Around the world in eight watches: From London to Tokyo, here are the timepieces that define the world of horology

 
Alex Doak
Source: NASA

A luxury watch may be painstakingly crafted deep in the folds of the Swiss Jura Mountains, but it doesn’t mean the industry shies from a world perspective. Allow us to be your Jean Passepartout, as we embark on a voyage of horology.

LONDON

Bremont Airco Mach 2
Once John Harrison had cracked the ‘longitude’ conundrum in the 18th century, developing an accurate-enough timekeeper by which to navigate on long-distance voyages, London boomed as the world’s centre of so-called ‘chronometer’ production. Go to Holborn’s Red Lion Square and admire Harrison’s blue plaque, or gaze upon all four of his exquisitely restored clocks at the Greenwich Observatory. Britannia didn’t rule the waves forever though, and the Swiss soon overtook England on the watchmaking front. This doesn’t mean London should remain down and out – plucky Brit brand Bremont has gained a reputation for quality and innovation in its 10 short years, establishing a vast atelier in Henley and engineering components in its own facility in Silverstone. This latest aviator watch is inspired by Britain’s other noble manufacturing heritage, aircraft, specifically the titular Aircraft Manufacturing Company, based in north London in the early 20th century.£3,295, bremont.com

BERLIN

Nomos Glashütte Metro Datum GangReserve
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the tiny East German village of Glashütte, deep in the heart of the Ore Mountain, was finally unshackled from its duties churning out GDR ‘watches for the people’; it could start rebuilding its old reputation as the heart of fine Saxon watchmaking. But just before the venerable names of A Lange & Söhne et al could be revived – before anyone lifted a pair of tweezers in luxurious anger, in fact – an upstart called Nomos got in there first. In 1990 it began making exquisitely pared-back Bauhaus watches, fitted with Swiss hand-wound movements, for bafflingly low prices. The design was so perfect, in fact, that the original Tangente dial and case hasn’t changed a millimetre – only now almost everything inside is manufactured in-house, in Glashütte’s old railway station. To maintain its cool edge, Nomos also has what’s effectively a designer imprint, Berlinerblau, right where the action is in east Berlin. Here interesting young creative sorts with angular haircuts are taking the brand’s Bauhaus language down exciting new avenues, charged by artisan coffee and avocado on rye.
£2,880, nomos-glasuette.com

GENEVA

Rolex Oyster Sky-Dweller
Taking the short flight to Geneva, you are of course spoilt for watch brands – an industry established here in the 17th century when Huguenot artisans fled from persecution by French Catholics, and started making puritanical clocks and watches rather than lavish (ie, frowned-upon) jewellery. Having come from London though, it makes sense to pick one particular grande maison of Geneva that actually traces its origins back to the British capital: Rolex, believe it or not, was founded in London at the turn of the century by a German, Hans Wilsdorf. It’s now the biggest watch brand on the planet, in terms of sales, collectability, myth, hip-hop lyrics… Rolex, however, does not rest on its laurels – its obsessive quality control and constant tweaking in pursuit of timekeeping perfection means it makes the best watches in the world. Take this beauty for example. The Sky-Dweller is a rare example of a completely new Rolex (innovation at ‘The Crown’ is usually glacial, immune to trends or pizzazz), one that’s completely groundbreaking despite the host of other annual calendars and dual-time-zone watches on the market. With a twist of the bezel, you switch between setting the 2nd time-zone, or setting the date. The latter just once a year, thanks to an elegant mechanical system that allows for the four months in the year that are only 30 days.
£12,600, rolex.com

RIO DE JANEIRO

Patek Philippe Gondolo ref. 5200G
When it came to the newfangled business of making wristwatches, Geneva’s Swisser-than-Swiss master watchmaker Patek Philippe took the path less travelled. Its nascent wristwatch market emerged not in the Swiss mountains but the heat and dust of Rio de Janeiro. In November 1872, a single watch was sent, on request, to the Rio-based retailer Gondolo & Labouriau. That one watch soon became 22,000, establishing a regional retail relationship second only to the importance of New York to Tiffany & Co. It’s intriguing because Gondolo was a retailer that sold watches to ordinary people, not multi-millionaires or royalty. It even set up a subscription service to help people buy into the brand, which held ‘Gondolo Gang’ picnics where members sported ‘Patek’ branded hats. Today, this unique arrangement gives an entire collection its name, fitted with sleek, art-deco rectangular cases. For Patek, in all its grandeur, it’s as romantic and sentimental as it gets.
£42,280, patek.com

