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History of Luxury Watches

1480 – 1511: The beginnings of portable time keeping. In Nürnberg, Germany, Peter Henlein creates the first pocket watch. It is made of gilded brass and has only one hand giving the approximate time. It is ball shaped, yet oddly named a “Nürnberg Egg”. Henlein’s invention would soon be imitated and other Nürnberg Eggs followed.

1485: Leonardo da Vinci sketches a fusee for a clock. This system would later be used in watches.

1535: Religion has had a strong influence on the watch industry, and it had a major impact at this time. Martin Luther’s Protestant reformation took over Geneva. In 1535, Geneva had no watch making industry to speak of and was mostly known for its jewellery.

1541: Jean Calvin now moved to Geneva and turned it into the centre of the reformation. As word of this spread, Protestants from Paris and other watch making centres fled to Geneva. Calvin had imposed many strict laws banning theatre, dancing, and other forms of art and entertainment. This included a ban on wearing elaborate clothing and jewellery. Initially this seemed like doom for Geneva’s many fine jewellers, but one loophole in Calvin’s laws gave them opportunity. Calvin considered watches an item of practical use, therefore allowed in his new strict Protestant Geneva. Geneva’s jewellers then collaborated with the watchmakers who had recently fled there to make watches with jewels, enamels, and engravings. This collaboration spawned the beginning of Geneva’s luxury watch industry.

1575: Watches are now getting more drum shaped and until 1600 also get more oval shaped.

1600: Form watches are now starting to become popular. The cases are shaped like animals and objects. Religious themes are very popular, like skulls (for death) and crucifixes.

1635: This was around the time that the fusee was adapted from clocks to watches. This helped get equal power to the mainspring regardless of whether the watch was fully wound or nearly out of reserve power.

1650: By now watches were coming with pair cases. These had an outer case to protect the inner case of the watch.

1659-1675: Christian Huygens in Holland invents the “Remontoire”. This keeps a more constant force on the escapement. Also during this time the spiral hairspring for the balance wheel was invented. There are claims that either Robert Hooke invented this in 1664 or Christian Huygens in 1675. There is also a claim that Thomas Thompion did in the same year. Regardless of who invented it, it made great strides in terms of accuracy. Now watches were accurate to within a few minutes, adding the use for a minute hand on watch dials.

1687: Daniel Quare patents the repeating mechanism that uses bells to sound quarter hours and the hours.

1700: Either Thompion or George Graham invents the horizontal cylinder escapement.

1704: Peter and Jacob Debaufre, along with Nicolas Facio, are the first to use rubies in watch movements. This greatly reduces friction, which improves accuracy and increases longevity of parts.

1715: George Graham invents the dead-beat escapement.

1725: George Graham invents the cylinder escapement, which makes watches much slimmer.

1750: Around this time, watchmakers began using enamel on watch dials to make them easier to read. Today, making a genuine enamel dial is very labour intensive, therefore expensive.

1755: Jean Marc Vacheron begins making his own watches. He would later join with Francois Constantin to form Vacheron Constantin.

1759: Thomas Mudge invents the English lever escapement, the key advantage of this movement being that the watch can be wound without stopping or losing time.

1761-1762: John Harrison’s marine chronometer is the first timepiece successfully to determine longitude at sea. At the time, there was a large monetary award for whoever could be the first accurately to determine longitude at sea. Before then, many sailors perished on ships lost at sea that eventually ran aground and found themselves in the wrong spot or at the wrong time. Astronomers claimed to have the solution by using the stars for longitude, while watch and clock makers hurried to solve the problem with timing. Both factions rushed to earn the prize. Harrison had many competitors and some tried to stop him, but after many years and four different chronometers, he succeeded in spite of the heavy competition.

1770: Watchcases were now getting more elaborate. Machine turned cases, cases made of tortoiseshell, and enamel painted cases were all making the pocket watch more decorative.

1773: John Harrison collects his prize for his marine chronometer. At last.

1775: Abraham Louis Breguet sets up his own watch making shop in Paris, France.

1780: Abraham Louis Perrelet, one of Breguet’s early instructors, invents the self-winding movement. Breguet would later improve this feature.

1783: Abraham Louis Breguet invents the gong spring for repeaters. He also designs his own style hands and numbers, which are still named after him today. The gong spring helped make repeaters much smaller.

