The World on Your Wrist: A History of World Timers

an exceptionally rare and ___ world time ___ sotheby's n08772lot69sxden - Google Chrome 2016-11-08 13.49.01.png

This article was first published in Arabic in the September issue of Alam Assatt wal Moujawharat

Sanford Fleming circa 1907

Sanford Fleming circa 1907

As Sanford Fleming spent an uncomfortable night in an Irish train station in 1876, he pondered the inconveniences of his journey. Chief Engineer of the Canadian Railway, he had not been impressed when he had to adjust his watch countless times as he journeyed from town to town (even if they were only a few miles apart). This had caused him to nearly miss several carriage rides and now because a timetable hadn't listed whether his train left at am or pm, he was marooned overnight. If Fleming had caught his train, he might not have written his treatise on the needs for standardized global time and without that we might not have seen the brilliant world timer complication.

This treatise served as the basis of the 1884 International Meridian Conference in Washington DC, when 26 nations met to discuss a standard timezone. Despite refusals from France, Greenwich London was chosen as the location of the Prime Meridian, as most navigational charts centered on the city and it was a center for trade. Fleming's own design for a standard 24 zone system was rejected by the conference as it didn't account for country borders, but it did provide the framework the standardized time zones that were finalized in the mid-1920s.

It became more desirable to have a timepiece that could show the time at any point in the world, but early attempts at a world timer complication were difficult to read, a cramped cluster of half legible cities. Swiss watchmaker Emmanuel Cottier's world timer from 1885 wasn't a success but served as the inspiration for the evolution of the complication in 1931 and the perfection of it in 1953.

Emmanuel's son Louis was a small-time, albeit exceptionally talented, watchmaker who worked out of the back room of his wife's stationery store. It was there that he invented his world timer complication.

 Like all great inventions, what makes Cottier's design great was it's simplicity.

Cottier split the dial into three sections: an adjustable outer chapter ring, a rotating inner ring and a static center dial. Through a series of gears, Cottier was able to link the hour hand and the inner ring together so as the hour hand rotated clockwise around the dial over a period of twelve hours, the inner ring rotated counter clockwise over a period of twenty four hours. The adjustable outer chapter ring had names of various cities printed on it, each a major city of their timezone (London, New York,  Moscow) with the local city located at twelve o'clock.

The Patek Philippe Reference 2523. Photo courtesy of Christies.

The Patek Philippe Reference 2523. Photo courtesy of Christies.

The Vacheron Constantin Ref. 3372 World Timer Pocket Watch.

The Vacheron Constantin Ref. 3372 World Timer Pocket Watch.

When the correct local time was set, the inner ring would match up with all the cities on the chapter ring to allow a quick and easy way of knowing what time is was around the world; as time progressed, the inner ring would rotate anti-clockwise so that the ascending twenty four hour scale would show the correct time for all locations. When traveling through different timezones, the wearer would take their watch to a watchmaker who could remove and adjust the outer chapter ring so that the local timezone city would be at 12 o'clock.

Cottier had shrunk the world into your pocket and whilst his first watch was for a local jeweler, it wasn't long before the prestige brands were knocking on his workshop door. Vacheron Constantin approached him in 1932 and provided him with calibers to serve as a base for his complication. The Ref. 3372 was the first world timer sold by a major watch manufacturer with two more references, 3650 and 3638, being made in 1936. However, the pocket watch was becoming more obsolete every day so Patek Philippe commissioned Cottier in 1937 to produce the first world timer wristwatch.

The rectangular Ref. 515 HU (Heuers Universelles or World Timer) is regarded as the first world timer produced by Patek and the Ref. 96 HU was the first to be housed inside a Calatrava case.

The Patek Philippe Ref. 1415-HU. this one of a kind piece was made for a special client in 1940.

The Patek Philippe Ref. 1415-HU. this one of a kind piece was made for a special client in 1940.

Both watches lack a Patek Philippe signature on the dial and with only four Ref. 515 HU and one Ref. 96 HU being created, it is believed that they were prototypes and never intended for sale. The Ref. 515 changed Cottier's design by having the cities printed directly onto the rectangular dial, making the local time permanent, with the Ref 96 continuing his previous inner dial design.

In 1939 the Patek Philippe References 1416 and 1415 moved the reference cities onto an external bezel allowing the wearer to manually adjust their local time at any point. The 24 hour wheel had the hours between six PM and six AM colored in gray to represent the day/night cycle across the globe. The Ref. 1416 was only in production for one year with only three models being made, each in yellow gold. The Ref. 1415 also saw a limited production but it is the exceptionally rare cloisonné enamel dial variants that are considered among the rarest Patek Philippe's ever made.

