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The tool watch through the ages (1)
History & Masterpieces

The tool watch through the ages (1)

Friday, 28 October 2016
By Ilias Yiannopoulos
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6 min read

A tool watch is one in which means and ends coexist in perfect harmony and, as the tool watch has evolved, so has the idea of what it must constitute. With so many companies now peppering their ads with references to tool watches, what value can we still attach to the term? Can a tool watch created in the 1950s still be relevant in 2016?

The first period that would shape the notion of tool watch came to a head in the early twentieth century, although the concept goes back centuries before, and was inspired by women. In 1571 Queen Elizabeth I of England was given a watch on an armlet by Robert Dudley, while in 1810 Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples, received a wristwatch made by Abraham-Louis Breguet. Both were tool watches, purpose-built to ostentatiously tell the time on royal wrists. Gentlemen, meanwhile, carried their watch safely out of harm’s way in their pocket, awaiting the day new techniques would produce a more robust timepiece.

Breguet Reine de Naples
Breguet Reine de Naples
The foundations for the wrist/tool watch.

As manufacturing methods and social dictates evolved, the wristwatch stopped being a prerogative of the royalty and spread to the masses. Military men were first to embrace the wristwatch, towards the end of the nineteenth century. Pulling out a pocket watch in the heat of battle was clearly impractical, prompting officers to instead strap their watch to their wrist during colonial military campaigns in the 1880s. The first modern, purpose-built wristwatch was created in 1904 (and made available to the public in 1911) by Louis Cartier for his friend, the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. It was designed to make read-off more functional for professional users (in this instance, pilots). This was the watch that would end the supremacy of the pocket watch and lay the foundations for the wrist/tool watch.

Cartier Santos 100 tourbillon volant white gold, 2009

The second period in the evolution of the tool watch began with Cartier’s innovation and ended in the late 1960s. This was an era when the mechanical watch reigned supreme, during which the concept of the tool watch matured. The path opened up by Cartier led to other iconic, purpose-built timepieces. In 1929, Navy Captain Philip van Horn Weems in conjunction with Longines (and Wittnauer) developed the Weems Second-Setting Watch for nautical navigation. It was followed two years later by the Longines Hour Angle. That same year, 1931, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso was born out of the need for a timepiece that could be safely worn during a polo match. Omega introduced the Marine in 1932, the first watch with a water-resistance that made it suitable to be worn when diving. Rolex was more instrumental than any other firm in winning public recognition and acceptance of the tool watch. Since 1926 the brand had been acquiring patents as a starting point for its own developments, and it was these patents and Wilsdorf’s marketing genius that made the brand such a market leader.

The one constant was the mechanical heart of the tool watch, although this was about to change.

Yet again, fast-paced social and technological progress shaped the tool watch. The mechanical wristwatch did more than just tell the time by introducing features that were increasingly tailored to satisfy customers and their needs: chronographs and tachymeters for professional racing drivers, slide rule and GMT for pilots, pulsometer scales for doctors, screw-down crown and caseback, bezel and helium release valve for divers, magnetic resistance for scientists, hacking seconds, tritium and fixed lugs for the military. The one constant was the mechanical heart of the tool watch, although this was about to change.

Seiko Astron
Seiko Astron
Technology, the driving force

Whereas previously the tool watch had evolved alongside the technological and social context, technology alone would be the driving force behind the next major development, in the 1960s. In July 1967, researchers at the Centre Electronique Horloger in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, presented the world’s first quartz wristwatch. The Beta-1 and the later Beta-2 and Beta-21 projects opened a new chapter in the history of horology. The Swiss, however, were kicked into touch when Japan’s Seiko brought the first quartz watch to market in 1969, namely the Seiko Astron SQ35. Increased accuracy, durability, less maintenance and lower cost were all key factors that led to the “quartz crisis” and the transformation of the watch industry in general and the tool watch in particular. Further technological breakthroughs such as light emitting technology (LED), liquid crystal displays (LCD) and microprocessors meant that the tool watch could now become digital or even, as Omega did with the Chronoquartz cal. 1611, combine an analogue time display with a dual LCD chronograph display, both powered by a single quartz resonator.

Rolex Submariner
Rolex Submariner

Quartz, microprocessors, miniaturization, improvements in quality control and materials led to a radical transformation of the now multifunction tool watch, as increased computing power provided advantages that were unheard-of in a mechanical watch. Japanese companies emerged as a force to be reckoned with: their capacity to produce in greater quantities and sell more cheaply put them in a stronger position than the Swiss. Possibly the most telling example of this reversal of fortunes came from the military forces, where quartz and the Casio G-Shock in its various forms replaced Rolex Submariners, Omega Seamasters and Lemania chronographs in the late 1980s. The tool watch was transformed into a cheap and reliable multifunction digital wristwatch.

Omega Seamaster
Omega Seamaster

Swiss watch manufacturers responded in two ways. One was to build on a prominence defined by centuries of tradition and set about creating high-tech quartz (mainly analogue-digital) wristwatches, the logic behind this being that the Swiss had the know-how to produce the best tool watch money could buy, and could therefore beat the Japanese at their own game. The second option was for Swiss brands to almost universally reposition themselves in the global market by openly espousing the term luxury within their newly restructured industry. A watch considered as a luxury good sits at the opposite end of the spectrum to the tool watch; unwittingly, Swiss manufacturers partially distanced themselves from the tool watch segment.

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