From World war I production beginnings to how the Swatch Concept saved the Swiss watchmaking industry. A story of innovative casing designs, and how the watchmaking companies paid considerable attention to their continuous improvement by using new materials resistant to shock, water, pressure changes, and in particular improving watch movement with introduction of new functions, shock protection, new modes of movements, winding and regulations. The largest investments, which resulted in technical innovations, were generally related to military uses, and those achievements were later used for other purposes...

Omega (1914 – 1915) by OmegaThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

World War I – Production Beginning

Even though archival records about wristwatches exist in history as early as the 16th century, or more precisely timepieces fixed on a bracelet, the first large quantity of this type of timepiece – two thousand watches – was produced in 1880 by the Swiss company Girard – Perregaux and delivered to Emperor Wilhelm II for his naval officers.The wider use of wristwatches came in World War I. The first wristwatches were designed for soldiers and they often had a protective grille over the glass, in order to avoid damage from shrapnel or mud. Hands of the watch and dials were coated with illuminating substance to make them visible in the dark. In the casing, which resembled that of a pocket watch, were wire loops on which strap was attached. The lid was fastened with a hinge and could be opened by unhinging it. In addition to soldiers on the ground, wristwatches were extremely helpful for pilots who used them to calculate the amount of consumed or respectively remaining fuel. Watches had long straps so they could be worn over the sleeve, and a large protruding crown that allowed for winding without removing the gloves.

Bulova Accutron (1968) by BulovaThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Technical Innovations

In addition to casing design, watchmaking companies paid considerable attention to their continuous improvement by using new materials resistant to shock, water, pressure changes, and in particular improving watch movement with introduction of new functions, shock protection, new modes of movements, winding and regulations. These were continuous processes which intensified by the end of World War II. The largest investments, which resulted in technical innovations, were generally related to military uses, and those achievements were used later on in other purposes.

Jean Richard Jean Richard (1945 – 1950) by Jean RichardThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Today, the majority of mechanical wristwatches are produced with self-winding movement, while only a small number of models retained manual winding. Automatic winding takes precedence over manual: owner does not need to think about winding his watch, as it winds by using kinetic energy generated by movement of user’s arm.
Production of first wristwatches with self-winding system began in 1922. They were constructed by the English watchmaker John Harwood.
Initially the weight did not turn the full circle, but around 180 degrees, and was using the motion of the rotor only in one directon which was not enough to wind the spring for 24 hours of movement's work. Such construction is known today as hammer or bumper.
In 1930, Rolex improved Harwood’s invention by constructing a rotor which turned 360 degrees around its central axis and could wind up the spring so it has reserve power for 35 hours of movement's work. By the 1960s, automatic winding became a standard in quality mechanical watches.

Hamilton electric : wristwatch (after 1961) by HamiltonThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

The dream of many, about the watch that does not need to be wound or worn every day to be self-wound, came through in 1957 when American company Hamilton from Lancaster, Pennsylvania announced at a press conference that it had developed the first electric wristwatch powered by battery. The wristwatch that along with an innovative solution for mechanism had an equally inventive asymmetric casing designed by the industrial designer Richard Arbib, was an immediate hit and it seemed to have a bright future. However, new and perfected designs soon followed and production of Hamilton’s electric watch stopped in 1969.

Bulova Accutron (1968) by BulovaThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Bulova Accutron launched in 1960 and developed by an electronics engineer Max Hetzel is the first electronic wristwatch. The number of moving parts was reduced from 27 to 12, and the total number of parts, out of 130 which made a typical automatic wristwatch, came to 27. Moreover, it was guaranteed to be accurate to a minute per month, which was significantly less than even chronometrically certified mechanical watches. Watch used battery for movement, transistor was used as an impulse device and a tuning fork as the oscillator made from Elinvar which vibrated at a frequency of 360 vibrations per second. By 1977 when production stopped, more than 4 million Accutron watches were sold.