Cloisonné enameling is a painfully slow process of creating beautiful works of art. Gold wire is soldering onto the dial in the desired shape with liquid enamel poured in with the entire dial then fired up to fifty times in a kiln. One wrong solder or an incorrect amount of time spent in the kiln would ruin everything. There were eight Ref. 1415 HU DE (Decor email or decorative enamel) made with the two rarest having a map of Eurasia on the dial rather than a standard world map. One of these watches sold at Christies in 2000 for just over a $1,000,000 with other selling for $730,000 at Sotheby's last year. 

Cottier was not exclusive to Patek however, as in 1945 he was commissioned by Agassiz to make four world timer pocket watches that were to be gifted to Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin and Charles De Gaulle to celebrate the end of the Second World War. Whilst all the movements were the same, each enamel dial and hour hand was designed with iconography of the recipient’s country. Truman's showed the Statue of Liberty with the hour hand in the shape of an olive branch, Churchill's showed St. George slaying a dragon and the hour hand in the shape of a trident, De Gaulle's had Joan of Arc planting the Lorraine Cross with another cross as the hour hand and Stalin's had a worker standing in front of a burning factory with the communist five pointed star as the hour hand. Churchill's and De Gaulle's have both sold at auction over the last quarter century with Truman's and Stalin's currently unaccounted for.

In 1953 Cottier perfected the world timer by developing a system where a rotating inner dial was controlled by a second crown at 9 o'clock.

This new system greatly improved on the deficiencies of the old; the legibility of the printed cities was far superior to those engraved on bezels, the inner rotating dial was protected against damage underneath the crystal and the convenience of allowing the wearer to adjust the cities via the crown was unparalleled. The Refs. 2523 and 2523/1 would be produced from 1953 through 1965 until Cottier's death in 1966.

Patek Philippe Ref. 2523/1. Photo courtesy of sotheby's

Patek Philippe Ref. 2523/1. Photo courtesy of sotheby's

The world timers produced in his lifetime are some of the most valuable and desirable watches in the world as Cottier only made 455 movements at a rate of 13 pieces a year. These watches serve as a time capsule for the era in which they were made with different cities written on the dials and names changing to reflect the political climate. France reverted to Central European time during World War 2 but it was assumed that afterwards they would revert back so Patek continued to put London and Paris on the same timezone until the 1970s. 

During the second half of the 20th Century the world timer gradually became more affordable as smaller brands tackled the complication themselves. Tissot, Seiko, Bulova and others came out with world timers in the 1970s and recently there has been a rekindling of love for one of the most useful complications. Breitling, Bremont, Montblanc  and others have all released world-timers within the last ten years in one form or another.


A photo posted by James (@jestacey) on


There has been some dispute as to whether brands other than Vacheron or Patek are 'allowed' to use the design of a map on the dial. This pompous claim is ludicrous for several reasons: neither company made a world timer with a realistic map dial until the early 2000s and having a central map with cities surrounding it is the best way of visualizing timezones.

It's simple, efficient and works perfectly within the size constraints of a wristwatch.

The Mont Blanc Orbis Terrarum and the Jaeger-LeCoultre Geophysic Universal Time share similar design traits because both chose to express the timezones in a traditional way, unlike the Louis Vuitton World Timer which eschews a map altogether in favor of a colorful hodgepodge of quasi-semaphore flags and city abbreviations. It's wonderful, maddening, vibrant fun but it is still a true world timer unlike some watches which use the name.

To be a true world timer a watch must be able to have all 24 timezones read at once on one dial. If there are only two time zones available (even if there is a map or a list of cities) then it is a GMT complication, not a world timer. The Nomos Zürich World Timer uses a pusher to advance an inner dial that displays a list of cities however the main hands refer to the local time of the city located at 12 o'clock with a small dial at 3 o'clock actually displaying home time. It may be beautiful, but it's not a Cottier world timer.

The same can be said for the Christopher Ward C8 World Timer. A GMT hand points to a static 24 hour scale that runs around the dial with an aperture at 12 o'clock displaying the international airport code for the chosen city (LHR, JKF, DXB). The center map has 24 small apertures dotted in vague approximation to the location of the reference airports that are highlighted red when they are selected. It's a visually dynamic way of displaying a timezone and is certainly impressive for under $1500, but it is not Cottier world timer. 

It's over one hundred and thirty years since Sanford Fleming spent a sleepless night in an Irish train station and whilst the time is standardized, the trains still don't run on time. However without his treatise, we might not have been gifted some of the most beautiful and advanced timepieces by one of the greatest watchmakers of the 20th Century.

From Caracas to Karachi, to Auckland to Azores, we're now able to know the time thousands of miles away thanks to one man and his invention, Louis Cottier and his World Timer.