The Gentleman's Wristwatch

More retrogrouch musings from the underground.

by Carlos Perez

April 5, 2001


"I am not I; thou art not he or she;
they are not they."
-- Evelyn Waugh

What watch to buy next? This is the most pressing problem that faces the modern enthusiast-collector of mechanical wristwatches -- though the issue of financing the next purchase is also one of great consternation and difficult spousal negotiations. As addicts hungering for the next fix, surrounded by an ever widening proliferation of new temptations, and pushers looking to "make a deal," collectors often find themselves trapped in a Sisyphean struggle: perpetually losing as they buy and resell so that they may buy again, or slowly buried alive as they buy and buy and never sell. Some, perhaps only a handful, have battled this through strict delimitation of their collections, and there are a few true "collectors" whose strictly defined pursuits are naturally self limiting, but the rest are helplessly tossed by the waves of horological passion.

There have been a few blasphemous whisperings - perhaps brought about by despair, or even intentional subversion - hinting at another possibility, however unspeakable. This heretical "Way of One Watch" exists both in the guise of an ideal for a secretive handful of wristwatch enthusiasts, and occasionally as the practical necessity of those with means too limited to afford "collector" status. Yet for most of the history of the watch one watch was not only sufficient but indeed considered a precious badge of social status (as it is even now with the populace at large: Think "Rolex"). Indeed, from the earliest origins of the watch through its early centuries of development, watches were the sole province of noblemen -- aristocrats and royalty -- and were simply unavailable to anyone outside of the elite.

Sometime in the 16th century the concept of the "gentleman" began evolving into something distinct from the "nobleman." Consisting mainly of untitled landowners, with the courtesy of gentle status extended to the small number of professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, and commissioned military officers, they were a class of men who were respected but not of great wealth. The following centuries of imperial expansion and international conquest greatly enrichened part of the merchant class, necessitating further changes in the concept of the gentleman. Their ranks were expanded by men who were not "noble" and not necessarily "landed," but affluent and of independent means; a kind of haute bourgeoisie. Slowly superseding the nobility in terms of actual wealth, they affected much of their habits and behaviors -- including the consumption of watches.

This increased market corresponded with a paradigm shift in watches which became not only more accurate and useful, but thinner, simpler, and less opulent than those initially produced solely for the nobility -- though still precious as an expertly crafted product housed almost always in gold. Just as the man of Society found that watches were becoming a necessary part of proper everyday dress, the contemporary French-Classical idea of the simple, refined, and thin watch (exemplified by the non-complicated works of Abraham-Louis Breguet) would capture this fundamental idea of the gentleman's watch

As gentlemen sought to emulate noblemen, so too would an emerging middle class seek to emulate, or in fact become gentlemen. It was the start of the industrial revolution which finally opened access to simple watches to the less wealthy bourgeoisie, and slowly into the hands of certain groups of the working class -- though perhaps more commonly in silver, steel, gilt brass, or vermeil, than in gold. This evolving middle class styled themselves as "gentlemen," even if truthfully speaking they lacked the means that once defined gentlemen. They affected the manners and deportment, courtesy and dress, and thus it was that the gentleman's simple gold watch became the archetypal watch, and a necessary accessory of proper everyday dress for every man. The distinction between the watches used by "old money" gentlemen and professionals, and those of these freshly minted 20th-century gentlemen would be defined by brand and fineness rather than by form or function.

The new classic

The emergence of the wristwatch in the early decades of the 20th century saw the classic form of the pocket watch resized and slowly transmogrified for wear upon the wrist. Taken from the classic "hunter" type pocket watch with small seconds display at 6 o'clock, this is the archetype of the gentleman's wristwatch -- an understated, essentially simple and functional accessory of proper dress. Certainly not a public statement of individuality like our modern oversized timepieces, but a private, almost hidden pleasure. Precious, as anything befitting a gentleman, but not a form of adornment of jewelry meant to be noticed socially -- though cased richly in gold.

