Time machines: Our chronic obsession with watches

From Oysters to Seamasters, Skyhawks to Hemipodes, the world of luxury watches is booming as if recession were an alien concept. But who actually needs a diamond-encrusted, solid gold chronograph with built-in altimeter? John Walsh finds out what makes this extraordinary industry tick

The face of Kevin Pietersen, the England cricket captain, stares belligerently from the page of a Sunday colour magazine. He is advertising a wristwatch. "Unstoppable" is the ad's tagline – a little unfortunately, considering the England team's wretched recent performances – "Unstoppable. Kevin Pietersen is. So is his Citizen Eco-Drive. Fuelled by light, it never needs a battery."

You think: when was the last time you owned a watch that needed a battery – or, indeed, a winding mechanism? But you don't stop to consider. You gaze at the model on display which, to give it its full name, is the Citizen Eco-Drive Skyhawk A-T Flight Chronograph Titanium. The actual object looks, to the ignorant eye, a polytechnological mess of random numbers, calibrated white lines, mini-dials, international time-zones, a swivelling "bezel", something that looks like the altimeter on a 767 airliner, and a couple of cut-out sections whose function is entirely inscrutable. Somewhere in this blizzard of two-tone (orange and black) techno-bollocks, there's a big hand and a little hand which together tell you that it's 10 past 10 o'clock. Everything else, all the names and numbers and nubbly metallic bits 'n' bobs that stud its innocent round face, seem to be a collection of redundant special effects which together suggest that, should you buy this charming object, you'll instantly be taken by business associates and sexually aroused women for a sophisticated, internationally minded, jet-setting, environmentally aware, "unstoppable" sportsman-cum-scientist whose job requires split-second timing and to whom the flight controls of a Skyhawk A-T (whatever that may be) hold no surprises.

It's quite a complex package of codes, the modern wristwatch advert. And they're everywhere. Breitling, the Swiss watch company, takes colour displays on the front pages of the serious papers, and buys double-page spreads in the magazines to sing the praises of its Navitimer World Chronograph ("Here at Breitling, we are driven by a single passion, a single obsession: to create ultra-reliable instrument watches for the most demanding professionals").

The new Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, has given the Omega brand a boost, and its adverts are filled with the craggy face of Daniel Craig – who plays, of course, an extremely "demanding professional".

In the glossy style-mag world, the watch market is so lucrative, it justifies dedicated advertising supplements. Vanity Fair, GQ and the New York Times magazine all carry these 60-page specials crammed with recondite fancy brands alongside the famous old marques: Girard-Perregaux, Rolex, Vacheron Constantin, DeWitt, Guy Ellia, Corum, FP Journe, Zenith, Chopard, Tag Heuer, Hublot, Blancpain, Mont Blanc, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre.... They mostly feature handsome, Brosnan-esque tough guys staring grimly into the distance, images of racing yachts, fast cars, musical instruments. Or they feature the watches themselves, photographed in extreme, monstrous close-up, a kind of flagrant chrono-pornography.

Alongside Damien Hirst's spot paintings and bisected livestock, watches seem to bear a charmed life in recessionary times. At Compagnie Financière Richemont, the ritzy jewellery-and-timepiece group that owns Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, IWC and Jaeger LeCoultre, watch sales went up by 12 per cent in the first six months of the 2008 fiscal year: that means revenue of just over $1bn, from sales of existing models and avant-garde new styles, the sort that get shown off at international salons in Geneva. It's a trend that seems to be broadly replicated across the fancy-watch universe.

What, we might legitimately wonder, is going on? What is it about the chunky wristwatch that makes men (and sometimes women) ache and drool to possess them, spend a small fortune to acquire them and gravely pass them on to succeeding generations like sacred talismans? For years, we've been told that certain gold watches are "status symbols" – but we're over that now, aren't we?

"It's an industry that's primarily concerned with safeguarding traditional ways and people's livelihoods," says Nicholas Foulkes, who has written on watches for 20 years and edits the Vanity Fair supplement, On Time, "because the Swiss watch industry was effectively killed off by the digital boom. At the start of the 1970s, there were 90,000 people employed by Swiss watch firms; by the beginning of the 1980s, 60,000 of them had lost their jobs because of electronic imports from the Far East. Old-style watches suddenly seemed quaint and irrelevant like Morris dancing or narrow-boating. But in the early 1980s, the renaissance began when a man called Jean-Claude Biver revived an 18th-century firm called Blancpain. The heads of other companies like Patek Philippe decided that, even if the mainstream was into disposable electronic timepieces, there would always be a market interested in beautiful, complicated, collectable mechanical watches."

