LONDON – One of the many difficulties sailors faced before modern times was finding a way to keep the time accurate at sea. Relying on the moon and stars was not enough.
Determining the height of the Pole Star allowed ship captains to determine latitude, but longitude could only be calculated by the difference between the ship’s time and the time at the home port. Precision was almost impossible without a timepiece unaffected by the endless movement of the ship.
Enter the 18th century chronometer, which inspired the pocket watch and has remained a part of nautical folklore. Its traditional designs and operating tools continue to inspire watch designers.
“Navigation has so much to do with astronomy and time, and precision back then was very important and very difficult to master,” said Patrik P. Hoffmann, CEO of Ulysse Nardin, a family watchmaker founded in 1846 and based in Le Locle, Switzerland.
“In the last five or six years, consumers have become more interested in the history of watch brands and, in our case, the mechanical history of navigation,” added Hoffmann. “The challenge for us all along was how to take a design from any type of wall clock and fit it into a wristwatch.”
During the early years of European expeditions, the traditional, often clumsy, clocks of ships used weighted chains to provide power and swinging pendulums to ensure accuracy. These were both almost canceled by a rocking ship. The chronometer, on the other hand, used springs for both power and regulation of that power. They weren’t quite accurate, at least not enough to keep time constant during a journey that could last for weeks or months.
In 1761, John Harrison’s H4 chronometer was used on a long journey from Portsmouth, England, to Jamaica, and gave an almost accurate time. Abandoning attempts to create a clock capable of compensating for the movement of the ship, Mr Harrison had created a spring-loaded, regulated timepiece, or some sort of oversized pocket watch.
Ulysse Nardin designers use this concept not only to design their watches on the inside but also for the way time is presented on the outside.
Marine chronometers have been part of the identity of the company since its inception. The marine chronometer, priced at around 30,000 Swiss francs, or $ 34,000, has gained followers among those interested in the history of navigation and the mapping of the sky.
In the 1990s, the company’s Planetarium watch trilogy tracked and displayed the movement of the planets, sun and moon with elegant simplicity (its Astrolabium Galileo Galilei displays local and solar time, orbits and eclipses of the sun and moon, and the positions of several large stars). The Blue Seal line features a blue dial with a seal motif, and there is a series on the theme of the three Columbus ships.
“When you look at our collection, we use a lot of blue dials, similar to the ocean and the sky,” Mr. Hoffmann said. “That’s why we always have an anchor point in our company logo. Over 50 percent of our watches are influenced by boating.
The Hamilton Watch Company, founded in 1892 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was originally known for its precision pocket watches used to time trains across the United States. Hamilton became the official supplier of watches to the United States Army at the start of World War I and perfected the wristwatch for the United States Air Force at the dawn of aviation. During World Wars I and II, the United States Navy relied on Hamilton for their marine chronometers.
“We are fortunate to celebrate this very rich history, but we don’t want to be nostalgic and just copy what we have done in the past,” said Sylvain Dolla, Managing Director of Hamilton, now based in Biel, Switzerland. “For example, most of our watches are mechanical, but the technology has evolved. The technical principle remains similar but now we have better precision. The beauty of the watch industry is that it is the same basic technical process.
In 2012, Hamilton released a limited edition commemorative watch, the Khaki Navy Pioneer, priced at around $ 3,000. The model celebrated the 120th anniversary of the brand and its Khaki line, which it introduced during WWII. After the limited edition watch quickly sold out, it became unlimited.
“What we did for our 120th anniversary in 2012 was redevelop a new family based on the marine chronometer that we developed over 100 years ago,” Mr. Dolla said. “It turned out to be probably the most important development of the past 10 years. 15 months later, the Khaki Navy Pioneer is one of our top five selling watches.
The watch is reminiscent of Hamilton’s marine chronometers, with its knurled steel bezel (the ring that wraps around the watch face), its velvet-finished silver dial with Arabic numerals and its ocean blue hands. The case comes in a replica rubberwood case, a reduced homage to classic marine chronometer cases.
Inside, the watch is housed in a holder with thumbwheel gimbals, much like those that rode in the captain’s quarters on Navy destroyers during WWII. At sea, these gimbals would have ensured that the chronometer remained level even in the highest swells.
At Ulysse Nardin, similar chronometers have inspired watch designers.
“Our marine chronometer watch is a replica of these bridge chronometers,” said Mr. Hoffmann, the managing director. “The shape of the case, the design of the index, the hands, the power reserve indication, the small second hand at 6 o’clock, it’s the same in our wristwatches.