Oct 13, 2015, by Isaac Wingold
Watchmaking is an age old craft that in its lifetime has seen many incarnations and distinctive phases. While by definition, watchmaking is simply the production of any pocketed or wrist-mounted time telling device, enthusiastic collectors and devoted experts will most definitely agree that the craft exists most purely and truly in its mechanical form, and it’s easy to tell why. By just glancing down briefly at the movements which power some of these works of art, one can easily become enamored with the various components working in harmony, along with the beautiful finishing details. Having said all of this, it must be noted that the celebration of mechanical watches wasn’t always as strong as it was in the golden age or today, and that the industry has experienced its fair share of rough patches.
The Golden Era
Due to the number of inventions and innovations that occurred during this time period, many will consider the 1700’s and 1800’s to be arguably the greatest era in watchmaking history. This was when the complications that we know and love today, along with the stories of Kings and Queens commissioning watches that we now retell, were being birthed, and it was just an exciting time for watches in general. Then, we would enter the 20th century and be introduced to a whole new take on watches, similar to the pieces we are familiar with today. Unfortunately, things would eventually take a turn for the worse.
Like countless other products, that which is perceived as a “breakthrough” oftentimes causes the greatest form of that specific creation to lose what makes it great, depending on who you ask. We’ve seen this happen with audio equipment, sports cars, and even photographic gear, but for now let’s focus on the horological side of the argument.
Beginning in the 1970’s, Japanese firms began to develop and release battery-powered quartz movements for watches, which would have a significant impact on the art form as a whole. This new development allowed production to be increasingly more automated, which could cut down costs, making it difficult for manufacturers of mechanical timepieces to compete. Ultimately, the era that we now refer to as the “Quartz Crisis” would almost end the interest in (and production of) exciting, convention challenging, mechanical horological creations.
The Renaissance of Mechanical Watches
Luckily, the drastic shift towards quartz would come to pass, and the great, important manufactures would get back on their feet to design some of their most captivating watches. Today, we’re experiencing quite a roaring period as far as watches go. Modern movement designs are more daring than ever, and more and more markets are now being addressed through experimentation with new case materials, and bold aesthetics. On the other hand, the surge of modern watchmaking innovations has also made a large number of individuals take a look back, and collect vintage watches that greatly influence what’s being released today.
So with what is essentially a renaissance of sorts occurring, one must take a step back and asses what we can attribute it to. In 2015 we live in such a fast paced world, mainly due to increased digitalization and mass production. So many products have a seemingly disposable feel to them. Wearing and collecting mechanical watches is now a reminder of a simpler and slower time, where attention to detail was highly valued, and timepieces were designed to outlive their owners. Additionally, the community aspect of watches that some collectors choose to immerse themselves in has also proven to be a large attraction for many, allowing the wonderful horology houses to continue their work, and add new chapters to their stories.
At the end of the day, quite a few good lessons can be learned through this story, but most clearly, we can see that the passion that’s become synonymous with watchmaking and haute horology in general is so strong, that it’ll potentially prevent the industry from ever dying out.