Friends! Do you think a patent sounds proud? Maybe, but not in modern watchmaking. Today’s patented innovation comes down to mentioning the resounding word “patent” in press releases to impress potential buyers and media representatives. However, history knows examples when the innovations described by patents played a key role in the development of watchmaking. Let’s take a look at the most striking ones.
Oyster case. The first of the waterproof
Water resistance has become so common and commonplace that it is hardly thought of when listing the characteristics of a particular watch model. One gets the impression that almost any modern watch is capable of withstanding a certain water pressure, regardless of its function.
While Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf and his team are often credited with inventing the first waterproof case, this is not entirely true. The Oyster case, introduced by Rolex in 1926, was only the first commercially successful implementation of the idea of water resistance.
First Rolex Oyster, 1926
Before watches migrated to the wrist, they didn’t really need to be waterproof, and yet there were experiments in this area. It is worth remembering the Alcide Droz & Fils Imperméable pocket watch. The production of the model began in 1883 and became possible only thanks to the developments of Aaron Dennison and Ezra Fitch. The latter received two patents at the end of the 19th century: one for a case with a rotating ring and a screw cap, the other for a screwed crown. A little later, in 1891, the screw-down case of a pocket watch was patented by François Borgel.
One of the first examples of wristwatches that embodied these achievements was the Submarine, released in 1915. They were distinguished by the presence of a screw-down case back and a screw-down bezel, which did not let moisture into the case. The watch design (by the way, also Rolex) was so non-trivial that in 1917 a whole article was devoted to Submarine in the Horological Journal.
Why is Rolex credited with the invention of the waterproof watch when the patents for the waterproof case were issued before the brand was born? There are two reasons for this, and we have already mentioned the first one – Wilsdorf managed to make waterproof watches commercially successful. Remember the story of the stenographer Mercedes Gleitze, who swam across the English Channel with a watch around her neck. The watch is known to have withstood the swim and was used to launch the Oyster ad campaign. To give you an idea of the scale of the resonance, to this day, almost 100 years later, Rolex uses the name Gleitze in its advertisements.
The second reason why Wilsdorf is considered the inventor of waterproof watches is that he perfected the design of the waterproof case, figuring out how to screw the case back and bezel tighter. His patent No. CH 143449, dated November 15, 1930, marked the birth of the Oyster watch line with a recognizable fluted bezel.
Under the name Oyster, there was a sub-brand of Hans Wilsdorf for some time. These watches used the same case-sealing technology as Rolex watches, but they were made from more affordable materials and equipped with lower-class movements than the Aegler calibers used in Rolex. Interestingly, among the first Oyster watches, there were several pocket models with pillow-shaped cases. They never became popular, as in general, pocket watches in a waterproof case. But they formed the basis of the first Panerai watches, in fact, creating the brand that we know today.
Perhaps the most famous invention in the watch industry. Although the tourbillon patent was granted to Abraham-Louis Breguet on June 26, 1801, he actually invented the complication six years earlier, in 1795. How complex this invention was can be understood at least by the fact that it took Breguet 4 years to develop a tourbillon watch, which he was able to sell. Then it took another 90 years to invent a kind of simplified version of the tourbillon. I mean the carousel invented by the Danish Banne Bonniksen in 1892.
Pocket watch with tourbillon and carousel.
Breguet times are pocket watch times. They spent most of their “life” in an upright position. As a result, the constant action of gravity in one direction distorted the fragile balance spring, negatively affecting the accuracy of the stroke. By the way, Breguet invented a system capable of neutralizing the influence of gravity on the clock rate when he returned to Paris from a voluntary exile in Switzerland. Let me remind you that the master fled to Switzerland to avoid revolutionary terror.
A. L. Breguet’s drawing for the tourbillon patent
The modern tourbillon has taken on a variety of forms and has certainly surpassed anything that Breguet could have imagined in his wildest fantasies. Soaring, double, gyrotourbillon … All these are modern modifications of the invention with a 200-year history. And even though today everyone is tired of discussing the fact that the tourbillon does not work in wristwatches, the brainchild of Abraham-Louis Breguet has not gone anywhere and still adorns the most sophisticated and complex examples of fine watchmaking.
