I like maps. Always have. It’s not just the vicarious glamour of potential travel, or the romance and intrigue of faraway place names; it’s the look, too. The symbols and codes that form their own language, and the clear, precise presentation of relevant information. Maps tell you a lot about the era that produced them; they can be functional or largely decorative, and while they have to an extent been superseded by more advanced and miniaturised technology, sometimes there’s no substitute for the real thing.
Any of this sounding familiar yet? Yes, maps can be compared to watches, and while that would seem like the obvious point at which to start talking about world timers, it goes a bit deeper than that. It’s not just that there is a genre of watches with maps on their dials; I would argue that in a pre-digital age, a watch and a map are the two most fundamental tools one could possess. What can be more important than knowing your position in time and space?
Just as the invention of marine chronometers meant that by knowing the time, one could find one’s precise location, a world timer provides the reverse operation (albeit without the calculations) – if you know where you are, you know what time it is. That is the hallmark of a true world timer; at-a-glance awareness of the hour anywhere in the world. Plenty of “world time” watches – those with city rings visible through windows, usually – are glorified dual-time pieces.
The last six months has seen a rash of new world timers, the most high-profile of which besides the aforementioned Vacheron is Patek Philippe’s 5930 world time chronograph. It divided opinion at Baselworld, but deserves credit for successfully integrating two complications that are both hungry for dial space – something it achieves by only having one chronograph subdial and no running seconds. We gave it a thorough look up close back in March when it launched; it features some interesting design tweaks, but aesthetically and mechanically, it holds true to a template set down in the late 1930s and 1940s by a Genevan watchmaker by the name of Louis Cottier.
Cottier did more than any watchmaker before or since to make the world timer a workable proposition. A former Rolex restorer, he developed the crucial mechanism that underpins all world timers – the 24-hour ring mounted in the centre of the dial which rotates anti-clockwise and is read off an outer “cities” ring. Early Cottier world timers have the cities ring fixed, often as part of the bezel; later, he added a movable cities ring operated by a second crown. His watches captured the imagination of an increasingly global world (at the end of the Second World War, he was commissioned by Agassiz to make world timers for Churchill, Truman, Stalin and de Gaulle) and most major brands of the time – including Rolex – worked with him on world time watches. Clearly an intelligent and inventive man, his lasting contribution to watchmaking is nevertheless peculiar in its singularity: he solved a problem that few people were particularly concerned with solving (or so it seems), and he did so in a manner so robust that it brooked no improvement for more than half a century.
The concept of formal time zones dates to the late 1870s, and a Canadian railway engineer called Sandford Fleming (Fleming commissioned a watch, potentially the first of its type, showing 24 time zones from Nicole, Nielsen & Co, but it lacked Cottier’s night/day and cities rings), and a number of watchmakers created “universal time” watches around the turn of the century. Most made use of the watch’s two faces to show local and world time on different sides, and the most advanced, like the 1885 Beguelin below, were able to show night and day as well. There were in fact rudimentary world time watches more than a century earlier, but more than anything these seem like ideas ahead of their time.
In more recent times, there have been some technical advancements made to Cottier’s design. Svend Andersen, who spent nine years in Patek Philippe’s high complications workshop in the 1960s and 70s and therefore knows the complication just about as well as anybody, has turned Cottier’s invention into a slim module (0.9mm) which works with a number of base calibres (he has used Frederic Piguet, Vaucher and new-old-stock A. Schild movements).
As an aside, it is worth spending time with one of these if you get the chance purely for the dial quality alone: world timers typically prize functionality over flamboyance but Svend Andersen's hand guilloché dials must be seen to be believed. Not to mention the less obvious addition of his A-shaped hands and the fact that his watches are (I think) alone in choosing Beverly Hills to represent GMT-8.
Meanwhile Vacheron Constantin, when it re-introduced world timers to its range with the Patrimony in 2011, upgraded the complication to account for all 37 time zones – a feat that took three years and involves a complex array of pawls and “feelers” capable of differentiating between full and partial time zone changes. Moreover, the “click ring” was re-engineered to allow the watchmaker to easily swap it out if the world’s nations inconveniently decide to change their time zones.
The functional necessity for a world timer to represent the globe does hamper the design possibilities – even more so than the basic elements of a chronograph. World timers can broadly be split into two camps; those that follow Cottier’s template, laid down in the Pateks and Vacherons of the 1940s, and those that explore new territory. In the former camp are the Girard-Perregaux WW.TC (until now, the best template for bringing a chronograph into the frame), the Frédérique Constant Manufacture Worldtimer and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Geophysic Universal Time, as well as dozens more solid, dependable derivations of the same design. In the same category, design-wise, I would place the new Patek Philippe 5230 (below) and Vacheron Constantin Overseas; they deserve respect for their lineage back to Cottier and their unquestionable quality, but aren’t breaking new ground.
Thankfully, there are a few brands giving the old format a bit of a prod in the ribs. Montblanc’s Orbis Terrarum – updated this year as part of the revamped 4810 range – isn’t a wild departure, but the multi-layered central map with light/dark discs to show day and night is a welcome dose of vibrant colour. In its 4810 incarnation it recalls tool-watch world timers of the 1970s such as the Edox Geograph.
Bright colour also came in spades from Louis Vuitton, with the Escale Minute Repeater World Time and Escale Time Zone (which despite the name and lower price tag, is still a true world timer), as it reinvented the cities ring with gloriously vivid flags.
But the most eye-catching world timer design in recent memory came from an unexpected source. At SIHH in January, De Bethune unveiled the DB25 World Traveller, a watch that reinterprets what it means to be a world timer. Do we need to know the time in Noumea, or Anchorage? Unlikely. De Bethune has accordingly created a central cities ring with just fifteen locations – between them, they probably cover 95 per cent of destinations for 95 per cent of people.
The asymmetrical result is a little jarring at first sight – as is the justified text that forces “Paris” or “Dubai” to fill the same area as “Honolulu” – but I soon came to appreciate it. The champagne tones around the dial, gleaming case and centrally-radiating cities are reminiscent of a ship’s engine order telegraph. The unorthodox layout allows the brand to fit a date ring around the periphery, using a similar “floating” indicator to the one found on Roger Smith’s Series 4.
The ingenuity continues. The 24-hour timescale is where you’d expect it, except it forms a recessed channel in which sits a blue and gold sphere, indicating a second time zone. The ball rotates from blue to gold at 6am and 6pm to denote day and night.
Pedants might say this is not a proper world timer, as removing a third of the cities deprives you of the ability to read the time anywhere in the world. But that misses the point by leagues; there’s something philosophically satisfying about only having information you would actually use. And besides, the end result has such a sense of panache that criticising it feels churlish. It may not be the most complete world timer money can buy, but it’s the one I’d take on a round-the-world voyage.