Originally published July 2018.
Since the rotating of shadows around rudimentary sticks planted in the ground, man has had an affinity for plotting the course of time. Different mechanisms, from sundials to pendulums and grandfather clocks, had their day before a quantum leap in the 18th century saw the invention of the “automatic” watch by Abraham-Louis Perrelet, later perfected by Abraham-Louis Breguet.
An automatic movement allows the watch to wind itself by using an oscillating weight inside the watch that puts tension on the mainspring, through the motion of the wearer’s arm. With gravity a constant force, and the human wrist moving between 7,000 and 40,000 times a day, a limitless power supply was discovered literally at arm’s length. The success of the automatic watch is largely attributed to its ease of use. Winding up one’s timepiece every day became a thing of the past.
The first known wristwatch was a Breguet, and was made for Emperor Napoléon I’s sister, Caroline Murat, a prolific client of the Swiss horologist. Yet, surprisingly, wristwatches took some time to come to the forefront of fashion.
Almost a century would pass until the Brazilian aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont, met Louis Cartier in 1900. The two became firm friends and one evening in 1901, no doubt over brandy and cigars, the visionary South American complained that while flying it was laborious to retrieve his pocket watch. Three years later, Cartier invented their own, purpose-designed wristwatch for the aviator – the catalyst for today’s Santos de Cartier models.
However, it took a World War to bring the wristwatch to prominence: advances in communication technologies allowed for a more precise coordination of military manoeuvers, and these required soldiers to be able to tell the time at a glance. Rummaging through one’s pocket to tell the time in the chaos and constant peril of the trenches was as dangerous as it was inefficient.
When the Great War ended and soldiers returned home, they had become accustomed to the convenience of wristwatches, and thus they became more common, replacing their pocket cousins.
Their accuracy and elegance allowed for a smooth transition into the mainstream and rapidly became a desirable and fashionable item. This was particularly noticeable in 1927 after Mercedes Gleitze, a young English swimmer, swam across the Channel in just over 10 hours wearing a Rolex Oyster. This hermetically sealed wristwatch remained in perfect working order after the crossing, not only supporting Rolex’s claim to have created a waterproof watch, but also increasing the wristwatches’ appeal to women; Rolex took out a full-page advert in the Daily Mail, lauding the success of the Oyster, popularising the Testimonee concept.
The Art Deco Period was in full swing at this point, and tapped into this new trend by incorporating timepieces into bracelets.
An Art Deco platinum watch set with a natural sapphire watch glass, adorned with calibre cut channel set rubies sapphires emeralds and onyx.
Due to the popularity of Art Deco period jewellery and the uniqueness and novelty of having a watch on one’s wrist at that time, many of these have enjoyed significant increases in value.
Within a few years, Rolex had developed and patented a “perpetual movement”, replacing the semi-circular oscillating weight in the automatic watches with a unidirectional rotor able to turn through 360 degrees. Because this new rotor delivered a constant tension to the mainspring as it moved, the accuracy of the watch was greatly improved, and with time setting becoming the winding crown’s sole purpose, the watches became more secure and durable.
This bulky new mechanism required a thicker case, thus giving rise to the nickname “Bubbleback” to describe these earlier pieces with a rounded exterior.
Watches from this period into the 1940’s are particularly attractive to collectors. They are low-risk investments and tend to be affordable in comparison to some of the post Second World War era pieces. They are a true representation of the genesis of the luxury watch market that we see today. For a fraction of the price of a modern watch, you could have a real piece of history in perfect working condition. Boutiques with the best technicians will provide a two year mechanical warranty for all their classic and vintage watches and a purchase should not be made without this guarantee. Having the original box and papers will significantly increase the watch’s value.
Some models to consider are:
- Rolex Prince – came to market in 1928. This rectangular watch had two dials on its’ face: one for hours and minutes and the other for seconds. It is referred to as the “doctor’s watch”, the sub-second dial allowing for the easy measurement of a patients’ pulse. Mid 1930’s models should be priced attractively although early models in good condition will fetch a higher price (£4,000-£18,000).
A Rolex Prince jump hour wristwatch
- Omega Tonneau – manufactured in 1927. This watch’s elongated and stretched tonneau is instantly recognisable. With a calibre 19.4 mechanism and the Omega symbol and word slightly italicised (£2,000-£6,000).
- Longines 13.33Z Chronograph – highly regarded in the late 19th and early 20th century, Longines developed its first calibre for a wristwatch in 1913: the 13.33Z. A beautiful and affordable watch given it is somewhat overlooked in favour of its’ successor the 13ZN chronograph (£4,000-£10,000).
- Cushion Oyster Rolex – as worn by Mercedes Gleitze in her Channel crossing. Late 1920’s and early 1930’s with the “cushion” case rather than the less popular octagon shape. Condition and case embellishments will determine pricing, with yellow gold increasing value (£2,000-£7,000).A 1934 gold Cushion Oyster Rolex dress watch with an enamel dial
After the Second World War, watches intended for professional activities were developed with functions that went beyond merely telling the time, from diving watches to anti-magnetic editions.
It is this period, from the 1950’s into the 1960’s, that produced the watches which have seen a significant increase in resale price. Of course, when there is a limited number in circulation the price goes up.
Many of these models are the benchmark for today’s versions which is why we very rarely see a new type come to market; instead watchmakers revive popular models in a modern format.