1783: Breguet begins work on his famous “Queen Marie Antoinette” watch. The watch features: self-winding, minute repeating, perpetual calendar, independent seconds, equation of time, thermometer, and power reserve. It also had a rock crystal dial to show off the amazing movement. Unfortunately the watch took so long to complete that the Queen never got to see the final product. In 1983 it was stolen from a museum in Jerusalem and to this day the watch has not been recovered.

1786: Breguet is the first to use guilloche on watch dials, which not only made them more attractive but also more legible.

1790: Breguet invents the parachute anti lock device to protect the balance wheel.

1791: J.F. Bautte founded the watch company that would eventually become Girard-Perregaux.

1795: Breguet invents the Tourbillon. One of his greatest achievements, this device compensates for positional errors in the escapement caused by gravity. It remains one of the most difficult mechanisms to manufacture today.

1795: Breguet invents the Breguet over coil balance spring. This greatly improves accuracy and is still used in high quality mechanical watches.

1798: Breguet invents the “Sympathique”. This is a clock and watch set. When the watch is not in use, it sets into a recess in the clock. The clock would then adjust and reset the watch. Later versions also rewound the watch. In 1991 this system was adapted to a wristwatch / clock set.

1799: Breguet invents the “Tact” watch, also known as the “watch for the blind”. With this watch, the wearer could feel the exposed pointer on the case to determine the time.

Late 1700s: With all of the latest technical innovations, movements are now much smaller, and form watches re-emerge in even more styles than before.

Early 1800s: Thanks to Brequet’s invention of the gong spring, repeaters are much more compact and are now getting very popular.

1801: Breguet gets the patent for the Tourbillon.

1807: Thomas Young invents the recording chronograph.

1809: Luther Goddard of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts is the first watch manufacturer in America. He has produced only approximately 600 watches in total.

1810: Breguet makes the first wristwatch for the Queen of Naples. There are many other claims to the first wristwatch title, but Breguet’s is documented.

1820: Thomas Prest registers a patent for the self-winding watch.

1821: Rieussec gets a patent for the chronograph. There are also claims that Breguet invented this.

1827: The Breguet “Marie Antoinette” watch is finally completed four years after Abraham Louis Brequet’s death. The major part of the work was executed by Michael Weber, one of the firm’s best watchmakers.

1830: Seven years after Breguet’s death, the Breguet company introduces a watch that can be wound or set using only one crown. Breguet, along with many other companies, would claim to be the first to have invented this.

1833: Antoine LeCoultre starts his own watch making business. It would later become Jaeger-LeCoultre.

1837: The first Tiffany store opens.

1838: The Swiss watch firm Audemars claims to have developed the first watch that can be wound or set through the crown.

1843: Adrien Philippe, of Patek Philippe fame, develops a watch with winding and setting through the crown.

1844: The start, stop, and reset chronograph is invented by Adolph Nicole; he works on this development until 1862.

1844: Antoine LeCoultre invents the millionometre. This precise system helps make movements much smaller.

1845: Adolphe Lange begins watch making in Glashütte, Germany.

1845: Adrien Philippe joins Patek & Cie to form Patek Philippe & Cie.

1846: Ulysse Nardin is established.

1847: Antoine LeCoultre develops a watch with winding and setting through the crown.

1848: Louis Brandt opens his own workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds; this eventually became the Omega Watch Company.

Mid 1800s: Swiss watches now dominate the world market. Ladies’ jewelled watches are very popular. Thanks to numerous advances in technology, watches are now more mass produced and more affordable. They are also much more accurate. Perpetual calendars. retrograde displays, jumping hours and split second chronographs, were getting popular as well. The Swiss lever escapement is now used more than the English lever because it functions with less wear to the escape wheel and with better accuracy.

1850s: The going barrel replaces the fusee, making watches much more compact.

1851: The “Warren Manufacturing Company” is founded. It would later become the “Waltham Watch Company”, one of the most significant watch companies in American history.

1853: Tissot makes the first dual time zone watch.

1856: Eterna is founded. It was originally called U. Schild and adopted the name Eterna only in 1906.

1858: Minerva is founded.

1860: Heuer is founded. They would become known for their chronographs.

1860: Chopard opens.

1865: Zenith founded.

1868: An American from Boston named Florentine Jones moves to Shaffhausen, Switzerland to start International Watch Company, (IWC).

1869: The Illinois Watch Company is founded.

1875: Audemars Piguet & Cie is established.

1880: Girard-Perregaux is the first company to mass-produce wristwatches, primarily for military use.

1881: Movado founded.

1884: Breitling starts.

1884: Greenwich, England is officially named the zero meridian and used as the worldwide recognized basis of time zones.

