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The History of the World as told by World Time Watches

by Jonathan Ho on February 13, 2017

Invented in the 1930s, long before the proliferation of commercially available jet travel, world time watches captured the imagination of its onlookers with its dial; displaying real time in key cities across the planet’s 24 time zones. From exotic locales like Rio de Janeiro and Tahiti, the genius of Geneva watchmaker Louis Cottier made it possible to not just tell time in many far flung locales but also evoked stirrings of adventure and travel.

Yet when it comes to World Time Watches and for all the wanderlust it stoked, the faces of these watches carried the many geopolitical realities of the time periods during which specific world time watch references were launched. Indeed, if one were to truly appreciate provenance, it becomes of greater import to at least glean the history and events which shaped the birth of these watches.

A History of World Time Watches

Born to Emmanuel Cottier in Geneva 1894, Louis Cottier was often mesmerised by the many watches and automata that his father was building, among them, a World Time System in 1885. Culturally or technologically speaking, prior to 1885, there wasn’t really a good reason to standardise times across the globe. Mankind possessed neither the need or the ability to traverse vast distances which made inconsistent time standards between cities and towns relevant, that was until a Chief Engineer of the Canadian Railway had spent an uncomfortable night in an Irish train station in 1876.

The Vacheron Constantin Ref 3372 – note how Singapore is spelled Singapour; or how Tokyo is spelled Tokio; a reflection of the era.

The engineer in question, Sanford Fleming, not only spent the sleepless musing about the illogic of it all but also the many times he had to adjust his watch to fit the town’s own time standard causing him to miss several carriage rides already. That he had finally missed the train was the straw which broke the camel’s back – had he had caught his connecting ride, he might not have made a proposal for standardised global time and Emmanuel Cottier might not have seen fit to propose a world time system to the Société des Arts. Imagine, we were one missed train ride away from not ever knowing Louis Cottier’s gift to horology – world time watches.

While his father’s World Time System was not a success, it provided the young Cottier his muse and inspiration for the complication he would eventually invent in 1931. Louis Cottier was talented (winning two notable prizes from Patek Philippe while still an apprentice watchmaker; serving as a watchmaker at Jaeger’s Geneva branch after he graduated) but a small time watchmaker working out from a small office in his wife’s stationery store on Carouge’s 45 rue Vautier, but it was here among the many fine desk clocks, pocket watches and wristwatches that he finally invented the complication that would lead to world time watches.

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Cottier succeeded where previous attempts were failures of dials cramped with barely legible cities – his design was ingeniously simple – his “heures universelles” or “world time” showed central local time with hour and minute hands on a static center dial. Cottier then linked the hour hand and a rotating inner ring together so that as the hour hand rotated over 12 hours, the inner ring would run counter clockwise over 24 hours. The adjustable outer chapter ring with 24 major cities (London, New York, Moscow, etc) corresponding with 24 timezones was set by turning the local city to 12 o’clock and then setting the local time on central hands. Once the user had aligned local time with the 12 o’clock point of the local dial, the watch and its corresponding outer ring would correctly display the correct time in both hours and minutes and night or day, simultaneously – all on a single dial.

His brilliance was acknowledged by prestigious Geneva brands like Patek Philippe, Rolex, Vacheron Constantin and Agassiz (which today is known as Longines) as he became a specialist supplier of his world time watches to each of the celebrated brands. It must be said though, that the first world time watch from Cottier was for a jeweller but it was enough to catch the attention of the big boys in Geneva.

From left: Patek Philippe Ref. 515 HU, the first world timer wristwatch and the Patek Philippe Ref. 96 HU, a world timer in a Calatrava case.

A year after world time complication debuted, Vacheron Constantin commissioned him in 1932 to build the ref. 3372 with two more references (Ref. 3650 and Ref. 3638) to follow in 1936. As wristwatches started to outstrip pocket watches in popularity, Patek Philippe also approached Cottier to produce the first world timer wristwatch in 1937. The rectangular Patek Philippe Ref. 515 HU can be considered the first world timer produced by Patek and the Ref. 96 HU was the first to be housed inside a Calatrava case; it lacked the Patek Philippe signature on the dial. However, archive documents showing only four Ref. 515 HU ever being produced have led to speculation that they were never for commercial sales. That said, producing 4 prototypes of a new fangled complication isn’t the sort of thing 19th century watchmakers indulged in commonly but I digress.

