Having recently delved into the world of watches – wristwatches to be specific - not clocks or pocket watches which hark back to 1570's, I have found that there is something of a cult following. To quote Paul Keating in his recent interview on the ABC, ‘As with most things in art, you are on a constant journey to find perfection’. For him it was classical music, sculpture, painting, and yes - watches.
The first wristwatch was made for a woman, Countess Koscowicz of Hungary, by Swiss watch manufacturer Patek Philippe in 1868. Although it was the first timekeeping device to be designed specifically for use on the wrist, it was intended to be a piece of jewellery.
Wristwatches were a natural progression from pocket watches, but men did not initially take to the idea, preferring the more masculine timepiece. However, the practicalities of the wristwatch, which could be operated with one hand rather than two were appealing to the military, who needed their soldiers to be able to monitor the time while also operating weaponry. Consequently, Swiss watchmaker Girard-Perregaux specifically made the first mass-produced wristwatches for the German army in the 1880s.
It was at University that I learnt early on the great importance watches have played in our lives – far more than simply providing us with time. Whilst at Art School in Pforzheim (Germany) on a scholarship I discovered that during WWII, Pforzheim was bombed by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in February 1945. About one quarter of the town's population, over 17,000 people, were killed in the air raid.
The reason? Watches.
Pforzheim was home to the regions master watchmakers. I soon learnt that the spring mechanism that makes your toc actually tic is also a key component in a bomb. As you can imagine this little Pommy had a lot of work to do in mustering up new friends!
Since then, the wartime timepiece and bomb aid has developed into an art form: incorporating beauty, functionality and sophisticated craftsmanship. Wristwatches have become a major component of Australia’s luxury market– one that has grown to $2.47 billion in 2012. When the entry point of a Greubel & Forsey watch is around $100,000 AUS, it is not surprising that the luxury market sits comfortably in the billions.
Melinda O’Rourke, founder of MO Luxury revealed that, “There has been an increase in luxury spending by a younger consumer demographic”, prompting us to think that this is not an industry in decline.
So what do you get for a high-end watch that can justify the price? I spoke to a friend with a penchant for watches, Michael Spence - GM of Collins Square. He feels like we belong to the ‘microwave’ generation, where most items we consume are mass produced and disposable. His thinking is more in tune to the Patek Philip tagline, “You never actually own a Patek. You merely take care of it for the next generation.”
“If you remove the back of the casing of even the most simple watch you will see its beating heart, the Balance Wheel, a component invented in the 14th Century”. Michael says. This respect for craftsmanship influences his choice for his dream watch, the Zeitwerk from A. Lange & Sohne as they offer a perfect marriage of quality and style. Whether you’re looking for a Breitling - the Bear Grylls of watches, a Rolex - the Submariner worn by Sean Connery in James Bond remains a classic (along with other brands), to the more fashion end of the market with Cartier and Chanel brands, the best spot to get top advise is at Watches of Switzerland.
Delve further into the history and craftsmanship of this fascinating world and I defy you not to get the watch bug.