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Watches: Time as Material Luxury

To understand time was one of the first necessity experienced by human beings. This led to the invention of devices that could help keeping track of time passing: watches. Both as ‘public’ objects and personal belongings, watches soon became artefacts that gathered scientific expertise and high-manufacture skill.

Watch with a case and dial of painted enamel and gilt brass, England, ca.1640, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum CC BY

The pocket watch developed in sixteenth century as mostly ‘masculine’ object, and consisted in a timepiece made wearable thanks to a chain. The round shape – the most common – is the reason why they were also called Nuremberg eggs, and worn around the neck. It is said that it was Charles II of England who introduced the trend of wearing the watch in the pocket of waistcoats: this led to changes in size and, above all, styles.

Chain watch with hook and compass, 1850-1900, Courtesy ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, All Rights Reserved

The pocket watch, or fob watch, a stable of the gentlemen’s attire, was substituted by the wristwatch, which developed after the so-called trench watch, a transitional object used by the military in World War I. Interestingly, watches to be worn on the wrist before the 20th century were mostly used by women. The oldest surviving was in fact made in 1806 and belonged o Joséphine de Beauharnais. Other sources account for a watch made for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary by the Swiss watch manufacturer Patek Philippe in 1868 as the first artefact of this kind.

Golden wristwatch, 1867, Courtesy Amsterdam Museum CC

Even though their invention came ‘out of necessity’, today we tend to link watches – above all, the most decorated, precious and iconic in design – to an idea of luxury; this maybe because, in our speeded up reality, time itself might be a luxury.

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