One watch firm that rode out the rollercoaster of fortune was Rolex, probably the best-known name in watches worldwide, and a byword in slightly tacky glamour from decades back. Rolex celebrates its centenary this year. By the late summer of 1908, Hans Wilsdorf, a London-based Bavarian entrepreneur and James Davis, a watchmaker, had spent three years importing watch movements, cases and dials from Switzerland, assembling them and selling them to retailers with a space left for them to inscribe their own name. When they decided to make their own models, Wilsdorf hit on "Rolex" for a brand name. No one knows exactly why. Scholars ingeniously suggest it's a contraction of Horlogerie Exquise ("beautiful watchmaking"), others insist that it's an onomatopoeic word suggesting a winding motion. Those in a position to know insist that Wilsdorf merely "wanted a name that was short and easy to pronounce in any language".

Watch design dates back to the 1780s, but Wilsdorf was a pioneer of display. In the early years of the 20th century, watches were mostly still carried in pockets, especially the fob pocket of a waistcoat. Wilsdorf was determined that the watch of the future should be strapped on to a wrist. A century of male status-flashing and wristy wealth display began with his innovations. Modern watch marketers' deranged obsession with ever-more-accurate timekeeping can be seen to date back to 1901, when Wilsdork took three of the watches made by his employers to the Neuchâtel Observatory and found out what was needed if you wanted to get a chronometer certificate.

He later put all Rolex products through rigorous tests, and won, not just a Swiss certificate, but a Class A certificate from the Kew Observatory in London. This was the gold standard of timing accuracy – the perfect timing demanded of a Deck Watch on a naval battleship – transferred to a small metal object that anyone could wear on their lower arm.

He exploited the watch markets of the British colonies and the Far East where, because of the hot weather, most men couldn't wear waistcoats and consequently had no watch pocket. But ordinary watches in the tropics were at risk from high temperatures, humidity and sand, so Wilsdorf needed a watch that nothing could get into. So he bought the patent of a screw-down case, refashioned it, and called it the "Oyster". The name was a nod towards the trouble he tended to experience when getting into real oysters, even using an oyster knife.

Next came the discovery, or rather the refinement, of the self-winding watch. There had been self-winding clocks since the 1790s, but Wilsdorf asked his chief designer, Aegler, to miniaturise the technology, and patented his first automatic watch in 1929. The actual model didn't arrive until 1933. It was called the Perpetual, as in perpetual motion.

"Rolex Oyster Perpetual" – such a mouthful of grandiose brand naming. And it was only the start. A flood of fancy nomenclature spread the Rolex name in several directions at once. The Prince range was born, which begat the Classic, the Brancard, the Railway and the Sporting (a watch for golfers.)

In 1954 at the Basel Fair, the Rolex Watch Company launched a swathe of new models which still make up the glittering sweetie shop of Rolex merchandise: the Explorer, the Submariner, the Turn-O-Graph, the Milgauss and the Lady's Perpetual Chronometer.

Wilsdorf's other field of expertise was celebrity endorsement. It started out in October 1927, when an English swimmer called Mercedes Gleitze swam the Channel in 15 hours. A hoaxer claimed to have performed the same feat in a faster time, so Mercedes decided to have another go. Wilsdorf got to hear about it and offered her a new Rolex watch with a nine-carat gold case if she'd take it on her record-challenging swim. The lady agreed, but sensibly decided to wear it on a chain around her neck – and a big Rolex advertisement appeared on the front page of the Daily Mail, pointing out that it had endured "over 10 hours" in the Channel without mishap.

