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Pioneers of Time

Ahead of a slew of anniversaries, Private Edition looks back at the pioneers who laid the groundwork for this season’s stand-out timepieces.

This year, heritage comes to the fore as Piaget celebrates its 150th anniversary, Bulgari and Breitling their 140th and Seiko its centenary. It’s no surprise then that the pioneers behind the Manufactures are front of mind.

Rolex, Tudor and Hans Wilsdorf
Hans Wilsdorf was orphaned at the age of 12, and raised by uncles who continued his parents’ tradition of travelling widely at every opportunity they could. It instilled in the young boy a love of adventure, something he was able to indulge later in life, and marks the foundation of Rolex’s contemporary focus on sport and spirit. A savvy marketer as well as engineer and craftsman, the young Wilsdorf trained with the best in Switzerland and innovated whenever he could. As an originator of watch movements, he secured his company’s future early on and by the time World War II started, Rolex was firmly established as an important watchmaker and manufacturer of movements. The essentials taken care of, he set about the important business of marketing and PR, aligning his watches with various famous races, causes and initiatives (he famously replaced the confiscated watches of RAF prisoners of war after they returned home). Then, in 1946, he established Tudor, creating quality entry-level watches for the less well-heeled. His reasoning was sound: buyers would likely progress to a Rolex later in life.


Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Three years after Wilsdorf’s death in 1960, Rolex launched its first Cosmograph Daytona to coincide with its new role as the official timekeeper for the famous Florida race. Since then, there have been three generations of the watch, many featured in iconic moments, notably Paul Newman’s epic win in 1995. The latest generation features subtle differences in a few key areas. Rolex’s movement has been upgraded for starters, or rather tweaked – don’t fix what ain’t broke – and both case and bezel saw changes. The case is thinner and the dial has been refined; the subdial rings are thinner and the hour markers are smaller. It’s altogether a cleaner, more balanced piece for a new era.


At sister brand Tudor, the news is of the recently opened, wholly dedicated manufacturing plant in Le Locle, Switzerland. Equally noteworthy is the latest Black Bay, Tudor’s award-winning, best-selling timepiece that is now prettier and slimmer, boasting top-tier credentials: it has been master-chronometer-certified by METAS, no mean feat.

Omega and Louis Brandt
The world has Louis Brandt to thank for the minute repeating function; in 1892 the Neuchâtel watchmaker, together with Audemars Piguet, produced the first wristwatch featuring the now-ubiquitous movement. Brandt’s 1848 company, which became Omega in 1903, sailed a stormy sea for most of its life, but in 1985 a rethink on product and strategy saw it flourish. In 1995 the canny association with James Bond rocketed the brand to the top of must-have lists across the watch world.


The Speedmaster Professional Dark Side of the Moon For 2024 the iconic Speedmaster gets a historic spin: the much-loved watch range welcomes the Professional Dark Side of the Moon, a piece that pays homage to the first successful orbit of the moon in 1968 ahead of the landing a year later. Apollo 8’s astronauts were kitted out with Speedmasters and Omega’s contemporary piece references various aspects of that trip. NASA’s Saturn V rocket is depicted in the chronograph’s small-seconds hand and the reverse of the watch alludes to the dark side of the moon. And look out for the engraving ‘We’ll see you on the other side’, Jim Lovell’s slightly worrying words before the craft disappeared behind the moon, out of visual and radio contact.

Panerai and Giovanni Panerai
Panerai’s history distils to the legend of the three Gs; Giovanni who opened the family’s first shop on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence in 1850, and son and grandson Giuseppe and Guido, who grew the business by specialising in tough, precision military watches. Chief among them was the legendary Radiomir, which takes its name from the luminescent substance used to ensure it was legible in the dark (and deep underwater). Its movement was by Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf being a good friend of the Panerai family.


Radiomir Quaranta Goldtech 40mm The successor of those early timepieces is the Quaranta, a contemporary interpretation of the original. That means it’s slimmer; at 40mm smaller than the company’s traditional pieces and at just 10.15mm thick, it’s the thinnest in the Panerai range. This pared-back, dressier, simpler approach echoes a wider Panerai trend as the market for giant show watches is tailing off, even in China and the Middle East. Goldtech then is an everyman watch, good for everyday use. The red hue comes from the platinum-copper mix and the signature sandwich dial is now cleaner, featuring numerals only at 12 and six o’clock. A simple date window is at three o’clock and a small seconds hand is set at nine. Finally, it’s also waterproof to 50 metres, 20 more than is typical for a Panerai. Clearly the brand is accenting its distinguished naval history.

Patek Phillippe and Antoni Patek and Adrien Philippe
Antoni Patek’s famed commitment to excellence was matched only by his dogged determination for a just world. The Polish refugee, forced to flee his homeland and then France, finally settled in Switzerland, becoming both watchmaker and godfather of the diaspora. His 1845 collaboration with master technician Adrien Philippe sealed the company’s legacy as a maker of only the finest wristwatches.


