History of Watches: From Sundials to Smartwatches

History of Watches - Sundial

When you think about it, watches have come a long way.

While watches are a common accessory and fashion statement nowadays, the same thing can’t be said around 100 years ago. Today, we go back in history and highlight the history of watches and how this invention became an integral part of modern life.

A Brief History of Watches – From Sundials to Smartwatches

1. Circa 3,500 B.C.

History of Watches - Sundial

  • The first sundial was invented. After observing the daylight and dark’s natural rhythm civilizations around the world devised a method to measure the flow of time. At first, calendars are used which then became instruments with increased precision.

2. 1400 – 1500

History of Watches - Fusee Clock
Da Vinci’s sketch of a fusee clock.
  • In 1485, Leonardo da Vinci sketched a fusee for a clock.
  • In 1504 to 1508, the clockmaker Peter Henlein has invented the first modern pocket watch. He is also known as the father of the modern clock and the entire watchmaking industry.
  • In the 1500s, early clock watches became popular and were fastened to clothing or worn around the neck like a necklace. The clock watches only had hour hands and they’re not very good for keeping the time. Therefore, they were more like a status symbol for the rich.

3. 1600 – 1700

History of Watches - Balance Spring

  • In 1657, the balance spring was invented by either Christiaan Huygens or Robert Hooke (it’s a long-running dispute). The balance spring significantly improved the accuracy of watches.
  • In 1675, King Charles II of England introduced the waistcoat. During this time, watches have been reformed to the pocket style in order to fit the waistcoat’s pockets.
  • Around 1680, English clockmaker Daniel Quare invented a repeating mechanism for watches. The mechanism repeats a ringing bell sound every quarter hour.
  • In 1680, the minute hand is introduced in Britain and in France in 1700. It’s worth noting that the minute hand was invented by Jost Burgi back in 1577.

4. 1700 – 1800

History of Watches - Lever Escapement
Lever escapement
  • In 1704, Jacob and Peter Debaufre along with Nicolas Facio pioneered the use of rubies for their watch movements.
  • The year 1759 saw the invention of the lever escapement, courtesy of Thomas Mudge. Then in 1785, the escapement was improved by Josiah Emery which is now used in modern watches.
  • Swiss watchmaker and one of the fathers of precision watchmaking Abraham Louis Perrelet invented the self-winding movement in 1780.

5. 1800 – 1900

History of Watches - Patek Philippe First Wristwatch
First Patek Philippe Wristwatch (1868)
  • The year 1848 became a landmark year because it was the year when Louis Brandt opened his own workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds. This Swiss city becomes the ground zero for a little-known watch company, Omega.
  • The year 1868 marks another historical milestone for the watchmaking industry. Of course, this is when Patek Philippe of Patek Philippe & Co. made the very first wristwatch. On top of that, the company also pioneered the chronograph, split-seconds hand, perpetual calendar, and minute repeater.
  • In 1876, the introduction of cheaper materials and industrialized manufacturing enabled watches to be mass-produced. This allowed regular workers to own watches as a practical possession than as a status symbol.
  • In 1880, Constant Girard of the Girard-Perregaux fame has developed a wristwatch concept for German naval officers. The order came directly from Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany which amounted to 2,000 units. This marks the first notable commercialization of wristwatches.
  • The year 1884 marked the time when Greenwich, England was officially declared as the zero meridian (GMT +0). This became the worldwide standard of time zones.

6. 1900 – 2000

History of Watches - Cartier Santos
The Cartier Santos
  • During the 1900s, a type of wristwatch called Wristlet was introduced. This product was geared towards women.  It is more of a passing fad than an actual, serious timepiece. The gentlemen, who typically carried pocket watches, dismissed this fad and was quoted that they would “sooner wear a skirt than wear a wristwatch.

