What does someone who has it all do with their time? What are their pursuits? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I know of what at least one of them did.
He was an Englishman residing in Sydney who’d had great success in business and was finally looking to settle down, in a sense. He’d been a keen sailor throughout his life and had a custom built yacht commissioned for him, which was made into something resembling a floating 5-star hotel. Everything about the boat displayed class and sophistication, but it wasn’t extravagant, representative of the good taste he had himself.
He could’ve had it gilded in gold and fitted out with all sorts of expensive curiosities, but the finishing touch that he felt it needed most came from one of his other passions. As is so common with sailors, he was also a lifelong enthusiast of horology. Accordingly, he needed a marine chronometer.
Marine chronometers were originally made to aid with navigation while at sea, but he didn’t need it for this. Regardless, he felt it absolutely necessary to have one on board. The boat just wouldn’t be complete without it.
The chronometer was made by J.G. Fay and Co, a company who, funnily enough, also appears to have made yachts, and who worked with a number of other makers to produce their chronometers. It’s housed in a beautiful mahogany wood case with brass linings. The Maker’s mark on the front of the case is set in real ivory (as was tradition in the day, judge away), and the chronometer housed inside is a timelessly beautiful mechanism that displays many of the achievements made in horology in recent centuries.
Having flicked through our copy of “Chronometer Makers of the World”, this piece in fact predates all J.G. Fay and Co’s known chronometers, indicating it’s a very early piece indeed.
If you find it hard to understand why he was so set on having it made, it might help to understand the nature of a chronometer and the dedication required to make one.
Chronometers were, above all, functional instruments. They were the most critical piece of equipment on board a ship and the lives of all of those aboard depended on it. Disaster was imminent if it ever erred in its timekeeping or malfunctioned. This meant that the makers had to work to the highest standards possible; anything less than perfection wouldn’t cut it.
He was forever reading about horological topics, and this passion and appreciation for so fine a craft translated over into his other work and was a big factor in his success. The loud tick of the chronometer is what made him tick. It’s no coincidence that successful people tend to be horology enthusiasts.
After he passed away the chronometer was handed on to a close friend of his who, as luck would have it, became acquainted with Nick some years later. Just ask Nick and he’ll be more than happy to tell you that he loves chronometers more than watches, so when the opportunity to grab it came up, he obviously jumped on it straight away. Nick’s small collection of chronometers is his pride and joy, and they’re the only things he’d never consider selling. Have a chat with a few watchmakers and you’ll find it’s not uncommon for them to be chronometer enthusiasts over all else, and with good reason. Though the man’s yacht is no more, fortunately his chronometer lives on.
Though the perfection required to make a chronometer is clear, an equally fascinating part of the story is how horology advanced to such a pinnacle in the first place. The competition was fierce, with some of the finest and most ingenious craftsmen to have ever lived battling it out over three centuries to produce a chronometer capable of surviving all the wild knocks and temperature fluctuations it’d experience at sea; a battle won by a genius clockmaker by the name of John Harrison whose first trade was carpentry. (Another must read is the book “Longitude” by Dava Sobel which tells the story of John Harrison’s extraordinary achievement.)
In all the history of timekeeping, I think it’s fair to say that the race to develop the perfect chronometer led to more advancements in the field of horology within a relatively short period of time than throughout the rest of human history.
Though chronometers are now a rare site (a conservative estimate of the number of chronometers ever made hovers around 100k, compare that with the millions of watches made every year), the word ‘chronometer is still common in the watch world, and is used to refer to a watch that falls within strict timing guidelines. Brands including Rolex, Omega and Breitling now seek to have most of their watches certified as chronometers and often proudly display the fact with a line of text on the dials of such pieces. It’s a nice salute to what’s come before, but not a totally fitting one; the required accuracy of an actual chronometer is far stricter than a ‘certified-chronometer’ watch!
For those that have ever tried to understand the development of the mechanics of modern watches and why they look the way they do, an understanding of chronometers is mandatory education, and a copy of ‘Chronometer Makers of the World’ is a great place to start.
The first half of the book speaks of the catalyst that launched the frenzied development and of the history of chronometers thereafter. The second half of the book is a directory of all the known chronometer makers along with the reference numbers of some of their pieces and occasionally with a short blurb about their significance.
This second section mightn’t sound that exciting, but if you give it a chance I think you’ll find it’s a highlight of the book. I’ve spent hours googling names at random from it and have fallen into many a rabbit hole filled with interesting stories. You’d never know it otherwise, but every single watch brand is in some way tied to these chronometer makers of days gone by.
Modern watchmaking isn’t resting on its laurels; there’s rapid innovation taking place and the ways of old are constantly being challenged, but there’s no way to properly understand it all without knowing what it’s all based on. I’ll go as far as to say that if you consider yourself a true horologist in any sense of the word, you must buy this book. It can be had for around $60 online and would be a welcome addition to any horological book collection.
The story of chronometers enthralled our man who had it all, and it’s sure to do the same to you too.
Until next time,