The Watch, a Twentieth Century Style History

A version of this review was written for the Journal of the Antiquarian Horological Society (“AHS”): It is easy to join the AHS online. Members receive the peer-reviewed quarterly printed journal, Antiquarian Horology, as well as free online searchable access to the entire AH archive from 1953, as well as other archives, such as the BHI’s Journal. Subscriptions to the AHS can be purchased from this link.

Photo (C) Black Bough Books 2020 https://www.blackbough.co.uk/product/prestel-the-watch-a-twentieth-century-style-history-alexander-barter/

The Watch, a Twentieth Century Style History, by AHS member Alexander Barter, charts wristwatch design and usage through the first one hundred years of its development. With a foreword by Daryn Schnipper (Chairman of Sotheby’s International Watch Division) the book covers the aesthetics, technology and decoration of watches from their first adoption by the general public following the first World War, through the decadence of the Thirties, the majesty of the Fifties, to the so-called Quartz Crisis of the seventies and the resurgence of mechanical wristwatches towards the end of the last century.

Richly illustrated with 450 high-quality photographs of pocket watches, wristwatches and ephemera, this 336pp book contains descriptions of iconic and original designs, as well as the historical and social background to key events. Rather than focus on well-known models, Mr Barter provides tantalising glimpses into unusual and seldom-seen watches, tracing the many and varied evolutionary steps in wristwatch design. A large proportion of the photographs are taken from Sotheby’s auctions over the past twenty years, providing an indication of the importance of both pocket- and wristwatches to the modern collector and society in general.

While the book is primarily split into decades, Mr Barter has also attempted to bring additional taxonomic rigour to the myriad types of watch, from early automatics and world timers, to the development of the Beta 21 and innovative mechanical complications from such masters as Daniels, Baumberger and Pratt. Some of these are repeated across decades, allowing the reader to compare (for example) diving watches in the Fifties to those of the Seventies.

Photo (C) Black Bough Books 2020 https://www.blackbough.co.uk/product/prestel-the-watch-a-twentieth-century-style-history-alexander-barter/

The text is suitable descriptive, capturing both technical detail and additional anecdotal information. Fully referenced, the book provides an insight into the staggering variety of watch designs through the 20th century and shows the enduring qualities of many. Both men’s and ladies’ watches are covered, allowing for informative sections on decorative techniques and materials, such as gem-setting and enamelling.

Photo (C) Black Bough Books 2020 https://www.blackbough.co.uk/product/prestel-the-watch-a-twentieth-century-style-history-alexander-barter/

As with any subject of this size, the book cannot be exhaustive. It does, however, provide comprehensive information about the key themes that have shaped the development of the wristwatch, from personal timekeepers to tools of the military, aviators or even astronauts. It should act as both reference material and inspiration to the reader, whether their interest lies in the decorative arts, technical watchmaking or collecting.

The Watch, a Twentieth Century Style History, by Alexander Barter, is published by Prestel and available via the author’s website (www.blackbough.co.uk).

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