Updated: May 11, 2020
It is through the watch crown that we dominate time, with it we travel into the future, into the past, and define the present. With the crown between our fingers we feel like we are kings of time. This is possibly the reason why it has survived to the present day.
We all know that the crown is useful, we all know that it can have a double function: winding and adjusting the time. Before the crown existed, the weights were lifted with a rope that moved the mechanism. Just as the spring replaced the weights, the crown replaced the rope. The process of inventing the crown began in 1820 when John Arnold created a way to wind with a key. The winding was done in one place and the time adjustment in another. The mechanism was perfected later, in 1832, by Breguet and the patent arrived at the hands of Louis Audemars in 1838. In 1842 Adrien Philippe invented a revolutionary mechanism that allowed to wind and set the watch in the same place using a crown, without the need for a key (French Patent No. 1317, 1845), this earned him a medal at the Industrial Exhibition of 1844. An example of this watch can be seen in the catalog of the auctioneer Antiquorum - here. Charles-Antoine LeCoultre, in 1847, built a mechanism equivalent to what he called “Remontoir à Bascule”.
First try - the future does not wear a crown.
Later on, in 1951, the company Jaeger-LeCoultre announced the creation of the first crownless watch which it named Futurematic. This name resulted from the union of two words, Future + Automatic = Futurematic. A simple future was foreseen in which the watch fulfilled its function with virtually no need for human intervention. It was considered so precise that at the time the slogan chosen was: “the most accurate self-winding watch in the world”. So accurate that it needed no crown? No. Actually, it had a crown that although it was not used to wind, it was used to set the time and well hidden under the watch. Futurematic is still an extraordinary watch, it bears a set of incredible complications that we will talk about later.
Second attempt - the space also does not use a crown.
In 1960, 10 years later, a second attempt was made to abolish the crown. The principle was exactly the same as the one used for the creation of Futurematic - an accurate watch does not need a crown. We are talking about Bulova and the watch is the incredible Accutron Spaceview. Like Futurematic, it was also considered the most accurate watch to date. The model name comes from the union of two words, Accurate + Electronic = Accutron, the first electric watch. In order to understand the incredible contribution of this watch, one has to take into account that until its invention, the frequency of a normal mechanism was 2 oscillations per second. Accutron accomplished 360 oscillations per second, which allowed it to lose just 2 seconds a day. With an electric movement and a delay of 2 seconds a day, it did not need the side crown, however, like the Futurematic, the Accutron Spaceview has a mechanism underneath to set the time. It was such a special watch that it gave rise to one of the most mythical watchwords in watchmaking: “It’s Not A Timepiece, It’s A Conversation Piece”.
One of Futurematic's difficulties its the hidden crown, not practical to use. Setting the time on this watch is a challenge for your fingers. The Accutron Spaceview solved this issue with a crank-shaped crown. Still, it is not useful to have a hidden crown, because setting time implies removing the watch from the wrist. Many models with back crown followed this one, like the Cartier Duoplan Bec d'Aigle, from the 60s; Voumard 2000 and Patek Philippe, Ref. 3569, both from the 70s, or some more recent ones like Ulysse Nardin's Freak, Romain Gauthier HMS.
Hiding the crown has no apparent practical use. It is a useless complication. As a driver needs the steering wheel to control the car, the watch user needs the crown to gain control of their own time. The Swedish car brand Saab learn this the hard way, they invented a version of the great Saab 9000 that instead of the traditional and boring steering wheel, had a joystick. It did not work.
Contrary to what happens with automobiles, watches do not have to obey exclusively utility, perhaps because our lives do not depend on them, as happens with cars. Complications that are of no use are always welcome. The back crown may not be useful, but it is fantastic. It allows perfect symmetry in watches and constantly reminds us that creativity is not hostage to utility.
This article was initially published in the online version of Espiral do Tempo on 2020-4-16.