Seiko (c. 1975) by SeikoThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Serious blow to the Swiss watchmaking industry was struck in 1969 when Seiko introduced the first quartz wristwatch to the Tokyo market named 35 SQ Astron, in limited edition of 100 items at a price than equaled the price of a smaller Japanese car.
Piezoelectric properties of quartz crystals were already discovered by Jacques and Pierre Curie in 1880. Electrically excited quartz crystal vibrates at frequency of 32.768 oscillations per second.
First prototypes of electronic quartz wristwatch were made in the CEH research lab (Centre Electronique Horologer) in Neuchâtel.
Despite the fact that the prototype of quartz wristwatch was developed in Switzerland, commercial production began two years later in a faraway Japan. Seiko Astron had a crystal quartz oscillator, hybrid integrated circuit and a miniature motor which ran the dial. Its departure from exact time was only a minute a year. Modern quartz mechanisms are produced in vast quantities and the least expensive watches regularly have a quartz mechanism.

Digital wristwatch (1970s)The Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Digital Time Display

When one mentions the term digital watch, many of us immediately think of electronic watch that run on battery, use quartz crystals as oscillators, and on which time can be read on LED (light emitting diode), or LCD (liquid-crystal display) display. However, the precise definition of a digital watch is that it “shows time through numbers and not through dial and hands”.

Elly Watch (c. 1930) by Elly Watch Co. and Ébauches Trust (Anton Schild)The Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

What is a jump hour watch? While standard watches tell time by hands rotating over a dial with hour and minute markings, jump hour watches show time through windows with numbers. The numbers are located on movable discs or tapes moved by the mechanism. It should be noted, as the title jump hour itself implies, hour markings written on the edge of the rotating circle jump in the window; while the minute, and eventually second, move continuously. The hour disc moves continuously as well, however, just before the full hour, one spring pushes on the actuating triangular lever which jumps in a space between two cogs which causes sudden turn of certain disc part on which the number is marked.
According to available data, the first wristwatch with digital time display is attributed to prestigious watch making company Audemars Piguet which launched such watch in 1921. It is interesting that the trend for jump hour watches repeats every forty years – twenties and thirties, then in the seventies of the previous century, and finally today.

Rotary (1975 – 1980) by Rotary and Hughes Aircraft Co.The Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

When we talk about the digital display or respectively digital display of time, many of us immediately think of electronic, or quartz watches. What actually happened that with the advent of quartz watches as rule analog displays were replaced by digital ones? That kind of display allows for various functions that a timepiece might have, without burdening the dial with a mass of numbers, marks, dots, hands… By pressing the buttons, one activates the optional stopwatch, alarm, time in another time zone, day of the week, date. During the eighties, due to innumerable possibilities of digital technology, one could play a variety of games on a watch, and everybody’s favorite option was a calculator.
The first electronic watches had LED display. Its drawback was the large battery consumption; therefore the LED light was turned on only by pressing the button located on the casing side. On the other hand, it meant that exact time could not be read just by looking at the watch, but it required the other hand to push the button. Due to these shortcomings, it was quickly replaced by more perfected LCD (Liquid-crystal) display which significantly reduces battery consumption, and which enabled the reading of data on the display constantly, not just by pressing the button.

Omega Flightmaster (1970) by OmegaThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Chronographs are watches with basic two hands dial – hour and minute; and central independent second hand dial that shows time on a special scale with fine division. It can be started, stopped, and returned to zero position by successive pressure on the stem. Early chronographs usually had only one button, while later had two: first one starts and stops the second dial, while the other returns it to zero position. Contemporary chronographs often have moveable bezels as tachymeters for rapid calculations of speed or distance.
Chronographs have various uses that are marked on the dial and the outer rotating bezel. Such watches are used in industry as a standard, in sports, car racing, aviation, army (artillery), submarine maneuvering, space programs…
On how important chronographs can be, we can see in the example of Omega Speedmaster. Besides being the first watch on the moon, it had extremely important role in Apollo 13 mission in April 1970 that nearly ended in tragedy because of the explosion of an oxygen tank. Precision and options of Speedmaster enabled the achievement of the right trajectory and return to Earth, thus saving the crew of a spaceship.

