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The Hands of Time

Classic Watches Are More Than Just Timepieces--They're Works of Art for the Wrist
Nick Foulkes
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

(continued from page 1)

What follows is a brief listing of the true classics in fine watchmaking. Prices on these watches vary widely, with many examples commanding prices of $3,000 and up.

The Piaget Tank

Designs for this watch apparently date back to 1917, when the British army used tanks in battle for the first time. The bars along the sides of the watch, which have become a design feature associated with the Tank and its many imitators, are said to have been inspired by the tracks of the first armored cars used by the Allies. But given the elegance of the Tank watch, the mud and death of trenches and the clumsiness of those early motorized engines of war are not the first things that spring to mind when strapping a Tank around the wrist.

Early examples of the watch were presented to high-ranking officers within the American Expeditionary Force, including Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing. The Tank's readily identifiable rectangular styling made it instantly popular with the fast-moving and novelty hungry Art Deco crowd when it was officially introduced in 1919. In the eight decades that have elapsed since the first vague sketches for the design were drafted, many versions of the watch have appeared, including the square Chinese Tank and the larger, chunkier American Tank. It may not be the earliest wristwatch in the world, but it must be one of the best known.

The Breitling Chronomat

Some watches capture the spirit of a point in time, and for the late 1980s and the '90s, one such watch has been the Breitling Chronomat.

During the 1960s and early '70s, Breitling chronographs enjoyed a great vogue; the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball, for instance, boasts numerous examples. However, by the beginning of the '80s, the firm's fortunes were flagging. Ernst Schneider, a keen aviator with a mania for all things military and technical who had purchased the firm in 1979, wanted to create a watch for Breitling's centennial in 1984--the Chronomat was the result. The watch was first produced in volume in 1985 for the Frecce Tricolori, Italy's crack aerobatic and fighter pilot squad, and has since been adopted by such aerobatic teams as the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds, while a special limited-edition run has been created to commemorate the foundation of the British Royal Air Force's Red Arrows. The Chronomat's rugged profile, rider tabs (timing markers) and unidirectional bezel have remained unaltered; however, the early 1990s saw the introduction of a swirling "B" logo on the center second hand, which as well as being decorative acts as a counterpoise to enhance accuracy. Less of a wristwatch and more of a wrist-worn instrument, the Breitling Chronomat has captured the imagination of playboys and millionaires all over the world--even if they do not have an aircraft they fly themselves--and its distinctive chunky push-pieces can be seen poking out from under everything from a Turnbull & Asser shirt cuff to the sleeve of a Schott leather jacket.

Jaeger-le Coultre Reverso

The polo-playing man-about-town of the 1930s was just not properly dressed unless he had a Reverso buckled to his wrist--it was the sports watch of the day. Former denture maker turned horologist (watchmaker) Cesar de Trey was visiting India in 1930 and encountered a large number of polo players, whose cracked watchglasses may well have testified to their sporting prowess, but made telling the time a bit difficult. His solution was to devise a watch that, with a quick flick, could be turned over to reveal a steel back, thus protecting the glass from stray balls and flying polo sticks. This reversible watch also allowed the vain playboy to engrave either his initials or his coat of arms on the back, turning the watch, in effect, into a testosterone-charged signet ring.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

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