TOKYO

Grand Seiko Hi-Beat 36000 ‘Snowflake’
Many people write Seiko off as mass-market fare, but they’re dead wrong – as well as the ubiquitous, quartz-powered sports watches, the Japanese giant has always harboured a top-flight fine-watchmaking facility, making “Grand Seiko” pieces on a par with Omega or Rolex. Indeed, its Shizukuishi studio, nestled in the evergreen hills of Morioka in the north could easily be mistaken for a Swiss atelier in the Jura Mountains, complete with lab-coated, tweezer-wielding watchmakers hunched at their workbenches. The pure-white, paper-like dial of this restrained beauty pays tribute to Grand Seiko’s high-altitude cradle, echoing the virgin snow of the studio’s surrounding forest. Visit the newly opened Seiko boutique on Brompton Road and see for yourself.
£5,500, seiko.co.uk

DETROIT

Shinola The Runwell 47mm
As any fan of Steve Martin’s The Jerk will attest, it pays to know your shit from your Shinola, the latter being an ancient all-American brand whose shoe polish adorned many a pair of wingtips back in the 1960s. But, along with pretty much all of Detroit’s manufacturing industry, Shinola was consigned to dust decades ago. That is until the whole city was declared bankrupt and the big cheese from America’s giant of fashion watches, Fossil, decided to capitalise on the much-publicised death of American-made stuff. Conceived with the belief that their products should be built to last and made in America, its no-nonsense utilitarian watches, all with a bang-on-trend sepia tint, gel perfectly with Shinola’s constantly expanding, and frankly mouthwatering range of hipster-friendly utilitywear – and yes, that includes retro bicycles, as well as turntables and battered-leather stationery, all crafted by US artisans.
£495, shinola.com

FLORENCE

Panerai Radiomir 3 Days Acciaio 47mm
Look around a typical boardroom table in the Square Mile, and what do you see? Lots of Rolex, a couple of Cartiers, maybe a Hublot on that young peacock? But I’ll stake my reputation on at least one of person sporting a Panerai, its behemoth 47mm-wide case ruffling their French cuffs. It’s the watch Tom Wolfe’s Sherman McCoy would have sported on Wall Street. But back in the Eighties, Panerai was a very different brand. Not yet snatched from obscurity by the Richemont Group and given the run of its own top-flight Swiss manufacturing facilities, it was still a boutique Italian affair, making tiny runs of strangely shaped diving watches. It all started as far back as 1860, at a tiny ‘orologeria’ watchmaker’s atelier-cum-boutique on Ponte alle Grazie in Florence. Giovanni Panerai’s workshop went on to supply all manner of equipment for the Royal Italian Navy, its instruments illuminated by a radium-based luminescent material pioneered by Panerai in 1916 called ‘Radiomir’. This glow-in-the-dark paste was applied to the Rolex-engineered watches Panerai supplied to the navy’s elite frogmen in the late 1930s, allowing them to furtively attach limpet mines to enemy ships. It’s these original, rather crude devices, with their soldered-wire strap attachments that this year’s Radiomir alludes to
£7,900, panerai.com

JAIPUR

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso
Polo. For just one word comprising four letters it embodies so much. Aristocracy, elegance, speed, power; it’s so evocative you can almost smell the pith helmets and mint juleps. The British Raj, in other words. It was against this colonial backdrop that one of watchmaking’s most recognisable icons was born. Legend has it that in the 1930s a group of polo players ambushed Swiss watch dealer César de Trey after a match and challenged him to make a watch robust enough to withstand the action on the field. De Trey talked to Jacques-David LeCoultre about this and he approached Swiss horloger Jaeger to make the case, which in turn got French engineer René-Alfred Chauvot involved. It was Chauvot who designed the revolutionary Reverso in 1931, and it was revolutionary, allowing you to flip the case over, facing its metal back forwards to deflect errant mallets. Eighty-odd years on, you have the opportunity to buy a Reverso with an alternative ‘look’ flip-side, as in this Tribute Duoface version.
£16,500, jaeger-lecoultre.com

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