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Luxury Watch History: Innovations in Timekeeping

The Nuremberg Egg was an innovation credited as being the first wearable timepiece.

Last Updated: Jul 3, 2019 03:52pm

Exploring the history of luxury watches exposes a long lineage that spans some 600 years. The key term to parse from the previous sentence is “luxury watches”. Obviously, timepieces, namely large clocks and other less than portable means of telling time, have been in existence for far longer.

And so, when we make mention of luxury watches within the context of this discussion, one must take into consideration that a watch is essentially a wearable timepiece.

Melanchthon's Watch, belonging to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD may be the oldest watch on earth.

In this article, we will highlight the evolution of luxury watches from their beginnings as timepieces that were simply wearable, to the marvelously crafted wrist-worn devices they are today.

To accomplish this, first we will take a look at the early history of watches in general. And then we will transition into looking at luxury watch history as it pertains to a few of the well-known luxury watch brands and innovations they have brought to the engineering side of expensive watchmaking.

Moving along our tour of luxury watch history will bring us to a discussion of the more artistic and glamorous side of high-end watches. Finally, we will cap things off with a brief summarization.

It should be pointed out that one aspect of luxury watch history that has remained constant throughout the centuries is that watchmaking is as much an art form as it is an expression of engineering.

The Invention That Made Wearable Timepieces Like The Nuremberg Egg & Other Clock-Watches Possible

Without an innovation like the mainspring, wearable timepieces would not have been possible.

In the early 1400s the single most important invention came about that made it possible for timepieces to transition from what is traditionally considered to be a clock, to a wearable form. This incredibly important, yet unassuming innovation was the mainspring.

Did you know that early clockmakers also tended to be locksmiths? Mainsprings were first used in locks, but it was quickly figured out that they could also be incorporated into clocks to make them much smaller and portable.

The mainspring made it possible to create timepieces that could be worn. This being the case, the technology still wasn’t quite ready yet to see these timepieces on the wrists of their owners. Rather, they were typically worn around the neck like a low hanging, large pendant.

The whole purpose of the mainspring was to supply the energy needed to move the gears and other mechanisms, so that the hand of the timepiece (yes, I said “hand”, not “hands”...more on that later) could make its journey around the face to each hour.

Winding the mainspring caused a high level of torque. Torque is a measurement of how much force is being applied to an object to make it rotate. Over time, the stored energy was slowly released as the mainspring unwound itself. When the stored energy in the mainspring was fully released, the device would stop.

The rate at which the mainspring would lose its energy required that the timepieces be wound two times each day.

The Nuremberg Egg: Fashion Statement, Ornate, Source of Conversation, & Inaccurate

Melanchthon's Watch, belonging to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD may be the oldest watch on earth.

As important as the invention of the mainspring was within the context of luxury watch history, early “luxury watches” were virtually useless as timepieces! This is because they were horribly inaccurate. In fact, they were so inaccurate that they were made without a minute hand (I told you we would come back to the point about there only being one hand).

This first generation of wearable timepieces, dubbed Nuremberg Eggs, really served as no more than a fashion statement and were worn as a form of jewelry by the nobility of the time.

Nuremberg Eggs featured intricate ornamentation and their innovative mechanisms were a source of curiosity and intrigue, making them the center of conversation among the upper class.

The Nuremberg Egg was named in such a way because the person associated with miniaturizing the inner workings that made these portable timepieces possible was a clockmaker from Nuremberg, Germany. The clockmaker was Peter Henlein. As one would suspect by their name, these timepieces were generally egg-shaped.

Clock-Watches Go From Egg-Shaped To Anything Goes

As the 1400s progressed and more ways of incorporating the mainspring were perfected, greater variety began to appear with regards to the shape of clock-watches. No longer were wearable timepieces limited to circles and ovals, such as was the case with the Nuremberg Egg clock-watches. By late in the 15th century, continued innovation allowed more imaginative shapes began to appear such as:

  • Flowers

  • Animals

  • Trees

  • Castle Towers

  • Insects

  • Stars

During this period, there was a definite “anything goes” approach! However, for all the creativity placed on the shapes of these evolving timepieces, They were still plagued with inaccurate timekeeping.