Milestones

  • In 1904, aviation pioneer and Brazilian inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont worked with his friend Louis Cartier to devise a timepiece that will allow the former to time his flight performance while keeping both hands on the control. Cartier worked with his master watchmaker, Edmond Jaeger to create a prototype for the Santos wristwatch. This was the advent of the very first pilot watch, the Cartier Santos-Dumont.
  • In 1905, Visionary Hans Wilsdorf founded the Wilsdorf and Davis in London. Three years later, Wilsdorf opened an office in Switzerland which then started the Swiss luxury watch company, Rolex.
  • During the WWI, the importance of watches was highlighted. Delays must be avoided therefore, watches must be synchronized. Soldiers were given wristwatches called “trench watches” and housed pocket watch movements. These watches were large and bulky, and the crown is positioned at 12 o’clock. It looks pretty much like a pocket watch.
  • On January 3, 1957, the Hamilton Electric wristwatch by the Hamilton Watch Company has made its debut. It is the first ever battery-operated electric wristwatch and also the first model to never require winding.
  • In 1969, Seiko released the Seiko Quartz Astron (ref. 35SQ) which is the world’s first quartz movement powered watch. This kickstarted the rise of the quartz movement.
  • In 1972, Hamilton introduced the very first commercial electronic digital wristwatch, Pulsar. It first retailed for the pricey sum of $2,100 (roughly $12,000 today). However, as the 70s come to an end, digital watches were sold for $10 a piece.

7. 2000 – Present

History of Watches - Timex Data Link 150

  • In 1994, the Timex Data Link 150 was released and it’s one of the many watches with built-in database functionality. However, other watches had no useful way to transfer data to a more permanent medium like a computer. The Data Link 150 solved this by allowing the user to transfer information to and fro a computer via an optical sensor.
  • The year 2002 saw the introduction of the very first wristwatch with a built-in camera. That was the Casio Wrist Camera, which is capable of capturing 120-by-120-pixel photos in grayscale.
  • The Seiko E-Ink Watch, released in 2005, is another milestone for digital watches. It’s the first timepiece to utilize an e-ink display. Five years later, a new and improved model was released with an active matrix e-ink display. This allowed better clarity and added four shades of gray.
  • Many people thought that digital watches are going obsolete. since they can always check the time with their smartphones. However, Cupertino tech giant Apple proved them wrong with the release of the Apple Watch Series 1. The watch successfully merged fashion and function. It had the ability to sync the watch with an iOS device to send messages, display call information, monitor health statistics, and more. Since then, digital wristwatches have become more popular with consumers.

How Switzerland Came to Dominate Watchmaking?

History of Watches - Swiss Watch Industry

Many watch enthusiasts agree that nothing runs quite like a Swiss-made watch. You can’t really talk about the history of watches without touching upon Swiss watches. How did this small country become such a dominating force in the global watch industry?

Switzerland facts

  • The art of watchmaking is not even present in Switzerland until the 14th century. It was when the Huguenot refugees had set up shop in Geneva that started the whole thing. Records show that by the year 1554, there were watchmakers working in Geneva.
  • In 1601, the very first watchmaking guild was established in Geneva. At this point, Geneva watchmakers have established a reputation for making high-quality timepieces.
  • During the 19th century, the Swiss watchmaking industry grew considerably. By the year 1850, the Swiss were making over two million watches per year. England, the country’s main competitor, can only manage 200,000 watches annually.
  • Although American watches posed a threat to the Swiss, the country turned it around with the release of the Rolex Oyster, the world’s first waterproof watch. On top of the trademark Swiss innovation, the country managed to tip on the winning side.
  • During the 1970s, the Swiss watchmaking industry faced another threat in the form of the Japanese quartz watches. The quartz-powered watches were more accurate and not to mention, cheaper. The Swiss watchmaking industry crumbled under this pressure. However, over time, Nicolas Hayek founded Swatch and released their own quartz models.
  • Today, the Swiss watchmaking industry is once again feeling the pressure against tech giants like Apple. Apple managed to outsold Swiss watches with their own Apple Watch.

Top 10 Historically Significant Watches of All Time

1. Cartier Santos

Cartier Santos

The Cartier Santos is one of the first-ever wristwatches. Prior to the Santos, people have been pulling a pocket watch for checking the time. The Cartier Santos solved this problem and it ultimately revolutionized the world of watchmaking.

2. Rolex Submariner

Rolex SubMariner

When Rolex released “The Sub”, the watch industry hasn’t been the same since.

The Submariner was not released as a luxury item, it was intended to be a tool watch for professional divers. However, it became so popular that it earned cult status as a top-tier sports watch. The Submariner is the most popular model in Rolex’s lineup and for good reason.

3. Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph

Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph

The Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph is the first perpetual calendar chronograph. This watch was historically significant. It not only did track the date but also managed to measure small increments of time.

3. Omega Speedmaster

Omega Speedmaster

Also referred to as the “Moonwatch” or “Speedy”, the Omega Speedmaster took over the world by storm. It remains as one of the most famous watches in the world. It was originally designed to be used by race car drivers but it underwent rigorous NASA testing and became the first official timepiece of the agency. It’s the first timepiece ever to be worn on the surface of the moon.

