A Passion for Watches: Brilliant Exhibition Explores "Machines with Souls"

A Passion for Watches: Brilliant Exhibition Explores "Machines with Souls"

It started with an advertisement: my husband was approaching his 40th birthday when he saw the back cover of The New Yorker, graced with an ad for a luxury watch brand. The ad copy suggested that you never actually own the watch, but rather merely look after it for the next generation. Geoff had already been turning over the idea of what it meant to turn 40 in his mind, but that ad cemented it for him: He decided that he wanted a watch for his birthday. It would be something that was finely crafted and could last long enough to pass on to our sons.

He settled on a relatively affordable, not too showy watch that would last. The watch would develop its own history as the stainless steel bracelet became scratched over time. It would be something he cared about. And eventually, it would be a legacy.

Who Needs a Watch?

It was an interesting decision, because nobody really needs wristwatches anymore. Our phones tell the time accurately, along with thousands of other functions. But my husband immediately loved his watch. He wore it to work, then at home. He looked at it more than necessary, and examined the clear caseback to see the miniature gears working. It was perhaps serendipitous that at this time I was working on Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century, and starting to learn about watches myself. I wondered: Why are so many people so passionate about mechanical timepieces?

“It’s not about function anymore; it’s about what they mean,” says Benjamin Clymer, founder and executive editor of a popular online publication about watches. Clymer traces his own love of watches to when, as a teenager, he was given a vintage chronograph (stopwatch) wristwatch by his grandfather. Much of the value comes from the stories behind, and embedded in, each handcrafted piece.

Louis Cartier's Role

Cartier played a significant role in the history of these small, elaborate, and precise machines. Louis Cartier arguably invented the modern wristwatch in 1904 when he designed the functional Santos watch for his friend, Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont. And Cartier evolved that design into the classic Tank watch in 1916, reportedly inspired by the oval revolving treads of the Renault tanks he saw during World War I.

Tank Normale wristwatch. Cartier London, 1922. Gold, sapphire cabochon, leather strap. Round LeCoultre caliber 123 movement, Côtes de Genève decoration, rhodium-plated, 8 adjustments, 19 jewels, Swiss lever escapement, bimetallic balance, Breguet balance spring. Photo: Marian Gérard, Cartier Collection © Cartier.

Designers for Cartier collected pictures of sailboats, skiers, and golfers to study balance and movement , cementing Cartier’s role as the preeminent wristwatch design house of the twentieth century—a role it continues to enjoy today. Enthusiasts consider Cartier watches to be the ideal in high design and sophistication. With fans ranging from Winston Churchill to Duke Ellington, and from Elizabeth Taylor to Princess Diana, a Cartier watch is, as Clymer says, “a special watch for a special person on a special occasion.”

Precision & Function

It’s not all about form, however. Mechanical precision is crucial as well. Clymer asked me to fill a 39 mm circle with 150 dash marks, which I diligently drew after our conversation (see below). Then, he said, imagine having to assemble something with pieces that tiny in an ordered manner so that the device functions properly—so that it keeps time. It may seem impossible, yet that’s the reality inside each Cartier watch.

To enthusiasts, wristwatches are machines with soul, and it’s that unique combination of beauty, functionality, hand-craftsmanship, and personal significance that make timepieces so special. For my husband, mechanical watches quickly become a passion that was almost inexplicable—except when you think about what a well-made watch means over the course of many years. As Clymer says, the most beautiful stories about horology (the study of mechanical time pieces) are much like his own—when someone is given a watch as a teenager and it sparks a lifelong passion: “One guy, one watch, forever.

Visit Brilliant and admire these tiny marvels of engineering and modern design in person.


There are several national organizations for watch collectors, makers, and hobbyists, and there’s also a thriving community in and around Denver:

Denver Watch Enthusiasts: A group of watch enthusiasts that convenes online and in-person.

Boulder Horological Society: Stronger interest in antique (rather than contemporary) watches.

National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, Chapters 21, 100, and 138: Meet once a month.

Image credit: Santos wristwatch, Cartier Paris, 1916. Platinum, gold, sapphire cabochon, leather strap. Round LeCoultre caliber 126 movement, fausses Côtes de Genève decoration, rhodium-plated, 8 adjustments, 18 jewels, Swiss lever escapement, bimetallic balance, Breguet balance spring. Case 3.4 × 2.5 cm. Cartier Collection WCL 88 A16. Photo: Nick Welsh. © Cartier.

Stefania Van Dyke is the interpretive specialist, textile art and special projects. Her favorite email subject line during the course of planning Star Wars and the Power of Costume was “Missing Dianoga.”

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