The evolution of watches reflects changing relations with time

From The Economist:

Under fire over his pension reforms, in March President Emmanuel Macron incurred more French ire by surreptitiously slipping off a luxury watch midway through a television interview. More than two centuries ago, another watch embodied France’s power struggles. An anonymous admirer of Marie Antoinette commissioned Breguet, the royal watchmaker, to make her a timepiece on a limitless budget, an object seen as emblematic of the ancien régime’s excesses. Breguet narrowly escaped the guillotine during the Terror, and laboured on the watch for the rest of his life. His workshop finished it four years after he died—and 34 years after its intended owner had lost her head.

The fate of Marie Antoinette’s watch is one of many gripping tales in Rebecca Struthers’s “Hands of Time”. A British historian and watchmaker, she chronicles the development of timekeeping devices from ancient Egyptian water clocks to the Apple Watch. Denis Diderot’s 18th-century encyclopedia stated that mastery of horology required “the theory of science, the skill of handwork and the talent for design”. “Hands of Time” is duly a story of both innovation and aesthetics. Its engaging pages are peopled with engineers and artisans, as well as the kings, revolutionaries, fraudsters and explorers who helped shape the watch’s history.

Its central argument is that the changing nature of the watch has “reflected and developed our relationship with time”. In the medieval era, and for a while afterwards, clocks were found almost solely on church towers. Time was public, not private, and delivered from on high. As watches developed, portable timekeeping was initially a privilege of the wealthy. Ever more elaborate designs were the ultimate status signifiers. In his diary of 1665, Samuel Pepys described his new watch with childlike glee: “I cannot forbear carrying my watch in my hand…and seeing what o’clock it is one hundred times.”

Having access to time meant being able to control it for other people, a power exploited by the 19th-century industrialists who extended working days beyond allocated hours. Yet technological developments—and forgeries—made watchmaking cheaper, so “democratising time”. By the turn of the 20th century you could buy a watch for a dollar. Timekeeping was at last within reach of ordinary folk.

The story of watches is closely intertwined with major historical events. Switzerland can partly thank fleeing French Huguenots for its watch industry. Enhancements to maritime watches enabled longitude to be measured accurately, saving countless lives at sea. But such advances in navigation were also a boon to the transatlantic slave trade and empire-builders. Male wristwatches, rather than the pocket kind, became popular during the first world war, when ready access to the time could be life-saving.

Link to the rest at The Economist