4. Tissot Antimagnetique

Tissot Antimagnetique

The balance spring of a watch is very vulnerable to a magnetic field. Once it came in contact with magnets, the spring sticks to the watch and the timepiece runs faster than normal. Consequently, in 1930, Tissot introduced the Antimagnetique which earned the distinction as the world’s first mass-produced watch that’s protected from magnetic fields.

5. Cartier Tank

Cartier Tank

Introduced in 1918, the Cartier Tank is supposedly inspired by the silhouette of a World War I tank.

The Tank saw a very limited release back in 1919 with only a grand total of six units made. However, today it’s more accessible and remains a target for bootleggers.

6. Seiko Astron

Seiko Astron

Formerly known as the Seiko Quartz-Astron 35SQ, the Astron Wristwatch was the world’s first watch that comes with quartz movement. Seiko pulled up the curtains of Astron in Tokyo on December 25, 1969. This marked the beginning of the Quartz crisis and revolution.

7. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was everything a luxury timepiece was not supposed to be. Released in 1972, it was the very first luxury watch that’s made from stainless steel. The octagonal form and exposed crews have remained unchanged over the years.

8. Zenith El Primero

Zenith El Primero

When it comes to precision, the Zenith El Primero is certainly one of the top contenders.

The makers of the El Primero worked on the watch’s movement for a full seven years which is an incredible feat by itself. The movement is very complex and it beats at an impressive 36,000 vibrations per hour. This made it possible to have an accuracy of 1/10th of a second. The El Primero is still in production today.

9. Casio G-Shock

Casio G-Shock

The original Casio G-Shock was invented by Japanese engineer Kikuo Ibe out of the frustration from the fragility of most mechanical and quartz watches. He knew he had to make a watch that can withstand a great deal of punishment. The G-Shock is not a watch that you’ll hear from the mouth of a diehard mechanical watch enthusiast. But it’s a groundbreaking model nonetheless.

10. Swatch Quartz

Swatch

While it used to be an industry giant, the Swiss watch industry was in a bad shape during the 80s. Swiss watches were losing out to quartz watches in a big way.

In response, the Swiss responded with the Swatch. It is a relatively simple but innovative timepiece with only 51 parts. Consequently, the Swatch was a commercial success and it allowed the Swiss watch industry to catch a second wind.

Watches Have Come a Long Way

The art of watchmaking has a long and rich history. The legacy of timepieces will continue to become an integral part of our lives.

Hopefully, this article has helped you understand some aspects of the history of watches.

Watch Movements | Differences Between Mechanical & Quartz

Watch Movements HUB1201

Any self-respecting watch collector will want to know what makes their timepieces tick. A person with an eye for detail will surely appreciate the mechanism that runs inside the case.

If you are interested or confused about watch movements, you’ve come to the right place. For today’s post, we talk about watch movements, the differences between mechanical and quartz, and more.

Types of Watch Movements

Between watch manufacturers, you can find countless watch movements available and many of them are proprietary creations. However, all watch movements can be broken down to two major categories – Quartz and Mechanical.

1. Quartz Movement

Watch Movements Grand Seiko 9F Caliber
The Grand Seiko 9F82A

The advent of quartz crystal movement (typically shortened to quartz) is attributed to Seiko. It was Christmas Day in Tokyo when Seiko introduced the Astron, the very first quartz wristwatch. Quartz is a battery-powered movement which was groundbreaking at the time especially when compared to the traditional hairspring/balance wheel combination.

The announcement of the Astron was heard all over the world. By 1977, Seiko became the world’s largest watch company. It essentially kickstarted the era of battery-operated wristwatches. It certainly helped that quartz provided excellent accuracy and required no maintenance aside from battery replacements.

Quartz, in general, tend to be low cost due to very little moving parts and being battery-operated. However, watch enthusiasts find quartz timepieces to be less desirable due to the overall lack of craftsmanship and engineering.

But what exactly makes a movement a quartz movement?

How Quartz Movement Works

Watch Movements Miyota 2025
Miyota 2025 Japan Made Quartz Movement

To measure the time, watches that house the quartz movement need electrical current. The current, in this case, is supplied by the battery which acts as the main power source. The electrical signal is sent via a piece of crystal quartz which then vibrates at a rate of 32,768 times per second.

