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A History on the Fine Art of Watchmaking

Posted by admin on June 23, 2020

Watchmaking is a fine craft, which never seems to fall out of fashion. With all the digital options available to tell the time - your phone, your Amazon Echo, your FitBIt, there’s nothing quite as timeless as a proper watch, if you’ll excuse the pun. 

Invent a clock you can carry? Watch me. 

The term for watchmaking - and clock making for that matter - is ‘horology’. The term has its roots in Ancient Greek but is borrowed in languages across Europe, for example, the French for clock is horloge and the Italian is orlogio. So it may come as a surprise to you that it was the Germans who first invented watches. 

Their word for clock? Armbanduhr. Language is a funny thing.

Of course the first watches were not the ergonomic, sleek devices that we know today, but there was no shortage of elegance or ingenuity in their design.  In the early 15th century, Peter Henlein designed what is widely credited to be the first ‘watch’: an intricately engraved and decorated brass cylinder, to be worn around the neck. 

This timepiece only had an hour hand, required winding twice a day and could be a few hours off the correct time.  This didn’t really matter though, as  the main attraction of a timekeeping device was for the novelty value - as proven perhaps by the designs in the following century: the cylinder evolved into an egg shape ‘the nuremberg egg’, before moving in all sorts of outlandish directions... timepieces were made to resemble flowers, crucifixes or insects - even skulls! 

The pocket watch

Pocket watches came into the scene in the 17th century, significantly increasing in accuracy and replacing the pendant design which hung around the wearer’s neck. This move was based on pragmatism rather than fashion; watches would often get damaged when exposed to the elements. A far cry from today’s ‘everything-proof’ designs.  

The 20th Century

It wasn’t until the 20th century that designs really started to evolve. Up until this point, watches kept time by a set of components known as balance spring. This had an intricate and complicated design, but we’ve done our best to simplify things: 

A tiny spring controls the back and forth motion of a tiny wheel (balance wheel). The back and forth motion takes (more or less) the same amount of time - much in the same way a grandfather clock’s pendulum will swing back and forth at the same rate. This forms the basis for measuring time. 

This was an imperfect method as, among other factors, changes in temperature would affect how elastic the spring was, leading to errors. 

Electricity was incorporated to fix this problem in the 1950s, by powering the balance mechanism with a small electromagnet. This was an improvement, but the high number of parts required made it less accurate and prone to wear and tear. 

The real watch revolution arrived with the advent of the quartz watch. It works by housing a specially shaped, tiny quartz crystal, then running a particular amount of electrical current through it. This causes it to vibrate and move back and forth exactly 32768 times per second (in most watches).

The electronics in the watch halve this number 15 times over, which conveniently arrives at the number 1. Meaning they force it to vibrate once every second, with incredible accuracy. 

This is why second hands jump a second at a time rather than moving smoothly.  

The present-day

Today, quartz remains the best way of telling the time. But most devices which tell the time don’t resort to measuring it themselves all of the time. Electronic devices, like your phone, will have a quartz system as backup but will simply synchronise their times by using international standardised time keepers through the internet.

Here at Cuttings the Kent jewellers, we are watch enthusiasts and we have a superb selection of watches available in both our Margate and Ramsgate branches. Take a look here to see our latest stock. 

If you’re looking for a particular brand or model of watch, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch and we will be happy to advise.