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The Timelessness of Time

Before the invention of clocks, what did time mean to people? Throughout history, humans have been fascinated by time.

In time we hate that which we often fear – William Shakespeare

hourglass-timeBefore the invention of clocks, what did time mean to people? Throughout history, humans have been fascinated by time. In antiquity, ancient Greeks and Romans measured the passage of time based on the natural events, like the change of seasons, or the more complicated and puzzling, astronomical events such as eclipses. These observations led people to attempt recording the passage of time by measuring the length of shadows or the setting and rising of stars. The first water-clocks and sand-clocks were used in classical times.

A case in point is the Antikythera Mechanism which dates from the second century BC. This unique mechanism made of bronze, not much larger than a shoe box, is designed to calculate astronomical positions. It appears to have been constructed upon theories of astronomy and mathematics developed by Greek astronomers. It was capable of following the motions of the sun and the moon as well as predicting eclipses and tracking the motions of Mercury and Venus and most probably of Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. The device is still considered a feat of engineering. The complexity as well as the degree of miniaturisation of its components is very similar to clocks developed in the 18th century due to the presence of at least 30 gears (some specialists believe that more than 70 gears are used).

However, today when we think of the first timekeeping devices, it is the medieval European church clocks of the 14th century that come to mind, which were encouraged and promoted by the Church to regulate the use of labour in the fields. The constant development and refinement of mechanical clocks since then resulted in proliferation of such items by the end of the 16th century.

The long and painstaking search for an accurate marine chronometer in the 18th century fuelled the technological progress even further. The supremacy of the Swiss watchmakers became apparent in the 19th century. All throughout the 20th century, the notion of quality and precise timekeeping was irremediably linked to the Swiss watchmakers, before the advent of the quartz watches put an end to the Swiss supremacy.

However, the advent of technological marvels in mechanical watchmaking over the past twenty years, has once again clearly established Switzerland as the world leader in luxury watchmaking. Mechanical watches represent the essence of traditional watchmaking and clearly embody the true spirit of a timekeeping device. Mechanical watches have won the battle against quartz watches. Quartz watches are perceived as being less sophisticated instruments for the measurement of time, even though, the truth is, that quartz watches are very precise. But mechanical watches have a real soul, and what they lack in precision relative to quartz watches, they make up in excitement, passion and spirit.

old-ancient-clockWe all have our own personal relationship with time. At one point or another, we had the pleasure of wearing a watch and feeling the unique sensation of checking it many more times than is in fact necessary to see the progress of its hands. In today’s modern age, however, the advent of the mobile phone with its digital time, is replacing the need to possess a watch. More and more people rely on their portable phones to keep track of time and henceforth the use of mechanical watches appears to be of less value.

Despite this, I remain convinced that the future of the mechanical watch will continue to be bright. The underlying reason is the fact that the mechanical watch represents technological expertise. A watch movement literally beats like a heart and as such confers a virtual spirituality to the finite object. We feel the watches we wear and we develop a very close relationship to them.

One of the world’s fastest growing markets for watches today is India where there is a great demand for quality timekeeping instruments. The proud Indian heritage in high-end jewellery bears witness to India’s interest in luxury timepieces as both often go hand in hand. It is therefore no surprise that leading watch brands are fighting to gain access to the Indian market and to present their products.

My series of articles to appear in this space will attempt to take you through the exciting past of timekeeping from the dawn of history to the modern age. I hope to be able to convey my passion to you over the forthcoming articles and look forward to sharing with you my own particular insight into why watchmaking is the soul of mankind.

william-devine-watch-expertWilliam Devine, a Swiss national of Scottish descent, has held senior positions in leading watch companies like Universal Geneve and de Grisogono. He has also functioned as the Director of BaselWorld Watch & Jewellery Show. He was the CEO of Bedat & Co before starting his own boutique consultancy named Devine Intervention.