The crystal essentially becomes an oscillator. This oscillation helps to keep the time which replaces the function of the hairspring/balance wheel combo in a mechanical movement.

In terms of accuracy, the Horological Journal wrote:

Even the humblest quartz wristwatch can maintain time accurate to within less than 1 second per day with the aid of inhibition compensation. And due to the surprisingly good stability of 32 kHz quartz crystal oscillators, the accuracy of quartz wristwatches can be expected to change by only a small amount over time.

Watch Movements Tissot PR100 COSC
The Quartz-powered Tissot PR 100 COSC

More often than not, quartz-powered watches are far less expensive when compared to mechanical watches. However, there are also luxury watches that comes with a quartz movement such as the Longines Conquest VHP and Tissot PR100 COSC.

Benefits of Quartz Movement

  • Superior Accuracy – A non-certified quartz watch has an accuracy of about 99.9998% while a certified one will be 99.9999% accurate.
  • Ease of Use – If you want a watch that you can just wear and forget, a quartz watch is a great option. You won’t need to wind your watch from time to time, and still be able to keep time.
  • Low Maintenance – A quartz movement has a very little number of moving parts. In addition, the battery only needs a replacement every 3 to 4 years.
  • Less Expensive – As mentioned, quartz watches are generally less expensive when compared to mechanical models. These movements are mass-produced, so they have mainstream appeal and affordability.

Disadvantages of Quartz Movement

  • Needs Battery to Operate – Quartz watches need a battery to keep on ticking. If the battery runs out, the watch stops working. Replacing the battery can be a real inconvenience for many collectors.
  • Collectability – While there are luxury timepieces that come with quartz movement, most of them are mass-produced. This means that quartz watches don’t hold their value over time. The most serious watch collector will find a quartz movement less desirable when compared to mechanical models.

2. Mechanical Movement

Watch Movements Patek Philippe 2499
The most iconic and desirable Patek Philippe reference 2499 movement.

Most watch enthusiasts prefer mechanical movement for their luxury watches.

Simply put, mechanical movements boast a high level of quality and craftsmanship, expertly crafted by watch artisans. A mechanical movement features an intricate series of moving parts that working together to get the watch ticking. The intricate mechanism in mechanical watches can only be described as art.

A lot of in-house mechanical watches created by Swiss watchmakers have fetched hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars during auctions. One notable example is the extremely rare Patek Philippe reference 2499, costing as much as $7 million dollars.

Watch Movements ETA 2660
Swiss Made ETA 2660

However, there are movement companies such as ETA that have managed to mass-produce mechanical movements for watchmaking purposes. This enabled smaller brands to make mechanical timepieces that can compete with leading luxury watch brands.

The general design of mechanical watches hasn’t changed over the years. However, the use of technology has allowed movement makers to improve precision and add a greater attention to detail to their creations.

How Mechanical Movement Works

Watch Movements Mechanical Movement

All mechanical timepieces uses the combination of hairspring and balance wheel.

Unlike quartz watches, a mechanical model utilizes energy from a wound spring instead of a battery. The spring will then transfer the energy via the springs and gears within the movement. This component powers the overall function of the watch including the hands and complications.

The oscillation of the balance wheel results in a back and forth motion which is not unlike the movement of a pendulum. For a mechanical watch to function continuously, the spring has to be wound with regular frequency.

Benefits of Mechanical Movement

  • Longer Lasting – A skillfully built mechanical watch can last for a lifetime, provided that it’s treated with proper care and maintenance.
  • No Battery Needed – The hand-wound mainspring is the main component that powers a mechanical watch. Thus, when the watch stops working, you can simply wind it up instead of going to a jeweler to replace the batteries.
  • Smooth Hand Movement – For some people, the smooth sweeping motion of the hands in a mechanical movement is better than the quartz’ tick-tick motion.
  • Aesthetics – If you appreciate great attention to detail, you’ll fall in love with the beauty of mechanical movements. Many luxury mechanical watches have a clear sapphire casing on the back which allows you to admire the rotations and oscillations of the moving parts.

Disadvantages of Mechanical Movement

  • More Expensive – While it’s easy to admire the construction of a mechanical watch, the superior craftsmanship also comes with a high price tag. Top-quality mechanical watches can easily cost thousands of dollars and up to six figures for the super luxurious models.
  • Less Accurate – The accuracy of mechanical movements is simply nowhere near that of a quartz. The most accurate mechanical watches are “Certified Chronometers” and it still can’t compare to quartz in terms of accuracy.
  • Need to Wind – Many watch enthusiasts don’t mind the winding process. However, some users think that it can be a chore especially if the timepiece has low energy retention.

