What I’ve learned Dr Andrew Hildreth, watch expert

What I’ve learned: Dr Andrew Hildreth, watch expert

The writer and presenter of ‘History of Watches: 1700 to Now’, Christie's Education’s new online course, on concentric balance springs, the impact of ‘the Quartz crisis’ — and Fidel Castro’s favourite watch

A watch was the first thing I ever asked my parents for when I was four years old. They told me that I could not have one because I didn’t know how to tell the time. So I asked if they would give me a watch if I could  tell the time. It took me a week to learn, and then a further two weeks to convince them that I wasn’t bluffing. But, for my very next birthday, I got a time-only Timex manual wind watch. I felt 10 feet tall!

Human ingenuity and skill have transformed inert metal into a device that can measure time. It’s at the fundamental level where much of my interest lies. Watches demonstrate great scientific and technological advances, and development of accurate chronometers has changed history.

There are still improvements to be made to the mechanical watch. Brands take different approaches to this: Rolex has concentrated on refining the basic automatic movement and balance spring to make it ever more precise and accurate; Greubel Forsey has invented completely new forms for watch complications.

The Greubel Forsey QP à Équation is, says Hildreth, ‘basically an analogue mechanical computer’

The Greubel Forsey QP à Équation is, says Hildreth, ‘basically an analogue mechanical computer’

The Gregorian calendar creates problems for a mechanical watch. It would be much easier if every month had 28 days and each month started on a Monday, but watches have to cope with the calendar as it was developed — adjusting for an unequal number of days per month and leap years. If I were to choose a modern watch, it would be the Greubel Forsey Quantum Perpetual, because it solves all the problems that have plagued the perpetual calendar complication. It’s basically an analogue mechanical computer, programmed with the Gregorian calendar forwards and backwards in time.

If I had to choose my favourite watch it would be the special order Patek Philippe J.B. Champion Observatory watch, ref. 2458. It was made for the punctuality-obsessed American lawyer J.B. Champion using an observatory movement, which was awarded a Bulletin de Marche certificate in tests at the Geneva Observatory. It’s absolutely unique.

My favourite watchmaking story is about the invention of the concentric balance spring. The balance spring sits at the heart of every mechanical watch to help regulate the movement. For more than 300 years there have been arguments over which of two rival 17th-century scientists, Robert Hooke or Christiaan Huygens, invented the spring. But the smoking gun recently turned up in a house sale in Hampshire — a folio proving that Hooke had proposed it first. What’s remarkable is that it’s Hooke’s fault it was lost. He had taken his notes home to prevent them being copied, and then lost them.

‘Implausible though it seems, Rolex had an authorised centre in communist Cuba throughout Castro’s time as leader’

It is documented that Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf delivered Rolex watches to prisoners of war during the Second World War. It’s difficult to imagine a modern manufacturer making such a generous offer, and being as involved as Wilsdorf was in fulfilling it. Some of the watches played an important role in escape plans — including the breakout from Stalag Luft III that was filmed as The Great Escape.

Fidel Castro was a known Rolex enthusiast. There are photographs of him wearing two at once. Implausible though it seems, Rolex had an authorised centre in communist Cuba throughout Castro’s time as the leader of the country. 

Fidel Castro, Havana, 1964. Photo © Elliott ErwittMagnum Photos
Fidel Castro, Havana, 1964. Photo: © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

It’s fascinating to relate how the wristwatch has evolved. From the early days, when Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont asked Louis Cartier to make him a watch that he could consult without taking his hands off the instruments, it’s not only the watch that has changed, but also the industry and the preferences of owners. Writing and taking part in the lectures for Christie’s Education has enabled me to bring together the themes and threads of horological history.

Alberto Santos-Dumont dining with friends in his Parisian home. He sat on high furniture so that he might grow accustomed to altitude. Photo Cartier Archives © Cartier

Alberto Santos-Dumont dining with friends in his Parisian home. He sat on high furniture so that he might grow accustomed to altitude. Photo: Cartier Archives © Cartier

Santos Wristwatch. Cartier Paris, 1915. Photo Nick Welsh, Cartier Collection © Cartier

Santos Wristwatch. Cartier Paris, 1915. Photo: Nick Welsh, Cartier Collection © Cartier

The mass-production of cheap quartz movements in the 1970s almost caused the lights to go out among Swiss watchmakers. They tried to lower costs and mass-produce mechanical watches. Then brands such as Rolex, Patek and Omega tried making very high-end quartz watches. It was not until the system was about to fail entirely that Nicolas Hayek came along and managed to marshal resources to create Swatch — and after that the Swatch Group, which owns so many luxury brands today. It’s remarkable how the mechanical watch has made a ‘comeback’. 

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‘The Quartz crisis’ has led to a new age of mechanical watchmaking. Some designers, such as Richard Mille, have gone all out in celebrating the industrial manufacturing process, creating complicated watches out of futuristic materials. Others, such as Greubel Forsey and Philippe Dufour, concentrate on preserving the master watchmaking techniques of the past while incorporating contemporary innovation.

Audemars Piguet. A fine stainless-steel automatic wristwatch with date and bracelet. Signed Audemars Piguet, automatic, Royal Oak A-series model, no. A 40, circa 1972. Sold for $56,250 on 6 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York

Audemars Piguet. A fine stainless-steel automatic wristwatch with date and bracelet. Signed Audemars Piguet, automatic, Royal Oak A-series model, no. A 40, circa 1972. Sold for $56,250 on 6 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York

Good design never goes out of style. The Cartier Tank is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. The Royal Oak (above) and the Nautilus, which were both designed by Gerald Genta, are more sought after than ever. Richard Mille watches have and will pass the test of time. Some designs, like the Rolex Oyster, are timeless.

This Rolex ‘Kew A’ chronometer belongs to watch collector and dealer Eric Ku

This Rolex ‘Kew A’ chronometer belongs to watch collector and dealer Eric Ku

Without timekeeping accuracy — the actual heartbeat of the machine — none of the rest matters. I’ve always been fascinated by the drive for chronometric precision. Observatories such as those at Kew, Neuchâtel, Besançon and Geneva subjected chronometers to a barrage of tests to ascertain which mechanisms were sufficiently accurate. Watches that passed the observatory tests were awarded a Bulletin de Marche certificate. The most stringent tests were regarded as the ones administered by the Observatory at Kew, England; and only the watches that reached a certain threshold would be awarded an ‘A’ class certificate. Rolex submitted 145 movements in 1948 to show that serially produced watch movements could be awarded a ‘Kew A’ certificate.

Cartier. A fine and historically important 18k gold square-shaped wristwatch, belonging to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Signed Cartier, Tank Model, movement no. 2117860, case no. 44374, manufactured in 1962. Sold for $379,500 on 21 June 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Cartier. A fine and historically important 18k gold square-shaped wristwatch, belonging to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Signed Cartier, Tank Model, movement no. 2'117'860, case no. 44374, manufactured in 1962. Sold for $379,500 on 21 June 2017 at Christie’s in New York

If I were to recommend a class of vintage watches to collectors, it would be the Cartier Tank. There are a number of important and knowledgeable collectors out there who are looking seriously at the Tank and all its design iterations. Before the Second World War it had an almost bespoke nature, so the differences in design and low production numbers make them highly collectible.

Register for  History of Watches: 1700 to Now, the online course offered by Christie’s Education