Newspaper article International New York Times

Old Nautical Chronometers Inspire Today's Designs ; Exterior and Interior Reflect the History and Demands of Navigation

Newspaper article International New York Times

Old Nautical Chronometers Inspire Today's Designs ; Exterior and Interior Reflect the History and Demands of Navigation

Article excerpt

The history of chronometers is incorporated into current wristwatch designs.

One of the many difficulties that mariners faced before modern times was finding a way to keep accurate time at sea. Relying on the moon and the stars was not enough.

Determining the height of the North Star allowed ship captains to determine latitude, but longitude was only calculable by the difference between the ship's time and the time at the home port. Accuracy was nearly impossible without a timepiece not affected by the endless motion of the ship.

Enter the 18th-century chronometer, which inspired the pocket watch and has remained a part of nautical folklore. Its traditional designs, and operating tools, continue to inspire watch designers.

"Navigation has so much to do with astronomy and time, and accuracy at that time was very important and was very hard to harness," said Patrik P. Hoffmann, chief executive of Ulysse Nardin, a family-owned watchmaker founded in 1846 and based in Le Locle, Switzerland.

"In the last five or six years, consumers are more interested in the history of watch brands and, in our case, the mechanical history of navigation," Mr. Hoffmann added. "The challenge all along for us was how to take a design of any kind of wall clock and pack it into a wristwatch."

Traditional, often clunky, clocks on ships during the early years of European expeditions used weighted chains to provide the power, and swinging pendulums to provide accuracy. These were both nearly nullified by a rocking ship. The chronometer, on the other hand, used springs for both power and regulation of that power. They weren't entirely accurate, at least not enough to keep constant time during a voyage that might last weeks or months.

In 1761, John Harrison's H4 chronometer was used during a long voyage, from Portsmouth, England, to Jamaica, and gave nearly accurate time. Giving up attempts to create a clock that could compensate for the motion of the ship, Mr. Harrison had created a spring-driven and regulated timepiece, or a kind of oversized pocket watch.

The designers at Ulysse Nardin use this concept not only for designing their watches on the inside but also for the way time is presented on the outside.

Marine chronometers have been part of the company's identity since its founding. The Marine Chronometer, priced at around 30,000 Swiss francs, or $34,000, has gained a following among those interested in the history of seafaring and the mapping of the skies.

In the 1990s, the company's Planetarium trilogy of watches tracked and displayed the movement of planets, the sun and moon with an elegant simplicity (its Astrolabium Galileo Galilei displays local and solar time, the orbits and eclipses of the sun and the moon, and the positions of several major stars). The Blue Seal line features a blue dial with a seal pattern, and there's a series with the theme of Columbus's three ships. …

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