La belle histoire de l'horlogerie

The Intricate History of Timepieces

We’re going behind the scenes of humanity’s quest to measure time using everything from the first sundial to modern watches.

It’s a safe bet that you’re here because you’re interested in watches and fine mechanics. So today we want to tell you some stories from the history of timepieces. We’re going behind the scenes of humanity’s quest to measure time using everything from the first sundial to modern watches.

Exploring Different Ways to Measure Time

The first sundials appeared more than 3,500 years ago. A vertical object was placed in the center of a flat plate marked with lines. As the sun shone down, the shadow cast by the object moved and showed time passing. This was quite a feat for that time and many other instruments followed, like the clepsydra. This instrument told time with water, following the same principle as a sand-filled hourglass. The first clepsydras were bowls with a hole near the bottom through which water dripped. Markings on the inside showed the passage of time as the water level fell.

©Timo C. Dinger - Unsplash

The first weight-driven clocks were invented in the fourteenth century. They didn’t have dials or hands, so their only function was to sound the hour. It was around this same time that the first astronomical clocks appeared, including instruments like Dondi’s Astrarium that showed the position of planets. This mechanical view of the solar system was used to organize communal life.

Finally, the first mechanical watches were developed in 1500. Even at that time, watchmakers competed to create the first complications and design increasingly smaller watches, culminating in the famous pocket watch.

When Watchmaking Met Jewelry Making

In the sixteenth century, a Protestant reform prohibited people from wearing extravagant ornaments and jewelry. To save their livelihoods, jewelers in Geneva converted to watchmaking. Around this time, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had given Protestants some limited rights. This drove many French Protestant watchmakers to Switzerland where they found a meticulous, patient and persistent workforce. And thus the legend of Swiss-made quality began.

A Tale of Wristwatches and Drivers

According to some, the first mentions of wristwatches date back to the sixteenth century, when philosopher Blaise Pascal attached a pocket watch to his right wrist with a string so he could more easily tell the time. Pretty genius idea!

© Travis Essinger - Unsplash 

The famous watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet made the first true wristwatches after receiving a special order from Caroline Murat, Napoleon’s sister. But they were still very rare and expensive at the time.

Men continued to wear their watches on a chain attached to their back pocket. That is until the famous Brazilian driver Alberto Santos-Dumont broke with tradition, saying he wanted to be able to keep both hands on the wheel AND an eye on his watch at the same time. So in 1904, Louis Cartier designed the very first Santos Cartier, creating the first wristwatch for men and the first driver’s watch at the same time!


A few years later, the first watches designed specifically for drivers were released. This is mainly thanks to Edmond Jaeger who patented a combined tachymeter and watch in 1915. (To learn more about the connection between watchmaking and cars, check out our articles about the tachymeter and chronograph.) 

Throughout timekeeping history, one thing has never changed: craftsmanship is key. Watchmaking requires the meticulous expertise and skills practiced by a select number of passionate specialists. At Depancel, we love to highlight this passion for fine mechanical watchmaking!


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