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It must be noted that the Ref. 515 was also the first time Cottier modified his design by printing the cities directly on the rectangular dial – while this tweak had made the cities more legible (and protected), it made local time permanent. Nevertheless, the Calatrava Ref. 96 HU saw the return of the highly functional inner dial design.

World Time Watches shaped by World History

In terms of geopolitical change, war is greatest promoter of it. From 1940 as in 1914-1918, German time was imposed upon the German occupied territories, some of which still prevails today under the name of Central European Time while London retained its place as prime meridian of the world. Similarly, in Japanese occupied territories, time zones were similarly altered. That said, today,400 precision cesium atomic clocks providing Coordinated Universal Time or UTC has replaced GMT.

Patek Philippe Ref 1415

The Ref 1415 introduced in 1939 carried the names of three crucial cities representing Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) – London, Paris and Algiers – while the GMT +1 time zone featured Oslo, Geneva and Rome. The following Ref 1416 of the same year retained London and Paris for GMT but showed Berlin and cape Town for GMT +1. Indeed, prior to World War II, Paris and London shared the same time zone – which was logical given that solar time for Paris to the east is only nine minutes ahead of the Greenwich meridian; that said,France had resisted the very idea until 1911, well after the meridian of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich was made the reference point for zero degrees longitude.

In essence these world time watches became horological time capsules for the era in which they were made; each dial reflecting different cities (and their associated time zones) changing to reflect the political climate. Under German-occupation, France switched to Central European time where it was widely assumed that afterwards they would revert back so Patek Philippe continued to put London and Paris on the same time zone until the 1970s, making these watches highly collectible.

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Watching world time watches and their dials evolve with each new model provides us a literal reference point of the milestones of the history of the world -like each dial captured a geopolitical reality during the time period that the watch was launched. For as long as there has been time zones, State actors have altered and changed time zones for a variety of political or economic reasons and the watch dials often reflected these changes. That said, the World Time watches which captured my imagination the most were the ones made by Longines (then known as Agassiz) for the leaders of the Allied Powers in celebration of Victory in Europe Day (“VE Day”, May 8, 1945); commissioned by a group of prominent Swiss citizens, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin and Charles De Gaulle, to commemorate Victory in Europe .

Longines, then called Agassiz, produced world time watches commemorating Victory in Europe after the Nazis surrendered to Allied Powers. This one was for Winston Churchill.

It’s interesting to note that while the cloisonne enamel work of English hero St. George on the dial side is done fairly exquisitely, the engraving of the world map leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless, still reflective of the period.

World Time Watches then and now

Fascination for world timing watches have not dimmed even after the advent of widely available commercial air travel became a reality replacing imagination and daydreams. Decades on, Cottier’s mechanical principle remains relatively unchanged, with city names circling the periphery of the dial above an inner 24-hour ring that turns counterclockwise. The ring’s movement simultaneously coordinates the times in all the time zones, while the hands indicate the time in the place whose name is displayed at 12 o’clock or local time.

In 1953, Louis Cottier made an important improvement to his invention – ability to adjust the city disk via a secondary crown, this then allowed Patek Philippe to eventually patent a system in 1958 where the hour hand could be moved without affecting the regular progression of the minute hand. Refinements for user friendliness continued till 1999 when eventually crown was superseded by a pusher performed the adjustments for three functions – city disc, 24-hour ring and the hour hand.

The Patek Philippe Ref 2523 sported a secondary crown which allowed independent adjustment of the city ring. An improvement in user friendliness invented by Cottier.

 

Patek Philippe entrusted him with the development and fabrication of the greatest number of complicated watches, resulting in the invention and production the celebrated “dual time” wristwatch in 1954 featuring a single movement. This solved the problem of synchronizing the minute hand, a problem which existed in twin movement watches by other manufacturers. This Two Time Zone movement with two or three hands, developed in collaboration with Patek Philippe’s specialists, is amongst his most successful inventions. Finished in 1957, the prototype was patented by the firm in 1959 (no. 340191).

Cottier would certainly have been surprised to know that, after his death in 1966, his workshop was given to Geneva’s Musée d’Horlogerie et d’Emaillerie where it can still be seen today. Similar tributes were made in his home town of Carouge where a townsquare was renamed after him. And even if those salutary efforts didn’t exist, Louis Cottier’s classic design is still the standard architecture for world time watches.

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