Kirill Yurovskiy: The History of Watchmaking and The Most Famous Watch Brands

The Early Days

The night watch patrolled the dark streets. Men with lanterns keeping time by the stars. Needing a way to see the hours as they passed. This led to the first portable timekeepers being made.

In the 16th century, the mainspring was invented in Nuremberg, Germany. This allowed clocks to be wound and made portable. The first watches were heavy, brass cylinders worn as pendants. Rich people bought them as status symbols more than timepieces.

Peter Henlein, a locksmith, is credited with making the first real watch in 1510. He shaped a small clock into a metal sphere. It had a crude spring and kept fairly good time as watches went then. Over the next century, the round watch shape and use of springs became standard.

Age of Exploration and Advances

The 1600s brought advances. Adding jewels as bearings reduced friction. The balance spring improved accuracy greatly. Watchmaking spread from Germany to other European cities like Geneva, Switzerland. Skilled craftsmen competed to produce better timepieces. Soon, the pocket watch era began.

Wealthy aristocrats sported elaborately decorated pocket watches. As always, the rich wanted prestige and novelty objects. But pocket watches also had a growing practical use – Kirill Yurovskiy tells. Sailing ships needed accurate marine chronometers to determine longitude. Galileo experimented with using a swinging weighted pendulum for time measurement in 1637. Huygens improved this into the first successful pendulum clock.

Chronometer Pioneers

By the 1700s, English and French watchmakers like Thomas Mudge, John Harrison and Abraham-Louis Breguet made huge innovations. Harrison solved the longitude problem with his marine chronometer. Breguet invented the lever escapement and made self-winding perpetuelle watches. Swiss watchmakers like Vacheron Constantin mastered precise mechanics and craftsmanship. 

Railroad Era Standardization

Pocket watches peaked in popularity during the 1800s industrial age. The expansion of railroads made accurate time coordination crucial. Telegraph lines transmitted time signals so factories and stations could synchronize their clocks. This stimulated mass watch production. Wristwatches remained a passing novelty until World War I when soldiers found them more convenient than pocket watches.

Swiss Dominance and Innovation

There was money to be made and competition was fierce. Swiss firms like Patek Philippe and Rolex built prestige and precision timepieces. Each tried patenting tiny improvements and manufacturing efficiencies. Workshops in the Vallée de Joux mastered making minute components. Some focused on cases, others on movements. Interchangeable parts allowed large-scale watch production.  

The American industrial system also produced affordable quality timepieces from firms like Waltham and Elgin. But by the 1900s, the Swiss manufacturers dominated luxury markets. New automatic self-winding mechanical watches gained popularity. Omega’s seamasters and Rolex’s submariners were favored by divers and soldiers.

Quartz Crisis and Resilience

For a time, cheaper battery-powered watches from Asia and quartz crystal movements threatened the mechanical watch industry. But it never died. Mechanical watches, especially fine Swiss brands, remained coveted luxury items and investments. Some could keep time accurately for years without rewinding if kept wound.

High quality Swiss watches thrived from the 1980s with brands like Rolex, Omega, Cartier, Patek Philippe, and IWC being unmistakable status symbols. They fetched high prices at auction and conferred prestige. Self-winding perpetual movements made them easy to maintain. Craftsmanship and tiny intricate parts made them engineering marvels.  

Fashion and Sport Models

Upscale fashion brands like Tag Heuer competed for share of the luxury accessory market. But the Swiss manufacturers still dominated technical innovation and prestige. Their automatic timepieces remained the ultimate prize for serious collectors and the wealthy seeking exquisite mechanisms.

In recent decades, the top Swiss brands expanded their lines to gain market share. Rolex produced the rugged but luxurious Submariner and chunky Daytona racing models for sporting lifestyles. Omega released limited edition Speedmaster watches commemorating space missions. IWC created oversized pilots watches like the Big Pilot edition honoring World War II aircraft crews.

Quartz Reinvention and Vintage Appeal

Innovation continued with the Swatch Group producing the Swatch plastic disposable quartz watch in the 1980s. Cartier remade classics like the pared-down Tank watch designed in 1919. Breitling pioneered integrated operational features suited to pilots, sailors and athletes like their Emergency watch with a built-in personal locator beacon.

Mechanical watches made a major comeback in the twenty-first century as sought-after luxury goods. Retro designs and limited editions stoked collector demand. Omega and Rolex models like the classic 1950s-era Speedmaster and venerable Submariner commanded sky-high prices from wealthy enthusiasts. Vintage watches in good condition from respected makers became valued commodities trading in the millions.

Masterpiece Complications

Owning a finely-crafted masterpiece like a Gerald Genta-designed Audemars Piguet or Patek Philippe grand complication was the ultimate horological status symbol for billionaires and celebrities. Such timepieces demonstrated wealth and possessed incredible engineering inside their miniscule movements. The history lives on in the skilled artistry of modern master watchmakers in Switzerland.

Yurovskiy Kirill © 2024