The People, Technology, and Timepieces to Know from the History of Watch Design

By Jack Neary

There was a time when wristwatches were thought to be a passing fancy, “more or less of a joke” according to The New York Times and “the latest idiocy in fashion” said another critic. And the truth is that the popularization of wearing a watch on one’s wrist would come from practicality, convenience, and precision rather than any fashion statement.

But as we now find ourselves in a place where all watchmakers are using similar technology, the only way to differentiate oneself in the future may be to go back to a time when innovative design was valued more highly than the number of apps on your wrist. So let’s take it all the way back to the beginning and trace the roots of watch design into a vision for the future.

The First Timekeepers

The Salisbury Cathedral Clock, one of the oldest still-working clocks in the world

Before the invention of the mechanical clock in the 13th century, there were devices that tracked time by measuring the sun’s movement, melting candle wax, and letting sand fall.

Then, the 15th century invention of the mainspring — a spiral torsion spring of metal ribbon that turns gears and moves the hands of a clock as it unwinds — catapulted timepieces into the hands of many more people. It allowed people to wind their own devices and significantly shrunk the footprint of any given clock.

It was also around this time that the term watch first came into use. Its etymology is derived from sailors who used this new invention to time their shifts or “watches.”

The Pocket Watch (1675)

Antique pocket watches

There is no wristwatch without the pocket watch. Originally, these were worn as pendants around the neck and, because of their inaccuracy, were seen more as jewelry than timekeepers. Around the time that waistcoats gained popularity in 17th century men’s fashion, the modern pocket watch took shape.

Abraham-Louis Breguet designs one of the first wristwatches for the Queen of Naples (1810)

A modern update on the Reine de Naples watch

The invention of the wristwatch as we know it today is up for debate. Some credit Patek Phillipe’s one-off design for a Hungarian Countess while some go as far back as Robert Dudley’s 16th century “arm watch” for Elizabeth I.

Many others point to Caroline Murat, the sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, as the recipient of the first wristwatch from Abraham-Louis Breguet. Prior to this point, some clocks were referred to as watches (or clock-watches) so it’s important to note that these watches were the first to actually be worn around the wrist.

Louis Cartier Designs The Cartier Santos for Aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont (1904)

Alberto Santos-Dumont at the controls of an air balloon

Alberto Santos-Dumont was a proponent of both lighter-than-air (hot air balloons) and heavier-than-air (modern airplanes) aviation. Around the time he was shifting his interest from proven flying machines to the development of a fixed-wing aircraft, he complained to his friend, Louis Cartier, about the danger of checking his pocket watch during a flight. Cartier produced his first men’s wristwatch for the aviator, a version of which is still produced today.

Note that this was Cartier’s first model for men. While women had been wearing watches on their wrists since the time of Breguet, men continued to affix their watches to their waistcoats. Modern warfare would soon change that.

World War I (1914)

1918 Trench Watch

Much like Alberto Santos-Dumont’s midair discovery, soldiers found that pulling a watch out of their breast pocket during battle wasn’t a wise maneuver. While the British Army began using wristwatches during the 1880s, it wasn’t until the first world war that watches became standard issue for soldiers and, soon after, men of leisure as well.

The First Automatic Wristwatch (1923)

A Hardwood Self-Winding Watch

John Harwood, a British horologist, patented a self-winding wristwatch in 1923. His innovation used the natural motion of the person wearing the watch to power the mainspring, eliminating the need for manual winding.

Rolex took Harwood’s design further in 1930 and used it as the basis for their Oyster Perpetual. Their version increased the amount of energy stored in the mainspring, allowing it to run up to 35 hours. The Oyster was also the first water and dust-proof watch. Not one to overlook the opportunity for a PR stunt, Rolex strapped an Oyster to the wrist of a young swimmer attempting to cross the English Channel. She emerged from the water with a working watch.

Electric ’50s, Quartz on the Moon, and Beyond

Buzz Aldrin’s Omega Speedmaster

The Hamilton Electric Wristwatch debuted in January 1957. The hands still moved mechanically via the wheel train, but an electromagnet and a battery drove the balance wheel to keep time. Battery life wasn’t great, but it was a marvel at the time.

Continuing the lineage of aviators and wristwatches, NASA astronauts were notoriously picky about their timepieces during the space race. Though not the first watch to leave the Earth’s orbit, the first watch to walk on the moon was Buzz Aldrin’s Omega Speedmaster. You may remember that Neil Armstrong touched down first, but he left his watch behind as it had been malfunctioning.

Later in 1969, the first quartz watch emerged in the form of Seiko’s 35 SQ Astron. In place of a wheel train, quartz watches use digital counters to keep time. The method improved accuracy and eliminated the need for many of the smallest components of mechanical watches, leading to improvements in durability. Today, it’s the most widely used timekeeping technology in the world.

Digital Watches Get Smarter and Smarter

Apple Watch

Though the first watch with a digital display was released in 1972, the first “smart watch” didn’t come along until the Linux Watch in 1998. It was a far cry from the smart watches of today, but it was“[d]esigned to communicate wirelessly with PCs, cell phones and other wireless-enabled devices,” and it had “the ability to view condensed email messages and directly receive pager-like messages.”

Today, in addition to displaying the time, smart watches call and text, play music, support more than 20,000 apps, and even go so far as to measure your blood oxygen with Apple’s latest Series 6 watch. It’s a high-powered computer on your wrist and timekeeping is often an afterthought.

Back to Analog

The Terra-Time designed by James Wines

The past two hundred years of watch design have, like most industries, been a race toward the most advanced technology possible. As watches became smarter and more functional, though, they also became more uniform. Screens replaced faces and technology was prioritized at the expense of design.

That’s great for tech factories like Apple who continue to tweak their software under the hood without noticeably changing the design of their smart watch. It’s not great for those who choose what they wear as an extension of their personal style and expression. But that’s where the opportunity to advance watch design is now: going backwards to get to the future.

Because just like in fashion, art, and other creative fields, there is cachet in originality. There is an advantage to raising eyebrows and turning heads. But to be an original in this space, it’s necessary to get off track, slow down, and let technology race ahead to its inevitable uniformity.

At Projects, we take this alternate route with our creative partners. The focus is less on the watch as an object or a tool and more on the process of melding craftsmanship with creative influences to produce wearable works of art.

Take our Terra-Time watch for example. Designed by architect James Wines, it’s a multi-layered sculpture representing the depths of the earth. Sure, it tells time, but it tells the world a whole lot more about its wearer.

Moshe Safdie’s Vertere

Or there’s the Vertere by architect and designer Moshe Safdie. Using the Moiré pattern — a technique that lays an opaque-ruled pattern over another similar pattern — it creates an arresting visual.

All of our pieces are unique, but the one thing they have in common is that they’re made for creators by creators. Come see how we make that happen here.

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Projects Watches

Projects Watches

We create beautiful, affordable, wearable works of art that showcase creators from around the world. Visit us at projectswatches.com