Tale As Old As Time

Watches can chronicle the 20th century, an era that was eventful for a host of reasons—especially in terms of advances in technology. Nicholas Foulkes, through The Impossible Collection of Watches, selects the ones that punctuated the period.

IMPOSSIBLE WATCHES-3DThis season, historian Nicholas Foulkes presents The Impossible Collection of Watches (Assouline), a record of the 100 watches that he considers to be representative of the 20th century. The pieces were selected for their costliness and innovation, among other virtues, providing a narrative of the era. “In essence I have approached the job of selecting the pieces for this imaginary collection in much the same way that I have approached buying watches over the last 30-something years: choosing the ones I would like to own,” explains Foulkes in the introduction. “I have tried to select watches that mean something, whether they are, like the ones Andrew Grima designed for Omega, an expression of the prevailing tastes of time in which they were made, or an example of the highes evolution of horological science at a given time. As examples of the latter, no survey of portable mechanical timepieces would be complete without the fabled Patek Philippe Graves Supercomplication or that company’s Calibre 89: two of 20th-century watchmaking’s greatest masterpieces.”

The pages of The Impossible Collection of Watches are rife with history, starting with the advent of World War I (which spurred the shift from pocketwatches to wristwatches). In the mid-1940s, makers were competing to determine the best chronometers. But by 1966, with the introduction of quartz technology, the digital watch seemed prepared to outdo the mechanical watch. (“Even men who owned expensive watches can’t wait to get their hands on this one[, the digital watch]. But then men are so gadget-minded,” said an employee of Tiffany & Co. to The New York Times.)

And so it goes in The Impossible Collection of Watches, through to 2000, with the arrival of the Internet and the availability of time on our many, many screens. This tale is told through the ticks and tocks of Audemars Piguet, Blancpain, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Patek Philippe, and Rolex—a tale of our times, with a wealth of imagery to illustrate.