Rado Alarm Rado Alarm (1954 – 1957/8) by Rado and A. Schild S.A.The Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Early on, hand-made wristwatches were made with an alarm function. Already in 1912/14, the Swiss company Eterna made a watch with that type of mechanism. Movements for watch and alarm sometimes come from two separate springs, and sometimes from one. In the latter situation, of course, the striking mechanism significantly shortens the time between two windings. For instance, if a fully wound spring allows for continuous rotation for a period of 56 hours, 22 seconds of alarm ringing shortens that period to only 38 hours.
Alarm wristwatches generally have two crowns; one for winding the movement and adjusting the hour and minute hand, the other for winding and setting the alarm. The ringing can be turned off by pulling or stamping the crown or stem.

Puma (1980 – 1990) by Puma and Jepic corp.The Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Diver’s watches are considered to be those watches that are water resistant to at least 10 atmospheres (100 m), mostly 20 – 30 atm (200 – 300 m). The first water resistant watch was made in 1926 by Rolex named Oyster. A year later the English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze tried to swim the English Channel wearing that watch which remained sealed and displayed exact time after 10 hours in cold water.

Besides being water resistant, diving watches must meet some standards: a bezel around the dial marking at least every 5 minutes of elapsed time and mark for specific minute marking, clear minute marks, and visibility at a distance of 25 cm in total darkness. They must be resistant to magnetism, shock, salt water.

To ensure water resistance, screw-in crown is also very important; it is often placed in position of 4, 8, or 9 hours so not to interfere with the movements of palm going backwards. Protective glass should be resistant to pressure – acrylic, sapphire…, rubber strap, silicone, steel long enough to be attached to a diving suit, and a number of characteristics that diving watch must meet in greater or lesser extent, depending on whether we are dealing with amateur or professional diving.

Perestrojka (c. 1988) by Vostok Watch Factory (Chistopol Watch Factory)The Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Watches Behind the Iron Curtain

Wristwatches made in the Soviet Union only recently became popular with fans and watch collectors. It should be mentioned that the Soviet watches were typically made of high quality materials, were solid, reliable and often enough interestingly designed. They lack a generally soft-touch finishing, and thoughtful design and marketing ideas that contribute significantly to the demand of the Swiss watches. It was not until the Gorbachev era that changes took place, marking significant anniversaries and events in recent Russian history on the dial. National pride was reflected in images and descriptions on the dials which were in general in the sixties and the seventies of the last century unadorned, functional, and unburdened with Western exempt attributes.

Raketa (1992) by Petrodworzowy Chasovoy ZavodThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Interestingly, most of the so-called Russian watches are known to us by their brand names and not by the factories where they were produced. Who has ever heard of the First or Second Moscow Watch Factory, St. Petersburg watch factory or one from Chistopol? Raketa, Vostok, Slava, Poljot are names that are much closer to us. Interestingly, the two most famous brands – Poljot and Raketa – were made in honor of the first space flight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961.

Bracelet watch Wyler Bracelet watch Wyler (1940s – 1950s) by Wyler and Fabrique de Horlogerie FontainemelonThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Ladies' Watches

Watches attached to bracelets were made sporadically since the 16th century, as evidenced by the frequently quoted archival information that such a watch was given to England’s Queen Elizabeth I by Robert Dudley in 1571. So in fact, women were the first to wear wristwatches. Although the wristlets, the early 20th century somewhat disdainful term for wristwatches, were considered “effeminate”, already in 1905 Omega proposed wristwatches for both men and women. When it comes to the watches intended for fairer sex, we can say that their design depends primarily on fashion of the period in which they were produced. Since they are smaller than the watches intended for men, their mechanisms are smaller, and therefore generally have no additional functions such as chronograph, alarm, or very often date. What can we say of contemporary women’s watches? They are mostly oversized models, very versatile in design and decoration which may vary from one type of op-art to floral motifs, and there are frequent applications of Swarovski crystals or similar glass beads. While the future of men’s wristwatches, at least for now, is ensured by the fact that they have become a matter of prestige, type of investment and a status symbol, watch manufacturers for the fairer sex should design it as a desirable and must have fashion accessory.

