Venezuela Adds a Wrinkle in Time for World Models
New York Times, March 26, 2009
When President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela declared in 2007 that clocks in his country would be moved back by 30 minutes, citing the positive effects that the change would have on the health and productivity of his fellow citizens, the high-end watch industry experienced an unintended consequence: Watchmakers had to decide what to do with their world time models, which used Caracas to designate the time zone sandwiched between Rio de Janeiro and New York.
A world timer is a wristwatch that can simultaneously display the time in the 24 time zones established by the 1884 International Meridian Conference in Washington, which fixed the prime meridian at Greenwich, England, forming the basis for Greenwich Mean Time, or G.M.T.
Now that Caracas no longer occupies G.M.T. -4, the prestige brands that make world timers have opted for a range of substitutes.
In January, Girard-Perregaux showed a new version of its ww.tc (World Wide Time Control) watch, using Puerto Rico as a replacement. A. Lange & Söhne went with Santiago for the 2009 relaunching of its Lange 1 Time Zone. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Compressor Extreme W-Alarm now features Saint Barth.
Patek Philippe, whose World Time watch is considered by many to be the category standard-bearer, has, in deference to its historical links from the mid-1940’s through the late 1950’s with the Caracas jeweler Serpico Y Laino, maintained the status quo.
The choices are merely the latest in a long and colorful list of world time locations that reflect a curious narrative of travel throughout the 20th century. Invented in 1935 by Louis Cottier, an independent watchmaker in Geneva, the mechanism at the heart of the world timer was first put to use by Patek Philippe in 1937 in Ref. 515, a rectangular pink gold model in the Art Deco style, featuring 28 place names, including Prague, Moscow and Fiji, engraved on a rotating exterior bezel.
Although the rationale behind choosing those destinations has been lost to history, said Arnaud Tellier, director of the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva, they “correspond to the most important cities, capitals or states of the time.”
In 1939 and 1940, the firm produced Ref. 1415, on which Baghdad made an appearance (as “Bagdad”) next to obvious time zone markers like New York and London. Nearly a quarter of a century later came Ref. 2523, mounted in a round Calatrava case. Calcutta, Saigon, Klondike, Dakar and Algiers were among the exotic locations it advertised.
“Over decades, watchmaking adapts to new emerging economies, to the necessity of travelers,” said Osvaldo Patrizzi, founder of Patrizzi & Co., an auction house specializing in timepieces. “It’s very easy to change the dial or indication. It’s just a question of what you decide.”
For all its jet-setting appeal, however, one thing a world timer can’t account for is politics. Fractional time zones, like the one chosen by Mr. Chávez, or the disruptions caused by countries that wish to adopt or ignore daylight saving time, will always threaten to spoil the game.
“One hundred and twenty-five years ago, the time zone system was designed to make things simple, but as soon as politics gets involved things get messy, and what we have now is all over the place,” said David Rooney, curator of timekeeping at the Royal Observatory of Greenwich. “Every country is free to choose any time it wants.”