But innovations were on the way that would make inaccuracy a thing of the past.

Accuracy Is Enhanced Thanks To The Balance Spring & Jewel Bearings

The invention of the balance spring was significant innovation towards making watches keep time more accurately.

You may recall the earlier statement about an ongoing theme in luxury watch history being a balance between artistry and engineering? Throughout the 1400s it was artistry that was the emphasis and engineering was secondary. This changed in 1657 with the invention of the balance spring.

As a result of this innovation, timekeeping accuracy was greatly enhanced and thus made it possible to put minute hands on the timepieces. Accuracy moved from being within several hours of the correct time in a day, to within 10 minutes of the correct time in a day.

Also noteworthy is the fact that clock-watches had evolved into pocket watches by the 1600s, though women still wore their timepieces around their necks like a pendant.

Pocket watches came into existence by the 17th century, though mainly for men.

The balance spring actually allowed more innovations to be made because, with accurate timekeeping not being so much of a concern anymore, the doors opened up for enhancements to be made in other areas. In fact, the balance spring ended up ushering in 200 years of innovation within the watchmaking industry!

Pocket watches weren’t the only things benefitting from technological advancements during the period between the 1600s and the 1800s. Manufacturing techniques improved as well, which in turn made it possible to produce watches in greater numbers.

As revolutionary as the balance spring was, it did have 2 weaknesses...eventual weakening of the material the balance spring was made from and the temperature of the local environment.

The first watches that incorporated balance springs had ones made from untempered steel. Over time, wear and tear took their toll on the balance spring, thereby degrading the accuracy of the watch.

With regards to the issue surrounding temperature, the challenge centered around a relatively simple principle in physics that is known as the modulus of elasticity.

The modulus of elasticity is basically a measurement of how resistant a material is to deformation from elasticity when stress is applied. For example, a substance that is soft, pliable, or not very stiff would have a low modulus of elasticity and vice versa.

And so, with this principle in mind, as the surrounding temperature changed, the material from which the balance spring was made from would become more or less deformed and thus would affect the accuracy of the watch.

The 2 weaknesses of the balance spring would eventually be solved by such innovative inventions as the cylinder escapement, which is described in this Wikipedia article, and the bimetallic temperature compensation wheel, which is discussed thoroughly in this Wikipedia article.

The cylinder escapement and the bimetallic temperature compensation wheel were mechanisms that, at first, were reserved for “quality watches”, which is a discrete way of saying “luxury watches”.

There was another important invention that added to the accuracy of luxury watches. In 1704 jewel bearings were invented. This innovation was more of an influence on high-end timepieces than it was on lower quality creations, as the cost of the jewels made them affordable only to those who were wealthy.

Jewel bearings reduced friction and helped to increase the timekeeping accuracy of luxury watches.

Jewel bearings came about because of the need to reduce friction in the critical moving parts of fine watches. Friction is a great hindrance to accurate timekeeping in mechanical timepieces. Metals that were traditionally used had a tendency to wear out due to the amount of friction involved.

By using bearings that were jeweled, the accuracy of the watch was increased because the friction acting upon these parts were reduced.

The three most commonly used jewels for jeweled bearings both in the past and in modern times are:

  • Sapphire

  • Ruby

  • Diamond

Recognizable Luxury Watch Brands Begin Appearing & Adding Innovations

The Audemars Piguet brand of luxury watches came about in the mid 1800s.

At the beginning of this article, it was mentioned that we would look at the history of luxury watches by first discussing the history of watches in general.

Having done that, now we can transition the discussion into taking a look at some of the first recognizable brands in the luxury watch industry that began to appear and the innovations that they sparked.

Please keep in mind that the luxury watch brands mentioned in this article will not imply that they are necessarily the best brands available or that they should be favored over others. They will simply be functioning as examples, as virtually all the high-end timepiece brands are contributors to luxury watch history in some way, shape, or form.

