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The Watches that Changed Timekeeping History

Standards in the watchmaking industry had to come from somewhere.
Meet the watches that changed the way watches are made, earning them a place in history.

On Christmas Day of 1969, Seiko took to the world stage, made a bold declaration, and introduced the Seiko Quartz Astron. 

The 18K gold wristwatch was an engineering marvel, the first in the world to run on quartz. It required no winding, had a variance of only five seconds a month, and greatly outdid the mechanical pieces of the period. It also retailed for more than a family car.

“Someday, all watches will be made this way,” Seiko had proudly said. And then they opened the patents to the world.

You can imagine what the reaction was from a world that had known only mechanical watches until then. Still, what Seiko said almost did happen.

Quartz made it possible to manufacture timepieces at a significantly lower cost. Practically overnight, the affordable lower tier Swiss watchmakers such as Certina, Witham, and Darwil lost all their sales to cheaper, more reliable and precise quartz wristwatches.

Just as quickly, the rules of survival in the watchmaking industry changed. It stopped being about the quality of movements, because quartz was superior in almost every measurable way.

Instead, marketing departments started relying on brand history and prestige, particularly for the older houses. They also started focusing on the amount of skilled labor that went into the production of a single mechanical timepiece.

Who cared about variance when the balance cock was engraved using techniques passed down from generations of artisans? What use was extreme precision when you could have a painstakingly enameled dial that took hundreds of hours to make?

Now, almost 50 years later, elaborate craftsmanship, tradition and storied pasts are still the highlight of mechanical watches. But quartz movements and their signature jumping seconds (a.k.a. ticking, deadbeat) have become ubiquitous, with even the big names carrying several quartz collections.

The launch of the Seiko Quartz Astron irreversibly changed the way wristwatches are made and sold. And, like the Astron, there are a few other timepieces that altered the standards of time and watchmaking so profoundly. Here we look at just a few of the names that forever altered the course of watchmaking and, in some cases, of history itself.

Harrison H4 Marine Timekeeper

When exploring the “new world” was all the rage in Europe, people could easily tell how far north or south they were by looking up at the stars. But how far west or east was a different story–which would explain why both Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan got so lost while looking for the East Indies.

After many such bungled expeditions and several ships crashing into rocks, the British Government started a competition that offered £20,000 (equivalent to roughly £ 2 million today) to anyone who could figure out measuring longitude while on a ship.

In theory, the solution was simple enough; if they had a timepiece that accurately told the time back home, they could easily compute their position based on the sun at high noon. The problem was making a timepiece that remained accurate despite all the movements of a ship.

Self-taught carpenter John Harrison worked close to four decades to create several iterations of what he hoped would be the winning marine timekeeper. The fourth version, the H4, finally won him the prize.

The innovations found in the movement of the H4 included the first balance wheels, jeweled bearings, grasshopper escapement, temperature compensation, and remontoir. All these kept the timepiece accurate to three seconds per day and became standard features of all movements to come.

The British navy was able to replicate Harrison’s marine timekeeper, helping pave the way for England to become the maritime superpower and empire that it was.

Ball Railway Standard Pocket Watch

In 1891, two trains collided on the Lake Shore Line in the United States, killing 11 people. It was later discovered that the watch of one of the train engineers had stopped for four minutes, causing him to overestimate the amount of time he had left before crossing paths with another train.

Webb C. Ball, a prominent jeweler, was asked to investigate the time and watch conditions of the railway line. He found that there were no real timekeeping standards, and immediately implemented bi-monthly checks to ensure all railway watches did not run 30 seconds faster or slower than others.

He then established RR Standard Certification for watchmakers manufacturing timepieces for railway service. To get that certification, their pocket watches had to fulfill an extensive list of requirements, covering everything from appearance (white face, black Arabic numerals) to movement specifications (15 jewels, resistance to magnetism, minimum power reserve). The Waltham Watch Company was the first to receive RR Standard Certification, followed by other watch houses including Elgin, Illinois and Hamilton.

However, none of the timepieces distributed to railway service men bore the name of their original manufacturer; they were all rebranded to BALL Watch Co. or BALL & Co.

In today’s history books, Ball Railway Standard Pocket Watches are recognized as the first set of timepieces to follow a widespread standard for uniform time and are heralded for setting the bar for accuracy and precision.

Some sources even say that the stringent requirements Ball demanded were so effective, they were eventually incorporated into some of the tests conducted by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) – the current governing body for precision and accuracy in the finest of today’s timepieces.

Santos de Cartier

From the 1500s to the 1800s, timepieces made to be sported on the wrist were created exclusively for women. They were mounted on bracelets or armlets and were not called wristwatches, but “wristlets.”

It wasn’t until 1906, when Alberto Santos-Dumont flew his aircraft, that a wristwatch for men was conceived. It is reported that during the celebration of his successful flight, he lamented to his friend Louis Cartier about the struggle of checking time while flying a plane. Ideally, both hands would remain on the aircraft’s controls, but this was impossible because he had to keep fumbling with his pocket watch.

