Timekeeping devices have a long and fascinating history dating back to the sundials and water clocks of the ancient world. Increases in accuracy began with the earliest mechanical European timepieces in the 14th century. Still, for most people the clock in the church tower was more a source of wonder and pride than practical importance.
By the mid-17th century, improving technology resulted in portable timekeepers – pocket watches that allowed their noble owners to display their wealth and good taste. These early watches were notable for rich ornamentation and intriguing but largely useless mechanisms. Their accuracy could vary by as much as several hours a day.
Fast forward to today’s wristwatches. No longer dependent on gears and springs, powered instead by rapidly oscillating quartz crystals, some are capable of accuracy to one second in 1,000 years. Ever-evolving smart watches are fully functional wrist computers as well as highly precise timekeepers.
Beginning in the 1860s, mass production began to make the smart watch of its day – a reliable pocket watch that was affordable and practical as well as a status symbol and fashion statement. Serious people with serious obligations had schedules and commitments. A watch was a key piece of technology in making sure that important things got done “on time.”
Until the late 19th century, wrist watches, often referred to as arm watches, were considered pretty novelties to adorn fashionable ladies. Pocket watches continued to be the main and often the only piece of jewelry owned by most men. Then came the masculine wristwatch revolution.
As part of the mechanization of warfare, European military officers were required to wear wristwatches, starting in the 1880s. This enabled them to keep both hands free for managing their equipment and made it possible to coordinate maneuvers accurately without having to use signaling systems that could be visible to the enemy.
By the end of World War I, wristwatches had definitely become a guy thing. Increasingly complex and reliable, watches were mechanical marvels in miniature. There were stopwatches and chronographs, extremely precise instruments for measuring and recording time intervals. Timepieces incorporated functions telling the day of the week, date, phases of the moon and other astronomical data.
The quartz revolution of the 1960s radically changed watchmaking. The introduction of battery-powered quartz crystals did away with the complex moving parts required in mechanical watches. Quartz watches were more accurate, more shock absorbent, and didn’t require oiling, cleaning or manual winding.
The new technology spread rapidly. In 10 years, quartz watches had become standard. American and Japanese manufacturing began to dominate production. The Swiss, acknowledged masters of mechanical watch production, carved out a niche that continues today in the production of largely handmade, non-quartz timepieces that are horological works of art for the luxury market.
Ongoing improvements in materials and equipment ushered in the golden age of the so-called “tool watches.” These were forerunners of the latest multifunctional wonders that can perform not only all the tasks of timekeeping,but monitor the wearer’s heart rate, calorie consumption and physical activity.
Among the most sought-after tools are dive watches, specialized instruments that are water-resistant to at least one hundred meters (330 feet). Modern technology can produce watches that function at a depth of more than 10,000 meters (6.2 miles). That’s hardly necessary for even the most adventurous deep sea explorer, but advances in technology are often about extending boundaries before their practical applications are developed.
For the increasing number of collectors of vintage dive watches, one iconic example is the Tornek-Rayville TR-900, produced for the U.S. Navy in the mid-1960s to be used in combat dive programs. Only about 1,000 were distributed, and most were destroyed on government orders because the luminous dial presented a toxic hazard. A rare Cold War survivor still occasionally surfaces today. When it does, it can sell for as much as six figures depending on condition.
Vintage watches of all types, both tool and dress, are in the news and in demand. The desire to own fine examples of wearable and practical technology shows no signs of slowing down. Treasures can be hiding in plain sight, perhaps even in your own jewelry box or dresser drawer. Time travel can be rewarding in many ways. Take the time to take a look.
This piece was written by Skinner New York Regional Director, Katie Banser-Whittle, for WAG Magazine in 2020.