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Feature: 5 Watch Facts You Didn't Know

If you’ve clicked on this, there’s a high chance that you have at least a passing interest in watches and timekeeping, beyond simply being aware of the time and wanting to know what the time is exactly. There’s also a chance you’re the kind of person who wants to further their knowledge and understanding of watches and timekeeping, and that’s good, because that’s exactly what’s about to happen.

Swiss Watchmaking Was Originally The Budget Alternative

We may know Switzerland today as the beating heart of mechanical watchmaking, but like every story, the tale of Swiss watchmaking has its beginning. Prior to the 19th century, if you wished to purchase a timepiece, your money would be heading to England, or to France, then two powerhouses of industry and technology and art.

But the success of these two nations was to be its undoing; the wealthier they became, the more expensive its produce was, the less people could afford it. And what happens when people want something they can’t afford? They either don’t have it—or they buy a fake.

But the fakes weren’t coming from China, no, that was a long way off. They were coming from closer to home. During the long, bitter winters in the foothills of the Alps, when tending land or rearing livestock was next to impossible, housebound farmers would take to producing watch components based on the established designs of the French and British. There are no prizes for guessing that these particular Alps are of the Swiss variety.

At first the work produced by this cottage industry, was subpar—cheap, but subpar—and then it was okay, and after a while actually started getting rather good. The industrial revolution had all but destroyed watchmaking in France and England, the cost of labour far too expensive, and the Swiss were right there ready to take up the mantle.

Omega Was Originally The Name Of A Movement

Many watch companies started off with a name not entirely identical to the one they carry today; Patek Philippe, for instance, was christened as Patek, Czapek & Cie., up until the point Czapek left and Philippe joined—and that name change makes perfect sense. TAG Heuer spent much of its former years known as just Heuer, up until the purchase of the company by Techniques d’Avant Garde, or TAG. That name change may not have been quite so successful, but the origins are still plain to see.

How about Omega, then? Like many brands, the name it started with was the name of the person who founded it, one Louis Brandt. Some thirty years later, when Brandt’s sons were old enough to join the business, the name changed to Louis Brandt & Fils—that’s French for ‘and sons’. No brain-ache over that, that one seems fair.

But father Brandt wasn’t to live forever, and upon his passing, the company’s name changed once more, to Louis Brandt—Louis named one of his sons Louis—& Frére, which means ‘and brother’. This is all very well and good, but none of it explains where the name ‘Omega’ comes from. Well, be patient, we’re just about getting there.

In 1894, the brothers revealed to the world a high-tech movement that significantly advanced accuracy, reliability and usability, winning multiple awards and breaking numerous records in the process. This movement the brothers called ‘Omega’, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, and it was to put the company on the map. So synonymous did the company become with the movement, that in 1903 the decision was made to rename the company once more—and this time they called it Omega.

Rolex Was Founded In England

Ask anyone to name a famous Swiss watch company and you’ll be almost guaranteed to hear the word ‘Rolex’ by way of a response. It’s known the world over as the height of luxury, topping the list of most valuable watch brands and positioned as the crowning jewel of Swiss watchmaking.

Only thing is … it isn’t Swiss. Yes, the brand Montres Rolex S.A. was registered in Geneva in 1920, but it was established fifteen years earlier, almost 1,000 km away in London, England. German founder Hans Wilsdorf, an anglophile and experienced watch distributor, moved to London to partner with his brother-in-law Alfred Davis to import superior Swiss movements, casing them up locally and selling them to the British public.

In a practice we’ve already established, the company was initially named after the two men, but in 1908, still over a decade before moving to Switzerland, Wilsdorf renamed the company to something he believed sounded both familiar and luxurious: Rolex.

But his British adventure was not to last. With The Great War came increasing racial oppression towards Wilsdorf, and he was forced to leave England, returning to Switzerland where had first learned his trade. He moved his beloved Rolex company with him, and it has remained there ever since. What a different business it would have been if Hans Wilsdorf had felt able to stay in London.

The First Waterproof Watch Is 75 Years Older Than The Rolex Oyster

Remember 1926? Of course you do, because it’s when Rolex announced the Oyster, the world’s first water-resistant wristwatch, which a year later travelled the breadth of the English Channel on the wrist of champion swimmer Mercedes Gleitze without letting in so much as a drop.

The Oyster was such a marvel that jewellers displayed them in shop windows submerged in fish bowls, a clever marketing ploy that quite rightly caught the public’s attention and cemented the idea that this watch was the very first to be made properly water resistant.

Only, it wasn’t. Rolex, certainly in the early years, is known for using clever language to make bold claims about its product. It’s all true, but pay attention to what’s not said and the truth becomes clearer. First wristwatch to receive a Swiss chronometric precision certificate—absolutely true, but only because everyone else was submitting pocket watches.

Same with the Oyster; yes it was the first water resistant wristwatch—and the basis for the much lauded Radiomir from Panerai—but it wasn’t the first water-resistant watch. That honour goes to a silver pocket watch made by Messrs. Pettit and Trappett, exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace in London, and guess what—it was displayed submerged in a glass globe surrounded by gold and silver fish.

Time Is Different Depending On How You Look At It

Clock and watchmakers have spent centuries attempting to pin time down to its most accurate representation, fighting physics to create a mechanism that can provide perfect accuracy. The most accurate clock in the world today, an atomic device that uses a cube of quantum gas and laser beams to turn what sounds a lot like a Bond villain’s weapon into something that tells time, wouldn’t have lost even a second if it had been running for the entire duration of the universe so far.

But there’s a problem, because physics has yet another curveball to throw: time is not a constant. This means that time for one person could be different for another—and that completely ruins the idea of an accurate clock entirely.

There are two ways in which this can happen, and both relate to the speed of light. Because travelling faster than the speed of light would result in arriving somewhere before your own appearance, it’s theorized to be something of a cosmic speed limit, but this plays havoc with our existence as we know it.

The first way this happens is to do with velocity: fairly simply, time is a factor of speed and distance, i.e. it will take a minute to travel a mile at sixty miles an hour. Simple stuff, but not when the speed of light is involved. If the person travelling sixty miles an hour turns on a torch, the photons will leave the torch at the speed of light, but to a stationary bystander, the photons won’t appear to move at the speed of light plus sixty miles an hour—they will remain at the speed of light. The speed of light being a constant and the distance travelled being fixed means it is time that changes.

The second way time can be twisted is by proximity to gravity. Gravity can draw almost anything towards it—even light—but the principle remains the same; light cannot be accelerated towards a body of mass generating a gravitational field to a speed faster than the established constant speed of light.

These principles are known as time dilation, and it is more than just theory—it’s a very real problem that is quantified every time you use a GPS device. Because the satellites in orbit around Earth experience time relative to their own velocity and gravity, every year the on-board clocks must catch up the 0.01 seconds lost to time dilation, without which our satellite navigation systems would not work accurately.

The weirdest thing is that this phenomenon affects the crew of the International Space Station too—when they return to Earth after sixth months, they are 0.005 seconds younger than they would have been if they’d stayed on Earth. They’ve time travelled.

The pursuit of time remains a complex and fascinating thing, from the evolution of industry through to the underlying physics that determines how we even experience it, and has provided a multitude of challenges for watchmakers throughout existence. Whether competing for space in a crowded market or negotiating time travel, the battle for perfect time is still a universe away.

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