Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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In Fashion…Watches are style statements

Watches are not watches any longer. They tick beyond time. Watches are now icons of fashion, styled to suit moods and moments, dresses and designs. No attire is complete without accessories, and these beating oval, round, square, rectangular or even triangular pieces of machine form the most important of them.

Walk around any shopping street in any Indian city or town, you are sure to run into watch-shops. Once, these stocked the exclusive Indian HMT brand, which has been practically erased by the time of Titan, with variants such as Timex and Sonata, priced to crush competition.

And, the once sole imported variety of Citizen has opened out to an overwhelming array of brands from just about every corner of this globe. Some months ago, Salon De Luxe opened in New Delhi’s Shangri-La Hotel, and the inaugural event was star-studded and watch-rich. Some of the classiest timepieces were flaunted. They were fashioned to fathom the feeling of time.

Companies like Chopard, Rolex, Pierre Cardin, Ulysse Nardin, Breitling, Breguet, Piaget, Christian Bernard, Cavalli, Mount Blanc, Omega, Swatch, Christian Dior and Jaeger-Lecoultre among a variety of others exhibited their precious ware. Many of them were jewellery-studded exquisite watches created with precision and élan.

Most of these firms have existed from time immemorial. Bregueto says that one of its first clients and admirers was French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte, who sported their watch in 1798. Breitling has been around since 1884.

And they have survived because they followed classic designs, simple in style and with few embellishments. They have stuck to shapes that never go out of fashion – usually round or rectangular. The round-shaped watch has evolved from the traditional pocket watch that we might have seen our grandfathers use.

The square or rectangular piece was innovated by Cartier. In 1917, Louis Cartier, the man who founded the great label, chose the most unromantic of inspirations to mould the most romantic of time machines. And, can you believe that he was inspired by the shape of battle tanks in World War I to shape his rectangular watches! Even today, they are called Tanks, and are still considered the most attractive silhouettes for women who prefer timelessness to trends.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, collectors crave for mechanical watches, which one has to wind every day. This is the kind of engineering that need special care, a hallmark of a luxury item. The electronic quartz watches are considered too modern by connoisseurs. In fact, some of the classic mechanical watches are handed down from one generation to another as an heirloom. I know some who have treasured and preserved their great-grandfathers’ pocket watches in gleaming silver or gold.

The first pocket watch appeared in 1524, and man who created it was Peter Henlein, who lived in Nuremberg, Germany. It is widely believed that the King of England, Henry VIII (1491 to 1547), carried a pocket watch that hung from a chain around his neck. This was the style before pocket watches became really pocket watches. They were carried inside a waistcoat pocket: the timepiece was attached to the garment’s button by a chain. However, these machines had only the hour hand, because the miniature mechanism had not yet been perfected.

In 1850, Aaron Lufkin Dennison, an American, founded Waltham Watch Company, which pioneered pocket watches with interchangeable parts.

We saw since then the evolution of automatic watches (that wound without any active winding process; one had to just wear it for the watch to be wound) and, later, battery-operated or quartz ones.

At the close of the 20th century, style and convenience played an important role in the manufacture of watches, which had by then descended from the breast-pocket to the wrist. Swiss companies, traditionally known as watch experts, began discovering newer technologies to make these gadgets much more than mere time tellers. Elegance and variety were keyed into watch design to make it seductive and sexy.

In the 21st century, the world finds itself in one more crisis of time. The mobile telephone is fast replacing the wristwatch. I notice in Indian cities that teens and even those in their twenties and thirties prefer to call time on their mobile phones. I wonder how the watchmakers are going to tackle this new infringement into what they had until now proudly termed timeless territory.

(Webposted April 17 2007)