Some years ago I wrote a story about mechanical wrist watches for Dagbladet Børsen, the leading financial newspaper in Denmark. I imagine the piece can be interesting for an English speaking audience as well, so I have translated into English. Maybe things are about to change with smart watches and the flow of new electronic devices. However, I have not seen any market signs that the mechanical watch is about to disappear again.
When Japanese Seiko launched the model Astron in 1969, bells were tolling for the old Swiss watch industry. Astron was battery powered and ticked through a small synthetic crystal called quartz. Astron was far more accurate than the mechanical watches, which even the best watchmakers in the Alpine country made.
During the 1970s the number of traditional Swiss watchmakers plunged dramatically, while quartz watches, especially from Asia, took off. In 1984 there were 600 traditional watchmakers left compared 1600 a decade earlier .
But Switzerland survived “The Quartz Crisis”, which they later dubbed it. The recovery began in the 1980s, when the company Swatch with its candy coloured and fun watches created renewed attention to watches from the small central European country.
“In the mid-’90s the mechanical watches returned. Everyone had stopped producing them, and you could hardly find them , and then they became attractive,” Jørgen Krognos elaborates. He repairs and sells vintage watches in a small basement shop in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen.
The new mechanical watches compete as previously on precision, but there are many other properties that make a mechanical watch to stand out today. For instance the capacity to tick without external influence. German A. Lange & Sohne is said to possess the current record with the model 31, which has a power reserve of 31 days.
There is competition as well to minimize the wear and tear that a mechanical movement is exposed to.
“Previously, a mechanical watch needed service every five years. Now, one can often just send it to the watchmaker every ten years,” says Mr Krognos .
The old watch companies are also trying to refine classic features like calendar, stopwatch and moon phase. The goal is, undoubtedly, an attractive market position, but the dream of a perpetual motion machine could also be in mind.
One of the most famous features, which really is more of a mechanism, is the tourbillon. It will counteract the effect that gravity has on a pocket watch and wrist watch.
We must go back to the post-revolutionary France to find the first tourbillon. Back then in 1795 Abraham-Louis Breguet succeeded to encapsulate the vital parts of a pocket watch in a moving box that – at least in theory – leveled the gravitational disturbance of the clock. Since then the tourbillon has become a synonym for “haute horlogerie”, finest watchmaking.
Enthusiasts have many and different views on, which watch brands and models are the best. It seems that it is just as much about emotion as the cool analysis, when the decision is made.
But market forces have a clear favorite.
“One can always argue about, which watch is the better one. But, auction prices point to Patek Philippe,” says Mr Krognos opening a catalog where Patek Philippe watches represent 15 of the 16 world’s most expensive watches at auction in 2005.
“Patek Philippe is really good craftsmanship,” concludes the watchmaker in Frederiksberg.
Source: Various watchmakers