1886: Geneva Seal established.

1891: April 19th –Two trains collide in Kipton, Ohio, killing 11 people. This for those days impressive accident occurred because a conductor’s watch had stopped, thereby throwing the trains’ schedule into disarray. After this tragedy, a commission was formed to regulate the standards of railroad watches. With many trains moving so fast on the same tracks, accurate timing had become imperative. These railroad watches had to be durable, accurate, and easy to read in a quick glance. The regulations stated that an official railroad watch could not run fast or slow by 30 seconds or more in a period of 7 to 14 days’ watches. In this period American watches were by far the most accurate and names like Howard and Waltham ruled the day.

1892: Aarne Bonniksen of Coventry, England invents the “Karrusel”. It is similar to the tourbillon, but larger, slower, and less complicated to manufacture.

1892: The Hamilton Watch Company is founded in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Today it is owned by the Swiss “Swatch Group”.

1892: Ingersoll introduces the “Dollar” watch. This inexpensive model brought watches to the masses. By 1916 Ingersoll was making 16,000 watches per day. Their slogan was “The Watch That Made The Dollar Famous”.

Late 1800s: The wristwatch was now growing in popularity, especially with the military. Many of these were pocket watches with wire lugs attached to accommodate a strap.

1894: Universal Geneve established.

1904: Cartier makes a watch for Alberto Santos Dumont. The watch is sold commercially in 1911 and is still one of Cartier’s most popular models and much imitated.

1905: Hans Wilsdorf starts the Rolex Watch Company together with his brother in law. The company was originally named Wilsdorf & Davis. The Rolex name was not officially registered until 1908.

1906: Omega introduces the first minute repeater wristwatch. The movement was made by Audemars Piguet.

1912: Movado introduces the “Polyplan”, the first wristwatch with a curved movement and case. There were other watches with curved cases, but a curved movement was a new technical achievement.

1914: Eterna introduces the first wristwatch with an alarm.

1914: The first radio time signal was transmitted from the Eiffel Tower in Paris and in Nordeich, Germany.

1917: Cartier introduces the “Tank” watch, which still enjoys continued success today.

1918: In Japan, the Shakosha Watch Company opened. This would become Citizen in 1931.

1920: Charles Edouard Guillaume wins the Nobel prize for inventing Invar and Elinvar. The composition of these metals causes them to be almost unaffected by temperature variations. The metals would be used for balance springs, thus greatly improving accuracy.

1920s-1930s: Art Deco styles become popular as wristwatches gain in popularity and pocket watch sales decline.

1923: John Harwood is the first to mass-produce a self-winding wristwatch. The watch was set by rotating the bezel and had no crown.

1924: In Tokyo, the Seiko brand name is launched by Kinttaro Hattori. It was formerly named “Timekeeper” and watch making had begun in 1881.

1925: The first year to use Daylight Savings Time.

1926: Rolex introduces the first waterproof case called the “Oyster”. It features a “Twinlock” crown that screws down to keep out moisture.

1927: Mercedes Gleitze swims across the English Channel wearing a Rolex. This was the first great publicity coup for Rolex. There would be many more as Rolex became the most recognized luxury watch brand in history.

1928: Jaeger-LeCoultre introduces the “Atmos”, an amazing clock that runs on changes in temperature. A temperature change of just one degree suffices to keep the clock running for up to two days.

1929: The quartz crystal clock is invented by W.A. Marrison.

1929: Jaeger-LeCoultre introduces the world’s tiniest watch movement. It measures 14mm x 4.8mm x 3.4mm and weighs 1 gram.

1929: First anti-magnetic watch created by Tissot.

1931: Jaeger-LeCoultre introduces the “Reverso”. Developed for polo players, the case flips over to expose the back and protect the crystal. One of the world’s first sports watches. Today the Reverso is a whole collection of watches including a tourbillon, minute repeater, a double watch, jewellery style and others.

1931: Rolex introduces a self-winding model called the “Perpetual”.

1932: Patek Philippe introduces their first “Calatrava” model.

1933: Advances in metallurgy make Nivarox the metal of choice for hairsprings. It is harder than Elinvar, anti-magnetic, and non-rusting. These hairsprings come in various grades, with Nivarox 1 being the best. Nivarox is still used in many good watches to day.

1933: Ingersoll introduces the “Mickey Mouse” watch. This is not the first comic character watch, but definitely the most popular. Its great success inspired many other watch companies to offer their own character watches and they are very collectible today.

