The first reliable wearable timepiece was most likely the H4, commissioned in 1759 to John Jefferys by self-taught British watchmaker John Harrison in his quest to design the perfect longitude watch. Weighting 1.45 Kg, the “pocket” watch measured more than 13 cm in diameter, but it was far more accurate than any of the previous clocks Harrison had ever built: only 5.1 seconds slower after 60 days aboard a ship.
For the next 250 years, watchmakers worldwide attempted to miniaturize the mechanics of a watch, reaching a peak in the 1970’s, when transistors could be shrunk on a microchip, and culminating with Citizen’s calibre H010 in the XXI century.
Unveiled in Summer 2009, the Japanese calibre packed state-of the art technology inside a volume smaller than two U.S. Nickel coins stacked together (or a 0.05 cent Euro coin). Besides the seconds, minutes, hours and day display, the H010 can detect impact and correct the position of the hands afterwards.
It generates its own energy from a photovoltaic cell, and it can resume work after three years without light. The H010 is also always sharp accurate thanks to the miniaturized antenna that allows it to syncronize with atomic clocks every night.
After 250 years, precision improved from Harrison H4’s 1-4 second per day to Citizen’s H010 atomic 1-14 second per day. At the same time, size shrunk by more than 500%, allowing the most skilled watchmakers of the early 1990’s to fit their state of the Art movements in 36 mm cases.
Below, a 1993 automatic watch from Theorein Kelek with Swiss anchor lever, automatic winding, chronograph module, moon phase and mechanical perpetual calendar calculator:
Yet, a misunderestimated factor of watchmaking remains Fashion. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, carrying a very small watch was an indication of wealth, and indirectly: of good taste. With the revival of mechanical watchmaking from the late 1990’s and the birth of Militarophilia, collectors discovered watch series and prototypes designed by Officine Panerai 50 years earlier. Pictured below: the 60 mm Panerai Radiomir “egiziano“, a timepiece that the common of mortals is forbidden to wear by simple laws of physics:
The irony was that most of these new oversize and XL watches were built with movements optimized for small cases. Eventually, movement makers decided to develop specific products for big watches.
ETA enlarged the base plate of its Valjoux 7750 calibre from 30 mm to 36 mm to create the Valgrange line. The non-chronograph version of this movement is still more expensive than the 25 mm ETA 2824-2 which explains why the new big calibre hasn’t become a best-seller overnight.
Swiss maker Ronda designed 34 mm variants of their quartz chronographs; and in Japan, Citizen and Seiko have elaborated high pinion and high-torque version of their flagship calibres, which allow to mount longer hands for bigger watches.
This “bigger is better” fad escaladed until the Sub-prime crisis crushed sales in North America, where demand was strong. Now Asia is the salesman’s land of milk and honey, where there is only demand for watches below 41 mm of diameter.
Does that mean we will come back to reasonable sizes once again?
That’s what Baselworld 2011 will help understand…