Witness the parade of inventors

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 September, 2013, 5:18pm

The Mastery of Time, a special exhibit at Watches&Wonders, draws its inspiration from the book of the same name by historian Dominique Fléchon.

Mounting such an impressive display gives an insight into what Watches&Wonders is all about. According to Fabienne Lupo, chairwoman and managing director of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, Watches&Wonders is not a business commercial event. "It is not to sell watches," she says. "It is to explain, to educate, to show the know-how, the craftsmanship we want to show; we want people to touch and feel."

The Mastery of Time is one facet of a glittering event that highlights the origins and culture of watchmaking as much as its highly finished products. When guests come to Watches&Wonders "they will have a different perspective", she says. "They will know about quality and history."

How we measure time is a fascinating study, and The Mastery of Time uses a collection of 100 artefacts and historically significant timepieces to lead visitors through the history of timekeeping. This journey starts with the stars and sun - the original timekeepers - through many technical and artistic achievements to arrive at today's highly sophisticated timekeeping devices.

How did we move from ancient astronomy to the modern atomic clock? Through ingenuity and innovation, as the display illustrates. The history of horology is a progression of brilliant inventions, each responding to the increasing complexity of society and the growing need for accuracy in timekeeping.

The exhibition moves from the sundial, shadow clock and water clock of earlier civilisations to the astrolabe. In the 1300s came the first form of the escapement, an innovation which began the evolution of watches as we now know them. The 16th century brought springs, another vital element which allowed for the miniaturisation of timepieces. This changed the horological world, with the creation of portable clocks and, in a logical progression, watches which were worn as pendants.

The iconic Swiss brands can thank that great thinker and scientist Galileo Galilei for his pendulum escapement, which was the beginning of mechanical timekeeping. Until the pendulum, a watch was thought to be functioning well if it lost 15 minutes a day. The pendulum shaved that to 15 seconds or less.

The Mastery of Time shows how the invention of the sprung balance helped navigators determine longitude, the great issue of the 17th century. The sprung balance is still in use today. The international efforts to solve the longitude problem also led to the term "chronometer", which today is synonymous with precision watches.

The history of watchmaking is a parade of inventors, each making an important contribution. In the late 18th century, Abraham-Louis Breguet created the perpetual self-winding watch, the perpetual calendar and the tourbillon. In the early 19th century, Nicolas Rieussec designed his chronograph for horse racing, but it proved to have applications in medicine, warfare and engineering.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, the wristwatch was finally born and, as the century progressed, ingenious thinking allowed timekeeping to go underwater, into the air, onto the sports field and even into space.

Electromechanical and quartz watches seemed likely to push the mechanical watch to the brink of extinction - but it just hasn't happened.

As The Mastery of Time shows, and indeed Watches&Wonders shows, the mechanical watch has an enduring fascination for discerning wearers.

Prestige watchmakers continue to invent and innovate, continually surprising and impressing with advances in design and technology.