In Memory of David M. Graifman

The Myriad Dialects of Time

by Carlos Perez

October 8, 2001

If anything could be called the universal language of horology, it must the round dial with concentric hour and minute hands pointing to a chapter ring demarked for twelve hours. It is a classic form, timeworn and comfortable, which a heritage reaching back to the sundials of antiquity. For most of us it is second nature, and anything else is a novelty not to be considered serious watchmaking. However there is a long lineage of connoisseurs dedicated to the many alternative dialects of time, who collect and support the artistry of those watchmakers and manufactures willing to make special pieces that can sing a different melody. While they express the same beat and measure of the standard units of time and are comprehensible to everyone they express it in a different way, one that becomes music only in certain ears. While generally treated as transient fashions most of these alternative forms have heritages reaching back hundreds of years, and are just as authentic if not as accepted. For the free spirits of mechanical horology the accepted standard is just a safe route of limited imagination, or the consensus reality dictated to us by the industry and society. Far be it from us to submit to any form of tyranny, so let us be defiant then, and take a small look into the larger world that lies beyond the shadow of the gnomon.

For those otherwise dedicated to the standard dial format, the regulator dial is the most accessible alternative. In its most characteristic form, the regulator dial has a subsidiary hour hand, a subsidiary seconds hand, and a central minutes hand placing most of the emphasis on reading the precise minute displayed. This dial format originates with English longcase regulator clocks, a special class of observatory-grade high precision clocks used for making astronomical observations, and used as master-clocks by clock and watch makers as a time standard that other clocks and watches could be adjusted by. In effect they were the chronometers of the clock world, a heritage that is especially fitting since the first regulator clocks were created by John Harrison in the 1720s. A byproduct of his quest for precision before beginning the development of marine timekeepers, his early regulator clocks achieved a claimed accuracy of +/-12 seconds per year. George Graham further developed the regulator clock into its essential form by the late 1740s, using his dead-beat escapement (1715), Harrison’s temperature-compensated gridiron pendulum (1725), and the first regulator dial.

The early regulator dial introduced by Graham had the familiar central minutes hand, a subsidiary dial for seconds at 12 o’clock, and digital hours displayed through a small crescent-shaped aperture below the central minute hand’s pinion. Production of regulator clocks was taken up by other English clockmakers in the 1750s, and the hour-aperture began to be replaced by a subsidiary hour dial by the last quarter of the 19th century, and had become the standard usage by about 1825. French clockmakers also took up production of regulator clocks in the 1750s, but they mostly retained a standard time dial. The regulator dial with subsidiary seconds at 12 o’clock and subsidiary hours at 6 o’clock was thus a characteristic feature of English regulators, used only infrequently by the clockmakers of other nations. Regulator-style dials were rarely used on pocket watches, but examples of pair-cased English pocket watches with regulator-style dials go back at least to the 1760s. These pocket watches usually inverted the placement of the subsidiary dials with the sub-seconds at 6 o’clock and sub-hours at 12 o’clock, to better follow the motion works layout used by watches.

The present revival of the form can probably be credited to Gerd-R. Lang of Chronoswiss, which first introduced regulator-dialed wristwatches in 1988, and which has made the regulator dial one of its signature styles. In translating the English regulator dial to the wristwatch platform, it was only natural that he chose to follow the original pocket watch adaptation since he based his regulator wristwatches on NOS Eincar ebauches which appear to be provided with direct subsidiary seconds at 6 o’clock. Conceptually the regulator format should not be a complication, as English regulator clocks were pure high-precision timekeepers with simplified motion works and no strike works. Since its re-introduction the style has been adopted by various brands, including an asymmetric interpretation by Breguet. The regulator dial has also inspired a number of derivative styles, including the off-center subsidiary time dials often used with modern dial-display tourbillon wristwatches, and semi-complicated watches like A. Lange & Sohne’s Lange 1, and most wristwatches designed and produced by Francois-Paul Journe.

Most digital displays used in mechanical clocks and watches work on the same principle, based on rotating discs which are printed or engraved with the numeric information. When viewed though a small aperture only one piece of information is visible at a single time in effect concealing the circle of time while larger apertures can be used to show the context of time’s progression. The former is the basis of the common date window which is standard on most of today’s wristwatches, and the latter was utilized by Graham for his regulators. His crescent-shaped aperture showed the present hour at center, with the past hour and coming hours visible at the lower corners of the aperture one could watch the hour disc turn slowly. The advent of the jumping digital hours display brought a smaller aperture which only shows the present hour, jumping instantly to the next hour at the precise moment that it begins, using a disc showing 1-12 or 1-24. Jumping-hours pocket watches enjoyed their first brief vogue in the 1820s and 30s, though they continued to be made in small numbers throughout the 19th century. Jumping digital minutes was paired with jumping hours in a small number of pocket watches during the last quarter of that century.

In the Art Deco period jumping-hours watches came into the spotlight once more, both in pocket and wristwatch forms. During the Roaring Twenties jumping-hours wristwatches were produced by eminent names like Cartier and Audemars Piguet, but the fashion declined with the Great Depression, and was definitively ended by World War 2. Preceding the advent of digital quartz, the 1970s introduced all-digital mechanical wristwatches with jumping hours, digital minutes, and digital seconds. The fourth and present revival is a product of the post-quartz renaissance, a natural part of the reintroduction of most past forms of the mechanical watch heritage. It is likely that the revival began in 1989 with the limited edition Breguet Saltarello Souscription (50) and Patek Philippe’s tonneau ref. 3969 (500). Since then they have grown ever more popular, produced by elite manufacturers and independent watchmakers, economy grade etablisseurs, and all points in between. We still find new offerings being introduced every year, including a special limited edition from Dubey & Schaldenbrand which was recently announced, and an upcoming design by Vincent Calabrese for Bell & Ross which should appear shortly.

