of the Queen of Naples in 1810. Wristwatches, known as wristlets, were a popular trend for wealthy and noble ladies in the 1850s, in the form of bracelets. It was a piece of aesthetic jewelry. For the populace, a wristlet was a delicate piece of aesthetic jewelry. This tiny watch leaned to the idea of femininity, hence wasn’t suitable for use for men.

This popular trend then shifted to men during the Boer War. This was the starting point of many to realize the practical essence of a wristlet as a field tool that freed the hands to do more duties, thus avoiding the potential danger of death. Thenceforth, the wristlets were evolving as a reliable tool and presented the idea of masculinity and bravery. After the war, many watchmaker companies saw this as a new opportunity to create and advertise wristlets for men in the late 19th century.

That marked the beginning of the mechanical wristwatch’s development to a greater extent. What we know as Omega today launched the first-minute repeating wristwatch in 1892. Patek Philippe introduced the first complicated wristwatch with a five-minute repeater in 1961. Then, it produced the first watch with a perpetual calendar in 1925. The famous Rolex also set a stable footing in history as it created the first self-winding watch with a perpetual rotor in 1931.

The period of exquisite mechanical timepieces however faced a crisis when Seiko made the world know of its first quartz wristwatch, Astron in 1969. The quartz movement has better accuracy than the mechanical predecessor. It replaces mechanical inner working parts in a watch with the use of a battery as a power source.

The quartz crisis made hundred watch brands, especially those in the mechanical watch expertise, run out of business due to the high demand for affordable and accurate quartz watches. However, several big watch brands persist until today such as Rolex, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Blancpain, Omega, and more. They changed over the course of the market, to target those who appreciate the rich aesthetic and practical value of mechanical timepieces.

The demand for a watchmaking career

Watch as an accessory is always an option for professional or casual occasions. It is a pleasure to keep a reliable company up close. The high demand for considerable wonderful watches affects the call for watchmakers. However, the shortage of manpower might be an opportunity for many who have an interest in the art of horology.

Watchmakers are not so common. The active and seasoned ones are mostly watchmakers from the previous generation. I believe this to be the lack of exposure to the young. Yet, for those who have great attention to detail and dexterity to craft the watch’s mechanical components, a watchmaking career isn’t so impossible to achieve. The high income can be one of the motivations to keep on learning, with the annual salary range from $36,000 to $53,000. If you’re planning to be one of the watchmakers, you need to learn the theory and practical teaching from a school watch or apprenticeship. Then, you can start your career by working for a major brand or your own business!

The historical records of watchmaking express the hard work of several outstanding figures’ innovative creations. To make a fine watch is to grasp its underlying, technical ideas. Regardless of how one sees it as a hobby or a job, learning about horology is a wonderment.

Gnomon Watches first opened her doors for business online in early 2002, founded by bona fide horology suitors who share a profound passion for watchmaking and fine craftsmanship.

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