At this point in our exploration of history, we have entered the 19th century. By the mid to late 1800s, we see the founding of such companies as Patek Philippe (1851) and Audemars Piguet (1875).

Connoisseurs of luxury timepieces will recognize these two brands as among the finest luxury watchmakers in the world. However, in addition to the aforementioned brands, we shall also shine a light on Rolex, as it is an expensive watch brand that came about in the 20th century.

Patek Philippe Patents An Important Innovation & Makes Luxury Watch History

The first keyless watch was patented by Patek Philippe.

During this time period, clocks and pocket watches were wound by using a key. In 1845, Jean Adrien Philippe patented the keyless winding and hand-setting system. And, just 6 years later, the world’s first keyless watches were being showcased at The Great Exhibition in London. Among the high profile admirers of these innovative marvels was Queen Victoria of England.

Then, in 1868, luxury watch history is made when Patek Philippe creates the first Swiss wristwatch. This first-of-its-kind innovation was made for the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary.

As is the case with several luxury watch brands, Patek Philippe came into existence under a different name than the one that they would become known for in modern times. Patek Philippe actually was founded in 1839 as Patek, Czapek & Cie.

Audemars Piguet & The Minute Repeater Complication

The first watch with the innovation of the minute repeater complication was created by Audemars Piguet.

Most of the modern luxury watchmakers have something that is a signature of their brand, which has its basis in the company’s history. This can certainly be said for the fine watches made by Audemars Piguet!

A number of innovations belong to this revered luxury watch brand. For example, in 1892 the world’s first minute repeater watch was created by Audemars Piguet. To understand what a minute repeater is, we should first define the term “complication”.

In Horology (the study of time and how it is measured), a complication refers to any extra mechanical functionality a watch has that goes beyond just simply displaying hours, minutes, and seconds. The complication that is a minute repeater will chime the hour, quarter hour, and then how many minutes have passed since the last quarter hour.

There is a distinct sound used for hours, quarter hours, and minutes. And so, if the time is 1:35 then the watch will sound a single low tone for 1 hour, 2 mid range sounding tones for 30 minutes (2 quarter hours), and then 5 high pitch tones for 5 minutes. Minute repeaters are difficult to produce and require many hours to build.

Other complications that can be found in modern luxury watch brands include:

  • Date Display

  • Day Date

  • Triple Calendar

  • Annual Calendar

  • Dual Time

  • Chronograph

Before illumination was available for luxury watches, repeaters were used to allow its wearer to tell the time in the dark. The repeater complication was also used by the vision impaired.

Rolex & The First Waterproof Watch

Rolex created the first waterproof and dustproof watch, called the Oyster.

Rolex is one of the most recognized names in the luxury watch industry. And, as can be seen by the article in this Forbes Magazine link, Rolex is ranked solidly within the top 100 most valuable companies in the world at number 78 for the year 2019.

When taking under consideration one of the innovations that Rolex was able to bring forth, it is no wonder that their brand has left such an impression among admirers of luxury watches.

In 1926, by hermetically sealing the case, Rolex created the world’s first waterproof and dustproof wristwatch. A rather fitting name, the “Oyster”, was bestowed upon this innovative timepiece.

About a year later in 1927, Rolex received a marketing triumph and another first in luxury watch history when Mercedes Gleitze, a young English swimmer, swam across the English Channel wearing a Rolex Oyster in a swim that lasted 10 hours.

At the end of the cross-channel challenge, the Rolex Oyster remained in perfect working condition!

Artistry, Jewels, & Gems Put The “Luxury” in Luxury Watches

Rolex watch featuring gold with diamond ornamentation.

Up until now in this article, we have primarily focused on the engineering side of the history of luxury watches. However, as mentioned earlier, expensive watchmaking is as much an art form as it is a practice of fine engineering.

