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More than just a matter of time

The "World of Complication Watches" exhibition highlights the intricacies of the watchmaker's craft (picture: Musée de l'horlogerie) swissinfo.ch

Watches have never been solely about telling the time, and a fascinating exhibition devoted to the history of timepieces which do more than just denote the hour has opened at Geneva's Watchmaking and Enamelling museum.

This content was published on May 3, 2001 - 08:33

The "World of Complication Watches" offers a rare chance to see the intricacies of the watchmaker's craft, and the way the watch has evolved through the ages, using the latest knowledge from astronomy, mathematics and precision engineering.

The 100 watches in the exhibition range from 16th century table clocks to present day diving watches. Some are veritable works of art, others mere curiosities.

They were brought together by Dominique Fléchon, historian for the International Committee of Quality Watchmaking (CIHH), for Geneva's prestigious International Watchmaking Fair.

It was decided to keep the exhibition together and move it to the watchmaking museum so that the public could see it free of charge.

"We want to reach a large number of people, not just 1000 collectors," Fléchon told swissinfo.

"These watches were carefully chosen to show the evolution of watches. They are not only luxurious and beautiful. They also respond to a need," he added.

Many of the rare pieces on display belong to the private collections of some of the world's leading brands: Cartier, Baume et Mercier, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet and Girard Perregaux.

There are also items from two other Swiss museums: the International Watchmaking Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds and the Château des Monts museum in Le Lôcle.

The exhibition has three main themes: dials and time, astronomy and calendars, and useful functions associated with modern times.

The watches provide a fascinating insight into the technical developments and social mores of their times. The "tact" watches of the 18th century were developed in response to the fact that it was considered the height of bad manners to look at one's watch in company. Instead, a small needle pricked the hand of the wearer to indicate the time.

The development of the striking mechanism - with some watches sounding every five minutes - was crucial before the advent of artificial lighting.

In the 19th century, clocks with 24-hour dials were developed, largely to respond to the expansion of the railways and the introduction of regular timetables. The boom in rail and air travel prompted the invention of watches with two dials for different time zones.

The oldest pieces in the collection are renaissance table clocks, which reflected society's fascination with astronomy. They have astrolabes, indicating the position of the moon, the date, the day of the week and the month. Yet, with regard to the time, they only show the hour - the watchmaker had not yet devised a way of showing the minutes and seconds.

In more recent times, watches have been developed to meet the requirements of the military and of sports such as yachting and diving. There are watches which measure speed, distance, heartbeats and even breathing rates.

"Watchmakers like to show how clever they are," said Fabienne Xavière Sturm, curator of the museum. "They are obsessed with innovation. It's also important for them to continually improve, to be better than before."

The exhibition is a rarity since many of the major quality watchmaking firms have created their own private museums, making it increasingly difficult for public museums to acquire important pieces at auction.

Prohibitively high insurance costs also explain why there are no Breguet or Patek Philippe pieces in the exhibition.

by Roy Probert

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