Monday 8 June 2015

Time mastered

If there is one watchmaker who can claim to have mastered time it is Patek Phillipe.

I must explain that I do not own so much as an infinitesimal sliver of this Geneva based family company, nor am I in their pay, nor do I own any of their watches, though I able to press my nose against their shop windows and hope to do so one day. It is simply that I can recognise good work when I see it, and though I have not been paid for this advertisement, the London representative of the company can send me their simplest watch as modest recompense. They do not need the publicity, but an optimistic frame of mind is probably an advantage in these matters.

Clocks are a commonplace now, but their invention and development did more than record the passage of time: they began to change the conception and pace of time in everyday life, taking us away from the sun and moon, which had seemed time enough to our ancestors, down into the inner workings of a secret world, linked to the stars but closer to our heartbeat, the spinning oscillation of a fluttering balance wheel, the watchmaker’s version of the pendulum.

There is an intricacy to clockwork best seen under a stereoscopic microscope, particularly when there are several layers of workings stacked one upon another. The company’s craftsmen and craftswomen were on duty when the big corporate exhibition came to the Saatchi Gallery in London (which ended yesterday). It takes craft workers about 10 years to get the required skills, and the guy from Copenhagen to whom I spoke was an engaging teacher, taking the attentive crowd through the power chain, and following the lines of force through each bearing down to the controlling spinning balance wheel and then back up again to the watch face.

The simplest watch (one of those, please) was launched during the First World War, and it remains a classic, because it does the very basic task elegantly, showing the time with roman numerals, and the seconds in a sub dial. What we think of this arrangement as the essentials of a watch now, but it was an innovation then, when the larger fob watch was more usual. Taking a fob watch out of a waistcoat pocket and prising open the gold cover lid was a little time consuming when one had to check the time so as to blow a whistle at a precise time, and go over the top to get one’s head blown precisely off. A flick of the wrist was faster, thus giving rise to a gesture we make many times a day, without noticing, and usually without being in peril of dying in the trenches.

Wealthier clients want complications: mechanical contraptions to display perpetual calendars, the moon and the stars, or even melodious miniature gongs which repeat the most recent passing of the hours in sonorous recapitulations. Perhaps I complain about these contrivances too much, but to my taste they seem to be trying too hard, cramming more and more movements into larger cases, till even such a gem as the 1933 Graves super-complication belongs in a library case, not on a wrist. I cannot restrain myself when the craftsman finishes his tour of the intense mechanical world, to wickedly ask if they themselves wear a simple Casio quartz watch. They give me a wan smile, but the doubting enquiry is apposite: quartz is more accurate, and what watchmakers regard as complications the modern quartz timepiece regards as simply one of many features: stop watches, lap counters, phases of moons and sun, the time in other countries, the tides and even, at any moment but usually at night, quiet communication with atomic clocks of scary precision, so that the humble wristwatch now out-measures the observable universe. The equation of time (drift of clock face time with respect to solar time) has now been superseded.

Worse, mechanical clocks cannot easily make the watch I most want, one which shows day length, sun rise and set, and moon phase and rise and set for any place on earth. Digital clocks can do that with relative ease.

This carping missed the point. The death of the mechanical watch, much trumpeted, and which almost happened during the quartz invasion 30 years ago, has been postponed once again. Collectors see in these ticking mechanisms the antiques of the future, more likely to survive than corruptible electronic circuits, able to surmount most calamities and vagaries of fashion, to give pleasure always. Timepieces make time visible in a way that electric circuits never can, showing what clever monkeys we are, and making every ticking cog reveal the spinning world on which we live, time suspended, time measured, time lived and time enjoyed.

Is that enough? An officer’s watch, as made for the London Exhibition. No need to gift wrap, I will take it out on my wrist.


  1. I bought a Timex when I was in the US for a few months, in student days. A dozen years later it died. I wrote to the Timex factory in Dundee and, bless 'em, they sent me a new one. That lasted into the era of digital watches when I got one free with a tube of toothpaste. That lasted a good while. I was rather annoyed a few years back when it finally died and messrs Tesco demanded money for a watch. I hadn't paid money in forty years! Bloody Tesco!

  2. The best writer on the importance of workmanship in producing good objects of all kinds was David Pye, late professor of furniture at the RCA.

  3. The article is wonderful and i have got more ideas and method about the time mastered. Thanks for providing this excellent post.

  4. I don't know if they mention it, but a pleasing thing about that exhibition (I haven't been, but was visiting London a couple of weeks ago and saw the posters) is that the name Saatchi means, literally, "watchmaker, clockmaker" from the Arabic ساعت, "hour" and a Turkish suffix used to create names of occupations.

  5. Did not know that! No wonder they agreed the exhibition.

  6. I very much enjoyed the prose of this post, but the glamour faded at " get the required skills, and the guy from Copenhagen..." You definitely have a way with words, James.