The Two Types of Mechanical Watch Movements

There are actually two types of mechanical movements that power many luxury watches: manual and automatic (self-winding). There are differences between mechanical movements and each has its own special characteristics.

1. Manual Movement

Watch Movements HUB1201
Hublot In-House HUB120 mechanical movement with manual winding

Manual movement is the oldest type of watch movement in existence. They are also referred to as “hand-wound movements.” Manual watches are more desirable to collectors because they display the watch movements in full glory through the case-back.

As the name implies, a watch powered by a manual movement necessitates the winding up of the piece on a regular basis. This may well be the deciding factor as to why one would refuse to buy a manual watch.

However, for enthusiasts who treat their timepieces as more than just a timekeeping tool, the process of winding the watch becomes a veritable ritual. This adds a level of intimacy with their time measuring companion and improves the overall experience of owning the watch.

How Manual Movement Works

A manual watch gets its energy through the winding stem. When you talk about winding the watch, it refers to the action of turning the winding stem which tightens the mainspring. The mainspring then accumulates the energy which transmits to the hands and complications.

The balance wheel is responsible for keeping regular time. The wheel swings in a back and forth motion and interacts with the escapement. The motion transmits to the gears which power the hands.

The escapement is the part that transfers energy to the wheel so the latter oscillates at a given rate. The oscillation is what the wearer can hear as the ticking sound.

To wind the mainspring, the user simply needs to turn the crown several times.

2. Automatic Movement

Watch Movements Rolex Daytona
Rolex Daytona Self-Winding Movement

Up to this day, the question of who invented the automatic movement is still up for debate. Some folks say it’s Abraham-Louis Perrelet and some believe that the inventor is Hubert Sarton. Either way, that will be a debate for another day.

The automatic movement is the next logical step after the hand-wound movement. Without the need to manually wind the timepiece at least once every other day, it’s easy to see why. The motion of the arm is enough to keep the watch wound.

Basically, as long as you have it on your wrist, the watch will keep ticking.

For the most part, an automatic movement works in the same way as manual systems do – save for the addition of a metal weight called the rotor.

How Automatic Movement Works

To understand how an automatic movement works, it’s important to know about the most important components.

As mentioned earlier, the rotor is what sets the automatic movement apart from the manual. The rotor is a semi-circular weight which connects to the movement. The rotor can freely move in a 360° direction and it goes with the watch’s movement on the wrist.

The reverser mechanism is another essential component that sits between the gears and rotor. This part enables the rotor to rotate the mainspring regardless of the direction it turns.

There’s also the escapement which essentially “divides” the time in equal fractions. This is the component that releases the energy supplied by the gears to the lever.

Modern automatic watches come with a power reserve that allows you to take them off without worrying that it will run out of power. For instance, a watch with a 72-hour power reserve can remain in your nightstand for close to three days and it will still be ticking once you wear it again.

How to Tell the Differences Between Mechanical & Quartz?

So, is it possible to tell if a watch is quartz or mechanical just by looking? Well, some watches indicate the type of movement under the hood through the dial. These tips below should let you determine if a watch comes with a quartz or mechanical movement:

  • If the second hand is moving in a smooth, continuous motion, the watch houses a mechanical movement.
  • If the second hand is moving in little steps or in a tick-tick motion, you are looking at a quartz watch.

Watch manufacturers are continuously innovating to improve the quartz technology. They continue to improve the crystal’s frequency so it mimics the smooth motion of mechanical watches. With that said, the little tip above might not be applicable anymore.

Which Movement is Right for You?

As you can see, each type of watch movement has its fair share of pros and cons. It all comes down to personal preference between a “purist” view of watchmaking and convenience. It’s also good to consider how you will use your watch.

If you are looking for an affordable timepiece that you can essentially set-and-forget, you are better off with a quartz watch. It is also going to be more accurate and requires little to no maintenance.

On the other hand, if you value the art of horology and drawn to the elegance of micro-mechanical movements, then a mechanical watch is a no-brainer.

Regardless of your choice, the choice between quartz and mechanical movement says a lot about a person’s individuality. Hopefully, this guide has helped you better understand watch movements and the differences between mechanical & quartz movements.