Jumping-hours displays are often combined with other display variations like digital minutes, or the retrograde minutes hand featured on the Vacheron Constantin Saltarello shown above a combination which originated in the Art Deco period and which is also used by Chronoswiss for its Delphis, and forms the basis of most Gerald Genta brand wristwatches. Retrograde (or fly-back) subsidiary dials have been used to display day, date, hours, minutes, seconds, and Patek Philippe has even developed a retrograde flying-seconds hand. The origin of the retrograde hand goes back to the latter half of the 19th century with retrograde date displays on perpetual calendar pocket watches a usage continued by Patek Philippe’s Calibre 89 and perpetual calendar wristwatches. The real proliferation of retrograde displays began in the mid 1990s, apparently following Vacheron Constantin’s fabulous double-retrograde Mercator (shown at bottom) which was introduced in 1994. The further usage of multiple retrograde hands is exemplified by Roger Dubuis signature bi-retrograde day and date displays, which he uses on some of his perpetual calendar and chronograph wristwatches.

Of even greater antiquity than the regulator dial or the jumping-hours display is the family of wandering hour watches. In its earliest and most traditional form the wandering hours display comprises a half-circle crescent window at the top of the dial, with the upper edge marked with gradations and Arabic numerals for 60 minutes and the lower edge marked more simply with Roman numerals for quarter hours. Within the window there is a small digital hours aperture which travels the length of the window over the duration of an hour, in effect using the digital hours to indicate the present minute a perfect wedding of digital and analog displays. As one hour aperture reaches the end of the window at the 60 minute mark another enters the window at the 0 mark to display the next hour. It is a deceptively simple and elegant system, and it is literally as old as the combination of concentric hours and minutes hands to which we are so accustomed. Up until the 1670s, watches only had a central hour hand due to their limited performance. With the invention and rapid adoption of the balance spring, performance was upgraded to the degree that a more precise minutes displays became useful, leading to the usage of two alternative formats after about 1680: the wandering hour display, or concentric hours and minutes hands.

For the first 30 to 40 years of the balance spring era, wandering hour watches enjoyed their first period of popularity. They were ornate watches, heavily pierced and chased, with cases and dials of precious metal and/or enamel (example from 1705 shown left). In this they were the last contribution of the Baroque sensibility to horology. As fashion changed with the beginning of the Rococo period, concentric hours and minutes hands became the accepted universal standard. As the Rococo faded into a new Classicism, the wandering hours format was given a limited revival by French cabinotiers like Abraham Breguet. The wandering hour pocket watches of the first quarter of the 19th century were simpler and cleaner designs, but fundamentally the same as those of the century before. The quarter-hour scale was dispensed with, and the three wandering hour discs engraved with Roman numerals at four points were replaced by Arabic numerals mounted directly to the spokes of three four-armed satellites. The orbit of the elegantly simple planetary ring, and the epicyclic dance of hour numerals which surrounded it, remained hidden beneath a solid dial.

In the 1850s and 60s a fundamentally new form of wandering hour pocket watch was introduced with the addition of jumping-hours. Rather than just a small half-circle window, a central dial with a jumping-hour aperture rotated a full 360 degrees once per hour within a full-sized minutes chapter ring. Both forms of wandering hours display saw some use during the Art Deco period, as one would expect. The first modern experimentation with wandering hours was made by Audemars Piguet in 1989, which based its Star Wheel designs upon the earliest modes. The use of sapphire discs on the planetary ring (as shown above) allowed Audermars Piguet to dispense with the rotating intermediate dial with hour apertures used on 17th and 18th century wandering hour watches, while still presenting a clean and legible appearance. While some used the traditional covered dial with window, Audemars Piguet took the bold step of designing most Star Wheel models with open dials, revealing the elegant simplicity of the wandering hour works to the wearer for the first time. Since then Star Wheels have continued to be produced in limited editions and as unique pieces, including double-faced Star Wheel pocket watches with a wandering month display that points to date scale. The later jumping-hour form of the wandering hour pocket watch has been recreated by independent watchmaker Vincent Calabrese, as the basis for his Ludiques collection.

While we have ranged over a few hundred years of innovation, dormancy, and periodic rediscovery, in truth we have only skated over the tip of the iceberg. Whether as minor variations of these classical forms or totally novel creations, new dialects of time are continually developed by the leading edge of independent watchmakers and manufacturers. Yet for all of their creativity and artistry, every audacious watchmaking house leans upon the support of equally adventurous collectors and connoisseurs those who can stretch their own bounds, to see and think in different ways. Do you count yourself among them?

Recommended Reading

As I cannot go into this subject with the breadth or the technical depth that it deserves, I would like to recommend some further reading:

Audemars Piguet Star Wheel, Jubilee Edition by Dr. Thomas Mao

Chronoswiss Delphis by Dr. Walt Odets

Odd Watches by JJ Casalonga

Image Credits

Chronoswiss Regulator by Ed Hahn

Vacheron Constantin Saltarello by R. Choi

Audemars Piguet Star Wheel by Al Armstrong

Estienne Mainadie wandering hour pocket watch and Vacheron Constantin Mercator courtesy of Antiquorum

Copyright © Carlos A. Perez  2001

All Rights Reserved