“Necessity is the mother of invention” and the development of the first watches, that today are a multibillion-dollar industry, can trace its roots back to the demand across Europe for accurate instruments to help with naval navigation. It was a British horologist who cracked the puzzle of how to navigate the directionless seas in the 18th Century, when John Harrison, one of the most celebrated clockmakers of the period, unveiled his creation- the marine chronometer. After decades of testing, this device proved it was capable of helping to navigate accurately which was ground-breaking at the time.
The origins of watch making in England were sketchy at best and predated John Harrison’s invention by at least 200 years. As far back as the 16th and 17th centuries, watch makers in England were mostly creating watches for royalty like Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. A great many of the royal horologists and craftsman were foreigners from other parts of Europe, like France and Germany. The habit of incorporating the names of the watchmakers was a tradition that began as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries, and still continues today, which is one of the only ways that we were able to identify the origins of many brands of watches. The brand power and ‘identifiablity’ of many of the watches that exist in the market today are a significant factor that contribute towards their pricing strategy as legacy brands. If only the watchmakers that inscribed their creations at the time knew that!
While London and Soho invited the best of the watchmakers in England at the time, Clerkenwell began to become known as the beating heart of the watch trade. With a majority of the working class engaging in the business by producing parts of the watches that were essential to the overall success of the industry, the labour that operated in Clerkenwell started making a name for themselves in the watch business.
Today, with the Swiss seal of quality firmly stamped across leading brands in the world, it’s easy to overlook the part Britain played in lifting the watch trade to new heights during a period where innovation and originality was critical in creating timepieces that served the need of the hour.