The 75% (750/1000) gold alloy traditionally used for these cases is designed to enhance both its durability and its wear resistance, while retaining and enhancing gold's natural deep yellow radiance. The use of platinum in jewelry began with improved minimal settings for diamond jewelry, but its high cost (esp. in working it) gave a nouveau riche appeal that spread it to other forms of jewelry, and to watches. Fluctuations in supply brought about a less expensive substitute in "white gold" alloys in the 1920s, which are typically rhodium plated to better imitate the appearance of platinum. The off-white patination often remarked of white gold over time is really just the actual appearance of the whitened gold alloy after the rhodium plating wears off. Reddened gold alloys appear to be a transient fashion that comes and goes -- perhaps a "gold" for those who don't like gold?

The novel form

Born concurrently in the transition from pocket to wrist was a new family of "form" wristwatches, found in various shapes like the square, tonneau, and tortue, are an intentional break from the centuries-old pocket watch tradition of round cases and calibres. As a redesign specifically for wear on the wrist, they are perfectly fitted for the narrow space on the wrist at the edge of the shirt cuff. This relationship is lost in our casual wear world, but when properly dressed there is nothing so befitting its place as the form wristwatch. The art of the shaped wristwatch reached its highest form in Gruen's Curvex and similar curved watches with curved movements. Unfortunately the art of the curved movement has lain dormant for decades.

Today, though the selection has dwindled from those Art Deco days, Cartier's tanks, tortues, tonneaus, and the square watch designed in honor of Alberto Santos-Dumont are still among us. As is the Reverso of Jaeger-LeCoulte, and the otherwise forgotten "cushion" is still found in the diverse portfolio of Dubey & Schaldenbrand. The Tank Basculante shown above commemorates the 150th anniversary of the House of Cartier in a limited edition of 150. It is an icon of the kind of understated elegance appropriate for the gentleman's shaped wristwatch.

The professional's choice

As in the age of pocket watches that preceded it, the age of the wristwatch saw the watch continue to be a valuable and rare commodity, a precious heirloom passed down within a family, and taken care of by one's personal watchmaker. But while pocket watches had enjoyed the relative safety and protection of pocket carry, the wristwatch was exposed to much more potential harm -- a vulnerability only heightened by their smaller and more delicate movements. In a way this fragility made the wristwatch even more precious as a new discipline of care evolved around it: from even more gentle handling of the mechanism itself, to the avoidance of shock and water, including a habitual ritual of removing the wristwatch to wash one's hands.

The evolution of the gentleman's wristwatch into its most practical form resulted from the innovations of shock-resistance, improved water and dust resistance, direct center-seconds, the calendar date guichet, and rotor autowinding. The first few helped to protect the wristwatch in its precarious position, thus alleviating the gentleman of some of the extreme care formerly once required. Center seconds made the seconds hand a useful display and not just an indication that the watch is functioning, and the date guichet became a ready reference for the professional who spent most of his time with endless paperwork. Automatic winding further reduced the attention required by the watch of its owner, as well as some additional benefit to water and dust resistance. In all allowing the wristwatch to submerge seamlessly into the gentleman's increasingly hectic and stressful daily routine. The "Chronometre Royal" shown above is the latest in a long lineage of gentleman's watches from Vacheron Constantin, which evolved from a simple classic handwind into this pragmatic and elegant automatic form.

The pinnacle

The pursuit of thinness began with French-Swiss watchmakers Lepine and Breguet in the 18th century, and over the centuries it became the philosopher's stone of watchmaking: A fundamental challenge, a supreme achievement, and a whole way of thinking and pursuing the art and craft of watchmaking. The ultrathin pocket watches of the late-19th and early-20th centuries led almost immediately to development of ultrathin calibres for the wristwatch -- perhaps as an outgrowth of development of ultrathin calibres for women's pocket watches. The difficulty of design, manufacture, adjustment, and maintenance of ultrathin wristwatch calibres has keep their production and distribution limited to a small elite of manufactures. A difficulty that is simply translated into terms of greater expense, rarity, and prestige.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the late development and introduction of ultrathin automatics, just as the Quartz Terror was setting the world of watchmaking on its ear, and sending the old mechanical royalty to the guillotine. It was also the time when Piaget and other manufactures pushed too far in the quest for thinness, resulting in watches with movements that were unacceptably inaccurate, and delicate. In part undermining the image of ultrathin mechanicals just as their nemesis was coming into its strength - the spot on accurate and reliable ultrathin quartz. Today thinness is no longer afforded its former prestige outside of the philosophy of watchmaking where thinness is still pursued, albeit in a more restrained and realistic form. The ultrathin of today, whether automatic or hand-wound, is the most refined expression of the centuries long development of the gentleman's watch -- a reduction of the timekeeping accessory to its simplest and most subtle form.