1935: Gruen introduces the “Curvex”. The great success of this model helps fuel the explosion of curved watches that will go into the 1940s.

1936:Universal Geneve introduces the “Compax” chronograph. This was the first chronograph with an hour counter and its style helped launch the popularity of all chronographs.

1937: Edmond Jaeger joins Antoine LeCoultre to form the Jaeger-LeCoultre company in the famous Vallée de Joux in the Jura mountains north-west of Geneva.

1942: Breitling introduces the “Chronomat”.

1945: Rolex introduces their first “Datejust”.

1948: Omega introduces their first “Seamaster”.

1948: Eterna is the first to mount the self-winding rotor on tiny ball bearings to reduce friction.

1952: Breitling introduces the “Navitimer” which becomes the quintessential pilot’s watch.

1953: The “Submariner” introduced by Rolex.

1954: Rolex launches the “GMT Master”.

1955: Rene Bannwart, designer for Omega, leaves the company to start up his own watch brand and Company named Corum.

1955: Louis Essen and JVL Perry develop the first Atomic Clock.

1956: Rolex introduces their first model that displays the day and date.

1957: Hamilton introduces the world’s first battery driven watch. The watch had its share of problems but marked the beginning of a very serious crisis in the Swiss mechanical watch industry, almost leading to its complete demise.

1957: Buren makes the first self-winding watch with a micro rotor.

1959: Piaget introduces the 12P, the thinnest self-winding watch in the world at 2.33 mm thick.

1960: Bulova introduces its very successful “Accutron” model. This battery-operated watch replaced the balance wheel with a tuning fork. The system was much more accurate than previous battery operated watches.

1961: Movado introduces the “Museum” watch, a model remaining popular today.  The dial had been designed 14 years earlier by Nathan George Horwitt.

1962: Rado produces the world’s first scratchproof watch called the “Diastar 1”, a classic still popular in some markets today.

1962: ETA of Switzerland develops the first quartz battery operated watch called the “Beta 21”. This is by far the most accurate and dependable system to date. Instead of starting to produce quartz watches for the general public, they did not use this new technology, although invented by them and continued to produce mechanical movements.

1966:Girard-Perregaux produces the world’s first high frequency mechanical movement, (36,000 vibrations per hour). Most mechanical watches have a rate of 18,800 or 28,800 vibrations per hour.

1969: Seiko introduces the “Astron”, the first quartz watch available to the general consumer. Not many Astrons were made, but this marked the beginning of the Japanese quartz watch domination.

1969: Man lands on the moon and NASA chooses the Omega Speedmaster as the watch to go to the moon with them. The Omega Speedmaster is therefore the first watch worn on the moon.

1969: In a race to develop the first self-winding chronograph, Zenith and Movado collaborate to introduce the “El Primero”.

1970: Hamilton releases the “Pulsar”, the first electronic digital watch. At the push of a button, the light emitting diode (LED) would light up the red numbers. This was easy to read, but exhausted batteries quickly.

1972: Longines and Seiko introduce a new type of digital display with the LCD, (Liquid Crystal Display). It displays the time continuously, in contrast with the LED’s push button method.

1972: Audemars Piguet introduces the “Royal Oak”, the first stainless steel luxury sports watch. What seemed risky back then, is the leading trend today.

1974: Paul Picot founded.

1976: Patek Philippe introduces the “Nautilus”.

1976: Citizen makes the first light powered watch.

1979: Vacheron Constantin introduces the “Kallista”, the world’s most expensive watch. With 130 carats of diamonds, it is worth approximately 9 million dollars.

1979: Concord releases the “Delirium”, the world’s thinnest watch, (1.98mm). As the battle for the thinnest watches continues, the Delirium IV is released at an amazing .98 mm thick. Thin, but not very practical, as the case would bend on the wearer’s wrist.

1980: Hublot founded.

1983: Despite the popularity of quartz watches, Gerd Lang starts his own mechanical watch company named Chronoswiss.

1983: SMH of Switzerland launches the Swatch brand. It immediately takes off and gives the inexpensive Japanese quartz watch brands a run for their money. The many different and sometimes crazy styles were an instant success, and at about $35, people bought not just one but many. Several limited edition Swatches have fetched hundreds, even thousands, of Swiss Francs in the collectors market.

1984: The Texas-based Fossil watch brand is launched. With its retro styling and packaging, Fossil limited editions are an instant success with collectors.

Mid 1980s: The mechanical watch starts to make a comeback. Digital “fatigue” and appreciation for the true values of genuine mechanical masterpieces made in a centuries old tradition resurge.

