Timeless Precision & Craftsmanship
By Maxine Carter-Lome
From the earliest sundials dating from about 3500 BC to the launch of the Apple Watch this past year, our fascination with horology, the study and measurement of time, and attraction to the instruments, clocks, and personal timepieces that measure and record it, remain steadfast. For collectors, it is both the art and the science that draws them to the hobby and the items they collect, which is as broad as the history of timekeeping is long.
The timepieces and collections showcased in this issue run the gamut from functional and practical to dainty and decorative, over-sized, and over-the-top ornate. They represent and reflect historical design trends, regional aesthetics, popular culture, advances in movement and battery technology, and an appreciation for fashion, craftsmanship, and artistry.
The second half of the 19th century saw a shift in the production and affordability of timekeeping devices fueled by industrialization and demand from a growing middle class looking to showcase their rising status and refinement through the display of frivolous objects such as decorative mantle and wall clocks. Timepieces of all sizes, quality, and design flooded the market. What started out as a symbol of wealth and craftsmanship, and later a design accessory for the refined home, became even more personal over time, with design, technology, and fashion leading the way.
Although people were “carrying the time around with them” back in the 1700s with “portable clocks” or large pocket watches, the wrist watch burst into fashion in the Edwardian era. A 1912 piece in The New York Times reported from Paris that, “It is worn over here by women who have to work as well as those who play.” Not only that, but “it is the most useful piece of jewelry that has been invented for many decades…”
On July 9, 1916, The New York Times reported that Europeans were starting to wear bracelets with clocks on them. “Until recently,” the paper observed, “the bracelet watch has been looked upon by Americans as more or less of a joke. Vaudeville artists and moving-picture actors have utilized it as a funmaker, as a ‘silly ass’ fad.” Time, they mused, had migrated to the human wrist.
The wristwatch caught on with men in America in the 1920s, with the growing appreciation for the practical applications rather than fashionable nature of timekeeping. That’s not to say that fashion did not play a real and important role in the evolution of personal time pieces in the mid-20th century.
Now consider the Apple Watch, one hundred years later. Not only has Apple re-engineered and re-purposed the real estate that had been the domain of the wristwatch for over a century, it has relegated timekeeping to a single application within this next generation personal computer and time management device. Move over Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy 2-Way Wrist Radio!
With time embedded everywhere these days, from car dashboards to coffeemakers and iPhone screens, one has to question what that means for the future of the craft and the craftsman that practice it.
People in the industry will tell you that the future of timekeeping devices rests in the same fundamentals that define and drive value in the antique clock and timepiece market today – precision craftsmanship, design, and quality. Not all old clocks have value – in fact there is little value in the majority of antique clocks on the market today beyond their aesthetic appeal, but the best examples of the science and craft and craftsmanship continue to exceed auction estimates, as shared in John Fontaine’s article.
It is, however, “a critical time for watchmakers,” as Martha Teichner reported on a CBS Sunday Morning feature in November of 2015. Teichner’s piece profiled luxury Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe, and the dramatic investment the company made to ensure the future of skilled watchmakers and hence the value of its timepieces, which can start at $12,000 and climb from there to over several million dollars.
What makes Patek Philippe timepieces so valuable are the fancy mechanical things they do, which are called “complications.” The 175-year-old company was finding it increasingly difficult in the digital age to find skilled craftsman to work on their technically intricate mechanical timepieces so it decided to open its own watch school in New York City to train the next generation of elite watchmakers. Around 300 people applied; six were chosen. While the program lasts two years and is free for the lucky few, the trade involves a lifetime of learning, a nod to the dedication and craftsmanship of the generations that have come before, and the legacy of timekeeping that is reflected in the recognition of each passing hour.
Columns, Publishers Corner
Publisher's Corner: March 2016
Timeless Precision & Craftsmanship