Swatch Polar Ice (1992) by SwatchThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Swatch Concept

In the early sixties, the Swiss watchmaking industry had a share of sales of around 40% on the world market, and the demand for Swiss watches greatly exceeded supply. It so happened that in 1969 Japanese company Seiko launched the first quartz wristwatch, resulting in demand for mechanical watches to plummet overnight. ETA from Gretchen was given the task to develop production of a cheaper watch under a code name Delirium vulgare. In 1981, the name Swatch is accepted.  

Swatch Chronograph Fury (1994) by SwatchThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

After being introduced to the public in March 1983, in less than eight full years Swatch was sold in 75,000,000 items, which became an unrecorded success in watchmaking industry. The result presented unprecedented technical innovation, aesthetic creativity and marketing breakthrough.

After being introduced to the public in March 1983, in less than eight full years Swatch was sold in 75,000,000 items, which became an unrecorded success in watchmaking industry. The result presented unprecedented technical innovation, aesthetic creativity and marketing breakthrough.

Pop Swatch Countdown (1991) by SwatchThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Every year, Swatch produces around 140 new models, unique and yet still based on the same type of watch. They are designed in Milan, where designers are inspired by the latest fashion trends and cultural atmosphere. In the promotion of the product, marketing plays an important role – celebrities as spokespersons for the brand, unconventional launchings of new models and countless puns with the aim of survival in a merciless world market that day after day poses new challenges and competitions.

Akteo Tennis (c. 2000) by AkteoThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb


AKTEO is a French watchmaking company from Besançon, a city near the Swiss border whose important watch making industry had fallen victim to the Asian quartz expansion in the seventies. Attempts to return at least part of the lost watchmaker cake followed in the early nineties when French designer Jean–Christophe Mareschal introduced more than a hundred motives in a series called Taboo – Taboo on topic of Professions, hobbies and passions. Computer technology made it possible to cut the little details and enable their coloring. Some of the professions that have been places on the dials have been a hairdresser, carpenter, dentist, designer, lawyer; each represented with utensils and tools necessary to perform certain activities. These interesting and imaginative objects were not mere decoration, or a pun, but they also had the function of being hands of the watch. Akteo Design J. C. Mareschal was registered in 1997 at the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Akteo Cinema Clap (c. 2000) by AkteoThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

The Akteo company has been partner of important cultural events such as Cannes Film Festival and various music festivals, launching for each occasion original models in limited edition. Akteo watches could be found in the collections of Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, in MoMA in New York and San Francisco, in Japan - Museum of Modern Art, Saitama and Pola Museum of Art, Hakone, and, finally in the Museum of Arts and Crafts, Zagreb.

Guitare Seche (c. 2000) by AkteoThe Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb

Today Akteo has more than 300 models divided into several thematic sections – Art, Life's Sensations, Professions, Sports, Nature, Civilization, Time. When marketing their products it is always stressed that they are French made, made of stainless steel or titanium, dial protected with mineral glass, equipped with quality quartz movement, water resistant to 50 m depth and that they have two year's warranty. Nevertheless, it must be mentioned that watches are not entirely made in France– they have Swiss movements; most often Ronda calibers, with some exceptions (e.g. ISA in the ladies watch cat. no. 10).

Credits: Story

Texts and research: Vesna Lovrić Plantić

Exhibit development, metadata preparation, coordination: Petra Milovac

Photographer: Vedran Benović

IT support: Zoran Svrtan

Texts are adapted from the catalogue "A Century of the Wristwatch" of a temporary exhibition of wristwathces held at the Museum of Arts and Crafts in 2014.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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