Over the years, umpteen movie and sports personalities have endorsed Rolexes (the current superstar fan is Roger Federer, with his pink-and-silver Oyster Perpetual DateJust) but the watches hold an unshiftable place in cultural history. When Marilyn Monroe wanted to indicate the strength of her feelings for President John F Kennedy, she gave him a gold Rolex inscribed "Jack, my love as always, Marilyn, May 29th 1962". It was later auctioned and fetched $120,000. When Joanne Woodward wanted to curb her husband Paul Newman's reckless quest for speed, she gave him a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona with the words "Drive Slowly – Joanna" engraved on the back. In the early James Bond movies up to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, agent 007 wears a Rolex Submariner. (In the Ian Fleming books, which are full of brand names, Bond's choice of watch goes unremarked – but there's an enthusiastic description of a Girard-Perregaux gold watch "designed for people who like gadgets" and owned by a Smersh assassin, on the first page of From Russia With Love.) When Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, faced off against Marwan the terrorist in the fourth season of 24, he wore a Rolex Submariner, or did until it was smashed to bits against a pillar. When OJ Simpson broke into a Las Vegas hotel room in September last year and demanded, at gunpoint, the return of his belongings, the most important (after his Hall of Fame certificate) was his old Rolex.

Rolex worship extends also to a startlingly beautiful book, 100 Superlative Rolex Watches, a 265-page extravaganza of watch-adoration, lovingly hand-tooled in squishy leather and retailing at £99.99. It's almost the definition of a labour of love – page after page of Rolexes from the earliest days to the most recent, each photographed in freakishly precise close-up against a black background; the opposite page offers four smaller pictures of especially fine movements, luminous dials, characterful designs or special features (such as the extremely beautiful 18-carat gold watches with cloisonné enamel dials, made in the early 1950s at massive expense). The photographer is one John Goldberger, a vintage watch connoisseur for 25 years, who chooses to be photographed so that you can see only the back of his head. Very private people, these watch nuts.

Watches can, then, be things of considerable beauty. But does that explain the quality of male obsession with the things? Ask the premier league of watchmakers why they wear them, and they writhe with pretension. "To wear a watch such as a [Chanel] J12 is to be 'in', to live to the beat of an eternal modernity," says Philippe Mougenot, president of Chanel Watch and Fine Jewellery. "In addition to being a luxurious accessory that enhances my wardrobe every day, my watch communicates my preference for the finer things in life," remarks Jan-Patrick Schmitz, president and CEO of Montblanc, not at all pompously. "I wear a watch because it's an object that conveys many of the dearest values I care for: beauty, human genius, the ability to miniaturise, the complexity, the elegance, the emotional power," observed Jerome de Witt of DeWitt watches.

"For most men, it's the only jewellery they'll permit themselves to wear," says Nick Foulkes. "And the question of authenticity is important. In an age when you can read the time off your phone or the fridge, and you don't need a watch to tell the time, it's good to be embracing what's effectively 200-year-old technology. The watch industry is a very conservative one. If you look in auction catalogues, the important watches, the ones which sell in six figures, are the ones with some authenticity, some back-story about them, rather than meretricious gimmickry." He refuses to commit himself to a favourite make ("It's like asking which is the best contemporary art to have on your wall") but is clearly smitten by the Audemars Piguet range. "They did a special-edition model for Bill Clinton," he says, wonderingly.

It's often been a source of wonder, to the ordinary consumer of timepieces, that Rolex and its peers charge anything from £30,000 to £100,000 for their models' ability to endure conditions of heat, cold and water pressure that their owners are wholly unlikely to meet in their entire lives. Weren't all the bezels and chronographic precision testing and undersea decompression timings fantastically irrelevant to the lives of most watch-wearers? "Well, yes, Rolex makes a Rolex DeepSea which can survive a depth of 3,900 metres below sea level, but you'd probably be dead if you went down lower than 80 metres. But then, which of us needs a car that goes at 200mph? These are things you buy for reasons other than those stated on the tin."

To sum up, then. People buy expensive watches in considerable numbers to tell the world they're rich, to show they've got class, to show they're impressed by authentic, traditional artisan skills, to pass something on to their children, to embrace the past, to live in the beat of an eternal modernity. Seldom will anyone mention their need for split-second timing, or for knowing the time in Kuala Lumpur. The wristwatch remains vitally important to men, not because the makers' advertisements sell their innate masculinity, but because watches are themselves advertisements of yourself – not with gold and jewellery (the bling revolution is dead and gone) but with the gorgeous face of a Jaeger LeCoultre, which tells the world you are a sensitive (and rich) bon viveur or the glorious brashness of the Montblanc Nicolas Rieussec Chronograph, which informs the immediate company that you're a flash sort of cove with a sense of vaudeville. And that you've no intention of ever being taken for Kevin Pietersen.