This conversation led to the creation of the famed Santos de Cartier timepiece. Much like the models of today that carry that name, the first wristwatch had a rounded square case, exposed screws and blackened Roman numerals. It was designed to be held in place by a leather strap with a small buckle.

Cartier gifted the timepiece to the airman, who wore it on all his flights. As Santos-Dumont rose to celebrity in Europe, the contraption on his wrist increasingly piqued public interest.

Cartier’s response to the developing demand for wristwatches was to mass produce a version of the Santos de Cartier. The new model went on sale in 1911, carrying a movement created in collaboration with Edmond Jaeger.

Since then, pocket watches have faded from the spotlight, while timepieces secured to the wrist with straps have become the norm.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

A dramatic drop in sales after the introduction of quartz movements almost left Audemars Piguet bankrupt. In a last-ditch effort, the Swiss watch house decided to take a risk and create the first all-steel luxury sports watch.

They hired none other than renowned watch designer Gerald Genta for this project. Working overnight, Genta sketched a timepiece with an octagonal bezel, exposed screws, an integrated steel bracelet and petit tapisserie motif on its dial. It was called the Royal Oak and was introduced during the 1972 Annual Swiss Watch Show (now named BaselWorld).

Critics’ initial reaction to the timepiece was tepid, at best. While there were many aspects to it that were impressive – such as the thin, self-winding caliber 2121 with an anti-shock system – they struggled with how a sports watch made of common metal could warrant such a high price tag. It was more expensive than a gold Patek Philippe, and ten times more than the specialized Rolex Submariner.

But consumers, especially from Italy, were ready for such a sports watch. Audemars Piguet sold their first 1,000 Royal Oaks in less than two years, and soon started making as many variations of the model as possible.

Now, the Royal Oak is a mainstay of the watch house and using steel for a sports watch is a common practice among all luxury brands in the world.

Omega Speedmaster

When NASA started looking for a chronograph for space missions in 1964, they wrote a letter of requirements and sent it to the agents and importers of Swiss watch brands. There were four respondents: Longines-Wittnauer, Rolex, Hamilton and Omega.

They provided NASA with four specimens of their best performing watches, in the hopes of winning the bid. Each of the watches had to go through a battery of tests that simulated the kinds of environmental shifts astronauts went through. Scientists at NASA observed how they performed under extreme temperature and pressure changes. They exposed them to varying vibration frequencies, shocks and levels of acoustic noise. They also tested how the cases withstood differences in gas composition in the air.

In the end, the only timepiece left standing was the Omega Speedmaster.

From then on the timepiece became part of the official list of equipment for astronauts. It was brought along during milestone missions including America’s first spacewalk, as well as the moon landing of 1969.

It was also the timepiece aboard the Apollo 13, where the phrase “Houston, we have a problem” came from. One of the oxygen tanks of the spacecraft had erupted and the astronauts aboard needed to head back to earth. To angle the shuttle for a safe re-entry into the planet’s atmosphere, the engine boosts had to be on for exactly 14 seconds. The pilot, Jack Swigert, used his Omega Speedmaster’s chronograph function to correctly time this, allowing him and the other astronauts a safe trip home.

To this day, no other watch house has had the privilege of being named the official timekeeper of NASA.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

Shortly after World War II, France formed their own unit of elite military divers called the “nageuers de combat.” Their founders, Captain Robert Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Jean Riffaud, handpicked the team’s members and equipment. Early in the process, they realized that their men would need a timepiece that could keep up with their operations under water.

Putting a pen to paper, Maloubier started drawing up the kind of watch his team would need. He and Riffaud went to several watchmakers to get it manufactured but were turned away because the diving watch they had conceptualized didn’t seem to have commercial potential.

Eventually, they met with Jean-Jacques Fiechter, the CEO of a little watchmaking company called Blancpain.

Fiecther was an amateur diver himself and had already been looking into creating a timepiece suitable for his hobby. When he met Maloubier and Riffaud, all three men realized they were dreaming of creating the same watch.

They envisioned one that had a dark face and clear, simple marking. One that could be read even under adverse lighting conditions. One with a unidirectional bezel that could help a diver determine how long they’d been under water.

In 1953, Blancpain delivered 20 timepieces that carried all of these. It also had patented features that increased water resistance and anti-magnetism, and a movement that was self-winding.

The name it was given implied that it was capable of going to the farthest depths possible for divers of the time – 91.45 meters. Or, following the British measurement system, fifty fathoms.

Not long after the French frogmen started using them, the navies of Germany, Israel, Spain and the United States began including the timepiece in their list of official equipment.

Nowadays, many of the significant features found on the original Blancpain Fifty Fathoms can be seen on other dive watches, regardless of brand or model. But this isn’t a case of simple mimicry. To officially qualify as a dive watch today, a timepiece has to meet a litany of requirements dictated by ISO 6425, which based many of the said requirements on the watch created by Maloubier, Riffaud and Fiecther.

Although they weren’t planning for it, all dive watches are now made this way.

Time will tell, the adage goes. But sometimes, it’s the way we tell time that makes history.