The word “time,” notes the writer and watchmaker Rebecca Struthers, is among the most common nouns in the English language. Time, she writes, “is something we have, or don’t have, save or lose.” Our way of speaking imbues time with a personality, albeit a changeable one: “It marches on, it drags, seems to stand still and flies. Time thrums constantly underneath everything we do.”
Ms. Struthers’s profession—which involves not only making watches but restoring antique devices—has given her the ability to rewind the clock, so to speak: When she sits down at her workbench in the morning, “the watch in front of me is a new beginning,” as she writes in her beguiling personal history of the watchmaker’s art, “Hands of Time.” Contemplating these clockwork marvels is just the sort of activity that—for a moment, at least—might make one forget all about the time.
The craft requires ingenious engineering at a miniature scale and an appreciation for timeless beauty.
By guest author Michael O’Donnell from the Wall Street Journal. Mr. O’Donnell writes about books for the Journal, the New York Times, the Atlantic and the Economist.
People who love watches tend to be romantics, more interested in yesterday than tomorrow. The current Apple Watch can make calls and receive e-mails, track heartbeats and count sheep, record steps, plan trips, cook an omelet and negotiate a trade deal. With such a machine on offer, why would anyone pay more—often far more—for a mechanical wristwatch driven by wheels and springs that merely tells the time?
The English watchmaker Rebecca Struthers provides a clue with an evocative description of a visit she made to the British Museum. On the other side of the building’s grand doors, she writes in her new book “Hands of Time,” a passage through book-lined corridors led her to “two long rows of mahogany cabinets positioned back to back.” Inside the cabinets were the museum’s 4,500 watches, displayed in specimen drawers to provide “the whole history of the watch, from its invention in the sixteenth century to the present day.”
Readers with a love of objects that are old, dark and mysterious will understand Ms. Struthers’ delight in exploring such a space. The pieces’ age also means they are durable. “Hands of Time” makes more than one comparison between watches and books, another enduring artifact of technology steeped in heritage and craft. Some of the mechanical watches that she repairs are hundreds of years old, yet they leave her Birmingham workshop in working order. Try getting a software update on today’s latest smartwatch in a century or two. By then it will be discarded and obsolete: junk in a landfill or detritus floating in the sea.
“Hands of Time” is a history of the mechanical watch as well as a memoir of sorts tracing Ms. Struthers’ journey to her calling. The book is an excellent companion to David Rooney’s 2021 volume “About Time,” which told a parallel history of clocks. “Hands of Time” is smart, curious, digressive and brisk: an engaging survey through a period of intellectual history that reveals as much about people who wear watches as the objects on their wrists. “A watch is an individual’s timekeeper,” Ms. Struthers suggests, “but it is also a kind of diary: it holds in its restless hands our memories of the hours, days and years we have spent wearing it. It is an inanimate but uniquely human repository of life itself.”
The first known watch dates to 1505. Made in Nuremberg by Peter Henlein—incidentally an accused murderer—it showed up in 1987 in a box of parts going for GBP 10 at a London flea market. Today it is valued at between USD 70 million and GBP 70 million (USD 57 million to USD 88 million). The watch is shaped like an egg and relies on the same basic movement involving a mainspring (to supply power) and an escapement (to release it) that mechanical watches still use. To regulate his watch, Henlein employed an element called a “fusee” (it resembles a bicycle’s gears) similar to a mechanism designed by Leonardo da Vinci in 1490. Such intricately wrought devices—small, light and delicate—allowed time to become portable, breaking free of the pendulum-clock mechanism that Galileo invented after gazing at a swinging altar lamp in Pisa Cathedral.
During the Reformation, watches lost some of their decorative splendor and also changed shape. Egg watches—or, still more bizarrely, skull watches, like one cherished by Mary, Queen of Scots—gave way to the familiar disc-shaped case we know today. These unfussy instruments elevated the plain sensibility of the Puritans, hostile to the finery of Rome. They also reflected a trade-off that Ms. Struthers traces throughout timepiece evolution: “The more accurate and functional the watch, the less it needed ornate decoration to justify its existence.”
Accuracy was a matter of life or death at sea, which led to a critical 18th-century innovation: the marine chronometer. In the age of sail, fixing a ship’s position meant comparing the time at the home port to the time aboard the cruising vessel. This required more precise instruments than were available for ships. The British government announced a cash prize to the person who could solve the problem. British watchmaker John Harrison made the challenge his life’s work, inventing a series of highly accurate chronometers with low-friction internal workings, known as “movements.” Dava Sobel devotes an entire enchanting book called “Longitude” to this story, but it belongs in “Hands of Time” as well, and Ms. Struthers provides a fine overview.
Watches migrated from pocket chains to wrists because of modern warfare. Wristwatches—far more practical for a soldier needing to grip a rifle with two hands—became standard issue during World War I. Synchronized attacks made time an essential battlefield tool. Another development useful in dark trenches was luminous watch hands. Women worked in factories with radium paint, using their lips to give the deadly coated brushes a fine point. Worse, workers glowed an eerie green as they left each evening, covered in the radioactive powder that, Ms. Struthers writes, “filled the air of the factories.” Despite management’s assurance that the process was safe, untold numbers sickened and died.
One element missing from “Hands of Time” is any significant discussion of the steel sports watch, which has propelled much of the enthusiasm in the wristwatch market in recent years. Ms. Struthers profiles Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf and the rise of the Swiss watch industry, and devotes a line or two to the Omega Speedmaster’s part in the space program. But the watches that supplied the gear and mystique for daring pursuits like diving and motoring receive little mention, despite their outsize influence on current watch design and sales. Perhaps Ms. Struthers views these topics as oversaturated already: not necessarily a misjudgment. Still, an otherwise complete book on the history of wristwatches feels like it is missing a chapter.
Most affecting, interspersed throughout the narrative, are Ms. Struthers’ remarks about her own story. She writes of confronting sexism as one of few women in her industry and describes her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. This frightening news invested her work with fresh purpose. One day she spent eight hours filing a part only a tenth of a millimeter in size on a watch under construction. In explaining why the task was joyful rather than monotonous, she illuminates how watches transcend their status as objects to become totems of both memory and aspiration. Because of her efforts, the watch “contains the time I have devoted to it. . . . Watches not only measure time, they are a manifestation of time—signifiers of the most precious thing we have.”
Do horologists make more of their time than their smartwatch-wearing friends? That would be a hard case to prove, but if Ms. Struthers is any example, their work would benefit little from the stay-on-task apps and hyper-connected efficiency of their contemporaries. And perhaps the true watch enthusiast is so beguiled by the lovely object—the exquisite markers and hands, the graceful lines of a watch case, the way the crystal catches the light—that checking the hour of the day becomes unimportant. The romantic might add that appreciating a small work of beauty that is a triumph of engineering, art and science is time well spent. Whatever the hour.
Appeared in the June 10, 2023, print edition.