June 9, 2023 | The Wall Street Journal
People who love watches tend to be romantics. They are more interested in yesterday than tomorrow and will forgo the latest gadget for a sturdy object built to last. The current Apple Watch can make calls and receive e-mails, track heartbeats and count sheep, record steps, plan trips, cook an omelet and negotiate a trade deal. With such a machine on offer, why would anyone pay more—often far more—for a mechanical wristwatch driven by wheels and springs that merely tells the time?
The traditional watchmaker Rebecca Struthers provides a clue with an evocative description of a trip to the British Museum. After passing through the building’s grand doors, she writes in her new book Hands of Time, she “walked down long, quiet corridors, flanked by floor-to-ceiling cases filled with antique books.” Eventually she found her way to a room with “two long rows of mahogany cabinets positioned back to back. Those cabinets housed the museum’s 4,500 watches, arranged in hundreds of specimen drawers.” Here in one place was “the whole history of the watch, from its invention in the sixteenth century to the present day.”
Readers with a nostril for such things can practically smell the musty pages and hear the ticking hands. The lesson of this moody passage is clear: treasure and preserve that which is old, dark, and mysterious. And durable. Ms. Struthers makes more than one comparison between watches and books, another enduring technology steeped in heritage and craft. Some of the mechanical watches that she repairs are hundreds of years old yet leave her Birmingham workshop in working order. Try getting a software update on today’s latest smartwatch in a century or two. By then it will be discarded and obsolete, clumped into a mass of detritus floating in the sea.
Hands of Time is a history of the wristwatch as well as a memoir of sorts tracing Ms. Struthers’ journey to her calling. The book is an excellent companion to David Rooney’s 2021 volume About Time, which told a parallel history of clocks. Hands of Time is smart, curious, digressive and brisk: an engaging survey through a period of intellectual history that reveals as much about people who wear watches as the objects on their wrists. “A watch is an individual’s timekeeper,” Ms. Struthers elegantly writes, “but it is also a kind of diary: it holds in its restless hands our memories of the hours, days and years we have spent wearing it. It is an inanimate but uniquely human repository of life itself.”
The first known watch dates to 1505. Made in Nuremberg by Peter Henlein—incidentally an accused murderer—it showed up in 1987 in a box of parts going for £10 at a London flea market. Today it is valued at between £45 million and £70 million. The watch is shaped like an egg and relies on the same basic movement involving a mainspring (to supply power) and an escapement (to release it) that mechanical watches still use. To regulate his watch, Henlein employed an element called a “fusee” (it resembles a bicycle’s gears) similar to a mechanism designed by Leonardo da Vinci in 1490. Such intricately wrought devices—small, light and delicate—allowed time to become portable, breaking free of the pendulum-clock formulation that Galileo invented after gazing at a swinging altar lamp in Pisa Cathedral.
During the Reformation, watches lost some of their decorative splendor and also changed shape. Egg watches—or, still more bizarrely, skull watches, like one cherished by Mary, Queen of Scots—gave way to the familiar disc-shaped case we know today. These unfussy instruments elevated the plain sensibility of the Puritans, hostile to the finery of Rome. They also reflected a trade-off that Ms. Struthers traces throughout timepiece evolution: “The more accurate and functional the watch, the less it needed ornate decoration to justify its existence.”
Accuracy was a matter of life or death at sea, which led to a critical 18th-century innovation: the marine chronometer. In the age of sail, fixing a ship’s position meant comparing the time at the home port to the time aboard the cruising vessel. This required precise instruments. The British government announced a cash prize to the person who could solve the problem. British watchmaker John Harrison made the challenge his life’s work, inventing a series of highly accurate chronometers with low-friction movements. Dava Sobel devotes an entire enchanting book called Longitude to this story, but it belongs in Hands of Time as well, and Ms. Struthers provides a fine overview.
Watches migrated from pocket chains to wrists because of modern warfare. Wristwatches—far more practical for a soldier needing to grip a rifle with two hands—became standard issue during World War I. Synchronized attacks made time an essential battlefield tool. Another development useful in dark trenches was luminous watch hands. Women worked in factories with radium paint, using their lips to give the deadly coated brushes a fine point. Worse, workers glowed an eerie green as they left each evening, covered in the radioactive powder that, Ms. Struthers writes, “filled the air of the factories.” Despite management’s assurance that the process was safe, untold numbers sickened and died.
One element missing from Hands of Time is any significant discussion of the steel sports watch, which has propelled much of the enthusiasm in the wristwatch market in recent years. Ms. Struthers profiles Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf and the rise of the Swiss watch industry, and devotes a line or two to the Omega Speedmaster’s part in the space program. But the watches that supplied the gear and mystique for daring pursuits like diving and motoring receive little mention, despite their outsize influence on current watch design and sales. Perhaps Ms. Struthers views these topics as oversaturated already: not necessarily a misjudgment. Still, an otherwise complete book on the history of wristwatches feels like it is missing a chapter.
Most affecting, interspersed throughout the narrative, are Ms. Struthers’ remarks about her own story. She writes of confronting sexism as one of few women in her industry and describes her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. This frightening news invested her work with fresh purpose. One day she spent eight hours filing a part only a tenth of a millimeter in size on a watch under construction. In explaining why the task was joyful rather than monotonous, she illuminates how watches transcend their status as objects to become totems of both memory and aspiration. Because of her efforts, the watch “contains the time I have devoted to it… Watches not only measure time, they are a manifestation of time—signifiers of the most precious thing we have.”
Do horologists make more of their time than their smartwatch-wearing friends? That would be a hard case to prove. They certainly lack the stay-on-task apps and hyper-connected efficiency of their contemporaries. And many watch enthusiasts have been so beguiled by the lovely object on their wrist—its exquisite markers and hands, the graceful lines of its case, the way its crystal catches the light—that they forget to note the time at all. Then again, the romantic might reply that appreciating a small work of beauty combining engineering, art, and science that connects us to our past is time well spent. Whatever the hour.