1985:The Swiss Heuer Company merges with TAG to form TAG Heuer.

1985: IWC releases the “Da Vinci”, a self-winding, perpetual calendar that enjoys continued success today.

1985: Citizen introduces the “Aqualand”, the first diver’s watch with a depth sensor.

1985: Ulysse Nardin introduces the “Astrolabium Galileo Galilei” which makes it into the Guinness Book of Records. This watch indicates the position of the sun, moon, and stars. It also shows sunrise, sunset, dawn, dusk, moon phases, moon rise and moon set, eclipses of the sun and moon, the month and the day. It was developed by Ulysse Nardin\’s in house genius Ludwig Öchslin and he would later develop two other complicated watches to form a trilogy set.

1986: Patek Philippe introduces the secular calendar, which factors out the adjustment in the gregorian calendar every 400 years.

1986: Audemars Piguet introduces the first self-winding Tourbillon.

1987: Alain Silberstein of Besançon, France, opens his own watch company. His designs remain truly unique and instantly recognizable.

1988: Chronoswiss makes the first regulator wristwatch.

1988: Ulysse Nardin’s Ludwig Oechslin develops the “Planetarium Copernicus”, a watch that displays the position of the planets in relation to the Sun and Earth. It also shows the moon rotating around the Earth and has a perpetual calendar indicating the month and signs of the zodiac.

1988: Jean d’Eve and Seiko release watches that are automatic/quartz hybrids. The rotor inside charges the watch, so battery replacement is not necessary. Though this system had its problems, this technology would be improved and reintroduced later by Seiko.

1989: The world’s most complicated watch, the Patek Philippe Caliber 89 is sold for 3.2 million dollars (including commissions etc.). It has 33 different functions and took nine years to complete.

1990: Daniel Roth, who was instrumental in the rebirth of the Breguet brand, launches his own brand of watches bearing his name.

1991: Junghans unveils the “Mega 1”, the first watch capable of receiving a radio signal to synchronize the watch with an atomic clock.

1991: Franck Muller founded.

1991: At the height of the Swatch craze, the “Kiki Picasso” Swatch sells for 62,000 Swiss Francs.

1992: Timex unveils “Indiglo”, a back lit display that illuminates the entire dial equally. This is by far the easiest watch to read in the dark. Today this same system can be found on many watches, ranging from Timex to Omega.

1992: Ulysse Nardin completes their trilogy set with the “Tellurium Johannes Kepler”. This piece shows the rotation of the Earth as seen from the North Pole. It also shows which part of the Earth is exposed to the sun, and indicates sunrise and sunset. Lastly it shows the moon rotating around the Earth and eclipses of the sun and the moon.

1994: Seiko unveils the “Kinetic”, a greatly improved automatic / quartz hybrid compared to the one they made in 1988. Now there are similar movements in Swiss watches.

1994: The A. Lange & Söhne brand is revived in Germany and quickly earns a position on top of the horological world along with the most prestigious Swiss brands.

1994: After years of planning, Roland Murphy introduces his own watch brand, (RGM).

1995: Symbolic of our lives becoming more dependent on computers, Timex unveils the “Data-Link”. The watch “reads” information from a computer screen to remember schedules, telephone numbers, etc.

1995: Citizen releases a line of “Eco-Drive” solar powered watches. Much better looking (not as obviously solar) than previous solar powered watches (designed by the famous Swiss designer Jorg Hysek), they last an amazing 500 days on a full charge.

1996: Philippe Dufour unveils the “Duality”. The movement features two escapements, which average against each other to improve accuracy. This system was developed to rival the  tourbillon.

1996: Parmigiani brand launched. 1996: Rado unveils the “Vision 1”, a watch that features a crushed diamond crystal. Until now sapphire crystals were the hardest. The Vision 1 remains an experimental model not being produced for the public at large as of yet.

1997: Patek Philippe unveils their “Annual Calendar” which runs without being adjusted for one full year.

1999: Watches that run on the difference in temperature between the air and the wearer’s, wrist are launched by Seiko (the “Thermic”) and Citizen.

1999: Omega unveils the “Co-Axial”. This movement was developed by George Daniels and has a new escapement that has less friction, which results in higher accuracy and requires less service.

1999: Casio innovates with the first wristwatch with a built-in Global Positioning System (GPS).

1999: IWC introduces the “Deep One”, the first mechanical watch with a depth gauge.

Watch Brand Histories

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