Nautilus Haute Joaillerie Fast forward 179 years and Patek Philippe’s latest triumph is a gem-setting masterstroke, the Haute Joaillerie collection of seven jewelled pieces. The women’s Nautilus collection (five pieces) features what might be the most beautiful watch on the market at the moment, the ruby encrusted 7118/1452G. Set on a white-gold dial, it’s paved with 1500 brilliant-cut 6.53 carat diamonds and 876 6.58 carat rubies. Nautilus’s signature wave motif is set in a row of its own brilliant-cut diamonds. The company’s self-winding 26-330 S caliber is visible through a transparent sapphire case-back and the white gold bracelet is paved with the same rubies and diamonds. That bracelet features the patented Patek Philippe fold-over clasp.

Bulgari and Sotirios Voulgaris
Like Louis-François Cartier, Greek silversmith Sotirios Voulgaris began his career as a creator of jewellery, moving to Rome at the age of 24 to improve his skills and grow his client base. His bold, Byzantine-inspired pieces found favour among the new elite and the company grew steadily. Again, like Cartier, it wasn’t until much later that watches featured in Bulgari’s product line; the Serpenti in 1947, the Roma in 1976 and the Bulgari Bulgari in 1977, a breakthrough watch that heralded the formation of Bulgari Watch, headquartered in Switzerland. Growth was stellar through the late 20th century, culminating in the takeover of master watchmakers Daniel Roth and Gerald Genta in 2000. It was to lead to the introduction of Bulgari Watch’s most popular piece, the Octo Finissimo.


Bulgari Yellow Gold Octo Finissimo ‘Thin’ has been an Octo Finissimo byword since its inception in 2014 – the thinnest automatic watch with the thinnest minute repeater. Also the thinnest tourbillon and the thinnest chronograph. It was a Gérald Genta design revisited by Bulgari craftsmen, and the task was to make a watch that could represent a new Bulgari for a new century, while staying true to the company’s historically intrepid design sense. And now, for 2024, Bulgari has finally announced the Yellow Gold Octo Finissimo, which, against a deep blue sunray-finished lacquered dial, is the absolute business. The diameter is Octo’s traditional 40mm and the slimness is just 6.4mm. There’s a transparent caseback revealing the in-house BVL 138 caliber, which itself is astonishingly slim at just 2.23mm. Additionally, Bulgari recently announced the release of the Tuscan Copper dial model, previously restricted to the US market. Clearly it’s a great time to own a Bulgari watch.

Seiko and Kintarō Hattori
Kintarō Hattori started his own Tokyo watch shop at the age of 21, initially trading in Swiss pieces, then making his own, the first named the Laurel. In 1924 he named his fledgling company Seiko and set about accumulating skills and the latest equipment from Europe. His flair and eye for a good opportunity proved lucrative indeed. Innovation and agility became key pillars, a grand design that was ultimately to lead to a revolution in watchmaking when, in 1969, it launched the first quartz wristwatch, the Astron. The ‘quartz crisis’ marked a water-shed moment – electronics and batteries, rather than mechanical movements took the world by storm and caused panic in Switzerland, shuttering august watch companies and necessitating a complete rethink on strategy. It is still a key tension in the world of horology. Seiko meanwhile rode the wave and prevailed, despite the negative publicity growing ever stronger. In 2017 it reinvigorated its Grand Seiko sub-brand as a true luxury offering, competing directly with the best of the Swiss. It reaffirmed its adherence to 11 key design elements, including a flat dial and a two-dimensional surface.

grand seiko

Grand Seiko Red Dragon This year’s Red Dragon watch
celebrates the Year of the Dragon and features a three-dimensional halo pattern as well as a gold seconds hand and Grand Seiko logo. And while 2024’s limited edition features a deep burgundy dial, the other classic elements prevail: a half-recessed crown, a reverse slanted bezel wall and multifaceted hour and minute hands.

Cartier and Louis-François Cartier
Like Rolex’s Hans Wilsdorf, Louis-François Cartier was orphaned before his teenage years, and like the Bavarian, learnt his watchmaking skills at the hands of an established expert, in his case Adolphe Picard. Still, it wasn’t until Louis-François’s son, Alfred, joined the company that watchmaking became integral to the business. Cartier’s emphasis until then had been on jewellery, servicing the Third Napoleonic Court. The company’s growth was stellar, fuelled by an increasingly affluent Europe. By the turn of the last century, Cartier’s clients included kings, queens and titled adventurers, one of whom was the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. Cartier’s grandson, Louis, struck up a relationship with the adventurer that was to greatly influence the growth of wristwatches during the 1900s.


Cartier Santos Dumont In 1906, Santos-Dumont wore a curious object on his wrist during and after a flight – a large, square dial with leather straps. He had earlier complained to Cartier about the difficulty of using a fob watch while flying and Cartier had fashioned a men’s wristwatch for him, until then regarded as women’s apparel. The connection with the swashbuckling aviator convinced the trendsetters that men’s wristwatches were fashionable and Cartier’s Santos Dumont was a big hit. Until it wasn’t; the fashion shifted to round wristwatches and Cartier withdrew it before World War II, only reviving it again in 1978 when the trend shifted once again.

The current chronograph Santos Dumont retains all the masculinity of the original. There’s that classic large square shape as well as the large crown and those slim, elongated Roman numerals. Most notable, though, is the decision to move away from the Piaget-sourced movement and opt instead for a quartz approach. This makes the Santos Dumont excellent value and largely stress-free: it only needs a battery change every six years.

by Peter Frost


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