Mechanical wristwatches (as opposed to battery-powered ones) offer us what sci-fi writer William Gibson called the "tamogotchi experience": the sense that we are wearing and tending to a living thing that whirrs and ticks on our wrist. Throughout the years, these machines have kept the trains running on time and helped the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit make his two-martini lunch. Sadly, however, these gems are now frequently absent from our wrists thanks to those ubiquitous portable time-telling devices—laptops and cellphones. Watch expert John Biggs, who runs and is the author of a forthcoming book about watches for Dial Press, offers an in-depth look at some of the most amazing watches from this century and beyond—including a hockey-puck-size watch that is one of the most complex mechanical devices ever made.
Why it Matters: The Pearl Star is one of the first watches with expanding hands.
The Story: Attributed to William Anthony of London, this pocket watch has an oblong case with automatically extending hands. When the hands are at noon, for example, they are fully extended up to the top of the case. When they are at 9:15, they automatically shorten to fit without touching the sides of the case.
Why it Matters: One of the first "digital" watches that used a unique system of hands to display the time.
The Story: The vision of a "digital" watch—meaning one that showed the hours in minutes using rotating numerals instead of hands—has always been an important pursuit in watchmaking. Perrin Freres of Switzerland created an amazing variation on this with the Wandering Hours in 1800. Three hands circled a central pivot and on the tip of each, four small hour numerals spin into place at the end of each hour. With the case closed, the watch looks like a fuel gauge showing minutes and hours but inside you find a riot of gears and hands.
Why it Matters: The Rolex Oyster redefined where you could take a watch by making it waterproof.
The Story: Like most great innovations, the Rolex merges two simple technologies to create something that no one thought they needed but then became indispensible. The technology, the perpetual movement, was first conceived by Louis Perrelet in the 1750s and was perfected by Rolex. A small weight wound the watch when the wearer moved his or her arm, resulting in a watch that ran "perpetually" with no need for daily winding.
The next innovation was a crown that screwed down to protect the inside of the watch from water. They advertised the first model in 1910 by dunking the watches in aquariums in watch shops around the world. Rolex thus became synonymous with diving watches.
Why it Matters: The result of a bet, the Packard is one of the first ultracomplicated watches.
The Story: James Ward Packard, of Packard automobile fame, wanted to own the most complex watch in the world. He sent his order to Patek Philippe in Switzerland and they sent back a watch in 1916 with 16 complications—watchspeak for features—including a star map that showed the night sky from his bedroom window in Warren, Ohio.
Why it Matters: This beast held the "complicated" crown for more than 50 years.
The Story: Not to be outdone by Packard, New York banker Henry Graves Jr. commissioned his own complicated watch from Patek Philippe. The result, called the Graves Complication, has 24 complications and sold for $11 million in 1999, making it one of the most expensive watches in the world.
Why it Matters: This is the watch that made steel, titanium and ceramic popular watch materials.
The Story: While the name invokes pork and stuffy French drawing rooms, Audemars Piguet (pronounced Aw-de-mar Pig-ay) was founded in 1854 and for years made high-end watches for an exclusive clientele. While its neighbors in Switzerland focused on precious metals, jewels and bling, in 1972 Piguet hired designer Gerald Genta to make the world's first stainless-steel luxury watch, the Royal Oak. It originally cost around $2000 and has gone through many incarnations since then—including a massive $42,000 Outdoor Survivor edition that looks like something Neo would wear in The Matrix—but the Oak's octagonal case remains true to its origins.
Why it Matters: The 89 is the most complex watch in the world.
The Story: This huge watch now hangs in the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva. Commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the company in 1988, the watch has 33 complications and is about as big as a hockey puck. Although the average smart watch can probably beat it for accuracy and features, to be able to cram astrological charts, calendars, and chimes into a mechanical device reminds us that mechanical watches still haven't lost their mystery. The only drawback? All this clockwork still needs to be wound daily.
Why it Matters: This watch is one of the most elegant, complex watches on the market.
The Story: In 1813 Parisian watchmaker Breguet originally made a complicated pocket watch for Tsar Alexandar of Russia—it included pedometers for measuring his army's marching cadence. In 2003 the company, now based in Switzerland, created a complicated wristwatch based on the original watch. The new version includes a miniature alarm, multiple retrograde hands (hands that return to zero when they reach the end of the dial) and another time-zone indication.
With an austere, iPod-like design, the Reveil du Tsar is elegant and complicated at the same time.
Why it Matters: This is the first watch to use Space Age techniques to perfect an invention created in the 18th century.
The Story: Watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet created the first tourbillons—French for "whirlwind"—during the French Revolution in order to offset the effects of gravity on the balance wheel, a tiny gear inside the movement that metes out the seconds. The tourbillon turned the balance wheel on one axis during the day, ensuring that no single side of the wheel was pulled more than any other.
Jaeger-LeCoultre wanted to improve on the mechanism and so created the gyrotourbillon, a three-dimensional wheel that rotates like a tiny planet on the watch face. Using modern engineering techniques and a 300-year-old invention, Jaeger-LeCoultre built one of the most mechanically stunning watch movements in the world. Inside the watch is a miniature globe that rotates on all axes like a miniature planet.