Mechanical watches have a complicated history. The first pocketwatch appeared in the early 1500’s, and they became popular fashion accessories long before they were very good at telling time. The idea of putting a watch on a strap and wrapping it around your wrist was very slow to catch on, and it wasn’t until the idea became popular among pilots and military personnel (for whom functionality trumped fashion preference) that wristwatches really took off. The course of the 20th century witnessed the rise of finely crafted mechanical wristwatches (especially Swiss) as both indicators of status and genuine works of technological art.
This all came crashing down with the quartz crisis of the 1970’s, when Seiko and other companies started to produce electronic timepieces that were both much cheaper and more reliable than mechanicals. For the kids today, of course, with their smartphones and iThings, wristwatches are seemingly going the way of the cassette tape. The Swiss watchmaking industry nearly collapsed, before the surviving companies were able to re-position themselves by appealing to horological connoisseurs and elitist yuppies who would like to think they are.
As someone who thinks about time as a full-time occupation (as well as a bit of an elitist yuppie myself), it was inevitable that I would become fascinated by watches. I don’t have nearly the financial wherewithal to splurge on the latest masterpieces out of Geneva, and my watch-snob credentials are ruined by the fact that I don’t mind wearing a well-designed quartz. But there’s a fascinating little sub-culture there, which you can experience at the WatchUSeek or TimeZone watch forums.
A reasonable argument could be made that we the Golden Age of mechanical watches is right now. As a luxury niche market, watchmakers at the high end have some freedom to experiment and innovate. There are some hits and some misses, of course. At some point I may find the time and energy to post something substantive about watchmaking, but right now I’ll just offer up this cool video for the Urwerk UR-110. (If you can find one for under $80,000, consider it a bargain.) It features a clever design in which a series of rotating barrels display the hour, and move by a dial on the side to indicate the minutes. There’s no attempt to explain what’s going on — this is pure glitz. Still — pretty compelling glitz.