Here one could tell again about Rolex with its “eternal” rotor, but the story with the creation of the automatic winding began much earlier. To be more precise, it goes back to the 18th century, so it would be difficult and wrong to tie the invention of the automatic winding to one name or brand.
The first important figure in the history of self-winding movement was the Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Perrelet. In 1777, he invented a watch with a rotor that could swing up and down. To fully “charge” the mainspring, the watch took 15 minutes of walking.
During this period, four types of self-winding mechanisms were produced for pocket watches. The first is the Perle movement with a side self-winding sector, mentioned in the patent of the English watchmaker Lewis Recordon. The second is a mechanism with a central sector that could rotate about 180 °, since its rotation was blocked by the bridge. The third was a sector rotor, rare for those times, similar to those that can be seen in modern watches. Finally, the function of the rotor could be taken over by the entire mechanism rotating inside the body. True, the latter case was unique. At the beginning of the 19th century (1806), only one such mechanism was constructed.
Lewis Recordon self-winding movement. Photo: Sotheby’s
The self-winding movement will be registered in a wristwatch already in the 1920s. In 1922, Leon Leroy will present his version of the system with a lateral self-winding sector, and just a year later, the British watchmaker John Harwood will create his own self-winding system, which will be called bumper. The rotor in the Harwood system turned 180 ° and wound the clock spring in only one direction. The rotor movement was limited by spring bumpers. Bouncing off them, the rotor swayed more (in theory) back and forth, which contributed to a more efficient spring winding.
Harwood’s system eliminated the crown, the function of which was taken over by the rotating bezel. Similar watches were produced by various manufacturers around the world, including the well-known company Blancpain. According to some reports, by 1931, about 30,000 of these models had been released. However, it all ended in 1931 when Harwood’s company collapsed under the pressure of the Great Depression.
Harwood watch without crown. Photo: Sotheby’s
What happened next is widely known: Rolex improved the Harwood system with a rotor that rotated 360 ° and an improved mainspring, one winding of which was enough for 35 hours of operation. Interestingly, it was only in 1956 that the company officially recognized the primacy of John Harwood and even included his images (along with A.L. Perle) in its advertising materials.
Another story is how several people tried to solve the same problem at once and, as one person, improved a system that had been developed for several decades. I’m talking about Louis Cottier, who pulled together all of his previous achievements and created one of the most recognizable world time displays.
Attempts to create a pocket watch with a world time function have been made with varying success since the early 19th century. They did not take root for one simple reason – until 1884 the system of time zones we are used to today did not exist. Literally each city had its own time, which roughly corresponded to solar time. Since there was no well-functioning transport system at that time either, such confusion was not a problem.
Everything changed with the advent of the railroad network. On the one hand, people began to travel more. On the other hand, the use of telephones became more and more widespread. At the same time, although the Washington Conference, at which the globe was divided into 24 time zones, took place in 1884, Louis Cottier presented his first watch with a world time function only in 1931.
Cottier’s invention made it possible to display the time in all 24 time zones simultaneously, using 2 standard hands and a rotating inner bezel. Although Vacheron Constantin (1932) first got the right to produce such watches, Louis Cottier’s collaboration with Patek Philippe left a more striking mark in the history of watchmaking. The first model that Cottier created for the Patek was the Ref. 515 HU, released in 1937.
Patek Philippe Ref. 515 HU, 1937
And then there were almost 30 years of partnership, which ended with the death of the master in 1966. Cottier also supplied movements for Rolex and Agassiz (now Longines). It was his work that was used in watches donated to the allied leaders at the end of World War II.
Longines (Agassiz) watch commemorating the victory of the Allied forces over Nazism. A copy belonging to W. Churchill
During his work with Patek Philippe, Cottier improved his movement several times. One of its most important improvements is the ability to rotate the disc with the names of cities using the second crown. The system, patented by Patek Philippe in 1958, made it possible to move the hour hand without affecting the minute hand.
After the death of Louis Cottier, his workshop was transferred to the Geneva Museum of Watchmaking and Enamel Art, which can still be visited today.