The fine instrument

As the wristwatch came into being initially as an instrument devised by military necessity, likewise fine watches purpose built for the professional harken back to the early days of wristwatch development. The medical doctor's watch evolved from simple pocket watches with center seconds, to wristwatches with enlarged seconds displays, to the specialized pulsometer chronograph as shown above. Other fine wrist chronographs, including rattrapantes, would be produced in limited quantities by top watchmaking houses, usually based upon the same workhorse ebauches used by large volume producers of military and other instrument wristwatches. With more and more professionals working in high tech industries in the mid-to-late 20th century, amagnetic protection for fine watches became available -- well after development and decades of use in military watches. Amagnetic protection is especially of benefit to gold watches, which lack even the limited natural amagnetic protection of steel-cased watches.

In a market dominated by "sports watches," the fine instrument wristwatch is a dying breed. Represented primarily by a handful of fine chronographs and a recent resurgence in world time watches, they have become limited production items and rather dearly priced relative to other fine watch categories. For now they remain available to the connoisseur, perhaps more as curios in the digital watch age, than as the princes of the instrument watch world.

The mechanism

The simple movement of the gentleman's watch is naturally expected to be of the highest possible quality, and display historically was not a factor of consideration or particular interest. Though usually made merely of brass or "nickel silver," it is the quality of the craftsmanship which makes the movement as precious, if not more so, than the gold case that houses it. However much it fascinates us now, the esoteric issue of "in-house" manufacture was irrelevant as long as this gold standard of craftsmanship was met.

The art of the decorated movement is fairly recent though it long precedes our display back revival. The haute genevois style used by the top manufactures and etablissuers of Geneva and adapted by other top manufacturers of the watchmaking industries around the world was not eye candy for the consumer, but an expression of the watchmakers pride in his craft. This ethic of fine craftsmanship that the owner never even sees is one lost in our culture, where just the opposite, we often find that these signs of craft are mimicked for display where visible, but with neglect hidden throughout -- like a magician's sleight-of-hand illusion. All is not so bleak however, for the old gold standard remains upheld, if only by a few.

The twilight of the "Way of One Watch" came not just with technological advancement, but with cultural changes: The rise of the so-called "sports" watch, a larger more affluent middle class with more active lifestyles, the decline of Society, the obsolescence of proper dress, and of course a revolution in quartz timekeeping. Ruggedness is now more valued than fineness, and quantity more than quality. The latest creation of this new age are the oversized "fruit salad" watches, with disparate complications heaped upon the generic ebauches that they share with sports watches.

Born of this age is our poor collector, who has graduated from an inexpensive and semi-disposable quartz fashion accessories to an expensive "rotation" of automatics which actually spend most of their time on winders waiting their turn to be worn. It could be argued that there is a deeper appreciation possible in having one watch rather than a collection like the gentlemen of old -- even for the enthusiast, but this is akin to preaching monogamy in a land where the common man can afford a harem. Perhaps there is wisdom in the old Way, but no doubt I've damned myself in the eyes of consumer culture by having spoken of it.

Image Credits

Portrait of Abroise Vollard and Man with crossed arms by Paul Cezanne; scans by Mark Harden
A. Lange & Sohne 1815 (3 images) by Mike Margolis
Cartier Basculante by Zeetan
Vacheron Constantin Chronometre Royal (3 images) by Gisbert Joseph
Blancpain Ultra-slim skeleton by Anne Marie
Pulsometer courtesy of Ulysse Nardin, Inc.

Copyright © Carlos A. Perez  2001
All Rights Reserved


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