And so now we will visit the artistry involved, which by extension will include a look at the “luxury” aspect of luxury watches. As you could probably guess, this entails a discussion about the precious metals and gems often included in the creation of an expensive timepiece.

Throughout the history of luxury watches, fine materials have always been used in their creation. Examples of materials commonly used in both the past and present include:

  • Gold

  • Silver

  • Mother-of-Pearl

  • Ceramic

  • Titanium

  • Platinum

Some of the more frequently used gems or precious stones are:

  • Diamonds

  • Rubies

  • Opals

  • Emeralds

  • Sapphires

When it comes to adding jewels to luxury watches, there is a high level of artistry involved. Creativity needed to set the gems in such a way that they can either complement the focal point of the design, or set them in a manner that they become the focal point. This is a task that takes great skill, imagination, and an intimate understanding of both design fundamentals and gem setting.

One thing to remember is that luxury isn’t just a measure of high monetary value. It is also a measure of uniqueness and exclusivity.

The following 3 watches are a few examples of some of the most expensive watches in luxury watch history. Each of these incredibly expensive timepieces succeeds marvelously at presenting artistry, excellence in engineering, and luxury through both their dollar value and their exclusivity.

Louis Moinet “Meteoris”

Limited edition Louis Moinet Meteoris watch that features Mars rock.

Adding gems are one way to bring luxury to a watch. Another way is to use ultra-rare and exotic materials that bring uniqueness. You cannot find materials more exotic and rare than the ones utilized by the Louis Moinet brand for their Meteoris line of watches.

All timepieces that are created by Louis Moinet are either unique pieces or exclusive limited editions.

The Louis Moinet Meteoris was a limited series of 12 watches that came in 4 variations, with each containing a different kind of authentic space rock:

  • Moon

  • Mars

  • Asteroid

  • Rosetta Stone

These one-of-a-kind luxury ultra-rare timepieces included an 18k white gold case and were sold for $4.6 million each.

Hublot “Big Bang”

Pop Mogul Jay-Z was gifted this $5 million Hublot watch by Beyonce for his 43rd birthday.

Among the apex of what can be achieved in artistry and excessive luxury is brilliantly displayed by a watch that was gifted to a pop mogul for his 43rd birthday.

The pop mogul was Jay-Z and he received a Hublot Big Bang watch from his wife Beyonce on his 43rd Birthday. Purchased for $5 million, this luxurious timepiece features 1,282 VVS G colored diamonds as ornamentation, an 18-karat white gold case and bracelet, and took 14 months to complete.

Graff Diamonds “The Fascination”

The Facination by Graffe Diamonds is one of the most expensive watches in the world.

If the Hublot Big Bang is “among” the apex of artistry and excessive luxury in watches, then perhaps The Fascination by Graff Diamonds is at the actual apex.

At a worth of $40 million, this amazing and artistic example of gem setting and metallurgy features 152.96 carats of white diamonds set into its bracelet and case. And at the center of it all sits a 38.13-carat D Flawless pear-shaped diamond, which Graff Diamonds cut and polished at their workshops.

But there is even more artistry and creativity to divulge!

The rare stone at the center can be worn as a dial set in a diamond bracelet, or be taken out and worn as a ring.

A 600 Year Luxury Watch History That Has Brought Innovations, Status To Wearers, Artistry, & Engineering

Hublot luxury watch with intricate face.

For 600 years, what we now refer to as a luxury watch has evolved from timepieces that could barely be classified as “wearable”, to the finely crafted wrist-worn accessories we know today. Throughout the diverse history of the luxury watch industry a few things have remained constant:

  • They have been the source of many innovations that many lower-end watches take for granted today, such as water resistance.

  • They are an accessory that instantly announces the status of its wearer.

  • There has always been a dance for balance between artistry and engineering.

From copper to actual pieces of Mars, from inaccuracy that completely dismissed the use of a minute hand to the ability to possess multiple mechanical complications, it will be fascinating to see what the next turn in history will be within the luxury watch industry.

And where that turn will take us, only time will tell!