Time, as we experience it today, is a relatively modern invention. It was only with the International Meridian Conference of 1884 that the world organised itself around Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) into the familiar time zones that divide the world like the segments of an orange. Now debate rages about whether GMT is to be abandoned in favour of atomic clocks, superintended by the International Bureau for Weights and Measures. It all comes down to a missing second every century or so and in this, apparently, the clocks are more accurate than the orbits of our planet.
These are fairly academic considerations. The fact is that, as the pace of life quickened during the 20th century, the importance of co-ordinated times across the world became more obvious. The first occasion many of us would have experienced this was in the early 1950s, with the arrival of the Rolex GMT-Master. Ostensibly, this was to enable Pan Am pilots to keep an eye on departure-point and destination time. In reality, it was a vital part of the jet-set Catch Me if You Can paraphernalia that marked one out as a man of the world – and all its time zones.
Since then, the GMT watch has become a feature of the watchscape, and this year has seen notable new arrivals in an area that continues to stimulate the imagination and ingenuity of watchmakers. Indeed, one of the most striking comes from an unusual quarter. For the past seven years, Greubel Forsey had dedicated itself with an almost monastic intensity to the tourbillon, and then this winter it decided to launch a watch with a GMT function (the GMT, £442,500) and has made use of its trademark asymmetrical case construction to house a tiny rotating globe at eight o’clock, belted by a subdial divided into 24 segments.
But, attractive and easy to use though the Greubel Forsey is, do not wear it when competing in your local pub quiz just in case, when asked how many time zones there are, you answer 24. For contestants wearing the new Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Traditionnelle World Time (£35,280), the answer is 37. As well as the 24 one-hour time zones, there are over a dozen half- and quarter-hour zones, including India, the Chatham Islands and Mundrabilla, Australia. And it is in such corners of the globe that this watch comes into its own, as around the dial are not just the standard time zones, but the interstitial ones too and, as a bonus, a map of the world located in the centre grows light and dark to show whether it is day or night in any given part.
The new Vacheron World Time is the latest chapter in a tale that began in 1932, when Vacheron introduced a timepiece featuring a movement developed by genius Genevan watchmaker Louis Cottier. This first Vacheron Constantin World Time watch – Reference 3372 – was based on the Cottier system, in that it indicated the 24 time zones, from 1 to 24, with a disc rotating around the central dial, while an outer ring bore the names of the world’s major cities. This enabled simultaneous read-off of the time in 31 cities. In the 1940s it had a 41-city dial, refined by dividing the 24-hour disc into day and night.
It has proved an elegant and enduring solution; Cottier’s system has inspired some of the best modern travel watches, among them Girard-Perregaux’s WW.TC, the recent John Harrison edition of which (£39,500) features a beautiful enamel dial, and Patek Philippe’s famous Reference 5130 (from £31,840). On both, the city ring is moved independently of the time by either a second crown at the other side of the dial, as favoured by Girard-Perregaux, or a push-piece that advances the dial by one zone with each push.
The difference with the new Vacheron is that it uses a specially designed cam and sensor that, in the words of Vacheron’s artistic director Christian Selmoni, turns the watch into a “mechanical computer that selects the time zones directly from the movement”. And to underline what is an important distinction, the second crown or push-piece has been removed. All the functions can be accessed and set by just one crown, by pulling it to an extra position other than those used for winding the watch and setting the time. Selmoni cites the ease of use that comes with having all the functions available between thumb and forefinger rather than needing to operate another button or crown.
Of course, anyone who has worn a WW.TC or Reference 5130 or even a vintage Vacheron will tell you that it is no great hardship to use an extra crown or push-piece, however much the world of watchmaking turns on these minutiae. But such watches reflect one of the great truisms of business life in the early 21st century – that we all travel more than we used to. After all, who did not identify with at least some parts of Up in the Air? Business travel is a cult or religion, with Tyler Brûlé as hierophant and a world-time watch as a sacerdotal object.
There are fine but important distinctions to be made between world-time watches and time-zone watches, as Jean-Paul Girardin, vice-president of Breitling, explains. He talks of travel watches and bankers’ watches, the former worn by a traveller who wants to know the time at home, the latter favoured by someone sitting, say, in London, who wants to know the time in Chicago and Tokyo simultaneously. “This is more of a traveller’s watch,” he says of the new Breitling Chronomat GMT (£8,170). This watch also features a single crown that handles all functions, but the system is one of home and destination time, without cities or quarter-hour time zones. Home time is indicated on the 24-hour hand. On arrival at your destination, simply pull out the crown and move the hour hand backwards or forwards in hour increments. This movement is based on the in-house Calibre 01, purpose-designed to accommodate the addition of extra functions, such as the 24-hour time indicator. The advantage of this system is that, while the wearer flits through zones and changes the time, the rest of the watch continues to operate.
The same sort of straightforward functionality is at the heart of the latest globetrotting timepiece from Patek Philippe. The blue-chip brand has come up with the no-nonsense Aquanaut Travel Time (Reference 5164A; £24,610) – about the closest thing Patek makes to an all-out sports watch. What makes this watch so appealing is the neatness of the execution. Local (destination) time uses a system of push-pieces on the left-hand side of the case that mirror the configuration of the crown-guards on the right and advance or retard the hour. There is also discreet day and night indication, consisting of two square apertures in the centre of the dial that show blue or white accordingly.
For a more historical appearance, go for Breguet’s Hora Mundi (in rose gold; £52,200), on which day and night are indicated by a sun and a moon engraved on a disc that turns beneath a crescent-shaped aperture in the dial, creating an effect a little like an 18th-century map. But the antique appearance clothes some rather intriguing and contemporary clockwork.
Breguet’s goal has been to get as close as possible to the appearance of a single-time-zone watch, so there are no rings of city names, 24-hour time zones, or any extra hands. Instead, the date appears in a window at the top of the dial, while an aperture at the bottom shows the city name. A combined crown and push-piece controls what is, in effect, a mechanical memory, showing one time but storing a second city in its temporal entirety. The wearer uses the crown/push-piece to select the required city, and the conventional crown to set the watch as usual; then the crown push-piece is turned to show another city and the watch moves to the correct time and date. By pushing the combined crown push-piece, the wearer can switch between the two stored time zones.
Yet there are things even the most cleverly contrived watches cannot account for, as Vacheron Constantin found out earlier this year. Having gone into production with its World Time watch, an entire time zone disappeared. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev had decided that Russia should enjoy daylight-saving time the whole year, and decreed that, from spring 2011, Moscow was to be at GMT+4 permanently. Luckily, Vacheron Constantin was able to modify the dial to meet the October delivery; Moscow replaced Abu Dhabi, while its old position at GMT+3 was taken by Riyadh. I only hope Switzerland’s watchmakers have made suitable provisions in the event that we switch from GMT to International Bureau of Weights and Measures Time.