The humble case of your watch is far more complicated than you may realise. It is the result of hundreds of years of hard work improving designs and construction techniques to produce something that protects a very delicate movement from shocks, water, dust, and damage. This week's Blog Post will examine the different types of cases and how you can find one that suits your needs.
Where did watch cases come from?
Watches are simply small clocks, and all clocks and watches have always had some kind of case. In the 15th century, they were made small enough to be carried around as travel clocks or pocket clocks, and it was then that metal cases became really necessary. Previously they were contained in wooden cases or had none at all.
Over the following 400 years, case making got pretty sophisticated and as advanced manufacturing techniques were developed to make the cases and movements very cheaply, and pocket watches became mass market items. Expensive cases in precious metals were always made by hand to avoid waste.
The Pocket Watch made for Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom by Patek Philippe in 1853, with a gold case covered in blue enamel and encrusted with Diamonds.
By modern standards, these cases were not very good. They weren't sealed against water access, which meant they could also allow dirt and dust inside. The First World War led to the widespread adoption of wristwatches as the conditions on the battlefield made them much more convenient than pocket watches. As a result, innovations in new types of sealed cases sprang up all over the place.
Following World War One, demand for men's wristwatches boomed, and this increased the demand for both hand made and machine made cases, in volume, of many different types. There was great demand for rectangular cases, and the most famous of those from the 1930s is found on the world's first sports watch, the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso. This case is reversible to protect the glass, and is such an iconic design it is still sold today.
A vintage Jaeger Le Coultre Reverso, showing how the case can fold over to protect the Glass.
A Jaeger Le Coultre Reverso with an Art Deco Dial.
The first Waterproof watch cases
We'll save a discussion on what waterproof really means for a future Blog Post, but the demands of war led to the urgent search for reliably waterproof wristwatches. A watch worn on the wrist is exposed to so much more dust, dirt and water than when kept safely in a coat pocket. The first attempts were labelled Submarine or similar, and companies such as Rolex sold them. The cases were multi-part cases that slid together or screwed together. However, they were not particularly reliable and did not take off at this point.
The first Superstar watch
The Rolex Oyster was the first waterproof watch to hit the mainstream and it came about because of Rolex Founder Hans Wilsdorf's determination to create a much more robust case to house his high-quality movements. He knew his customers would love a properly sealed case, and he was right. Using stunts such as putting fish tanks in jewellery store windows with his watch ticking away in the middle, the Oyster was a great success from its launch in 1927.
Companies such as Omega also launched their own version, in this case called the Marine. They did not have Rolex's marketing flair and these watches were not as successful. The Rolex Oyster is still the core of the Rolex brand today.
A vintage Rolex Oyster case from the 1950s (top) and a modern Rolex Oyster case (bottom) show how the case shape and design have not changed since their introduction in the 1920s.
A Rolex Oyster from the 1950s.
The Omega Marine, showing its unusual case design. Pic courtesy of Omega.
The impact of World War Two
World War Two transformed the watch industry, both for the watchmaking companies and the demand for types of watch. Military watches were ordered with ever increasing standards of toughness and reliability. This required thicker cases and more screw-down backs or bezels. The famous Dirty Dozen set of watches were ordered by the British Army in 1944, where the W.W.W on the back stands for Watch Wrist Waterproof.
The Jaeger LeCoultre "Dirty Dozen" Watch issued towards the end of the war.
Following the war, there were many developments in watch functions, including the emergence in the early 1950s of Diving watches. These required thick cases with very strong seals, in order to withstand the pressure of deep dives. The first was the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, and along with the Rolex Submariner it set the marker with 200 metres of water pressure resistance, and things only got stronger and deeper from there.
The ultra-deepwater watches required separate devices such as strengthening inner gaskets and helium pressure valves to protect the watch. Making these was a huge technical challenge but broadly by the late 1960 watches were tough enough to withstand almost anything.
A Rolex Submariner from 1953, the year the watch was released.
Making a Square Watch an Icon
In the 1960s the race was on to create a reliable automatic chronograph, and one of the winners was Heuer. They created a waterproof square case to contain their new Monaco watch, and it was a big hit. It is still the most famous and one of the most popular square watches on the market.
Demand for watches to accompany the explosion of new leisure activities such as mountaineering (the Rolex Explorer), dangerous hobbies like cave diving (the Rolex Explorer II), or scientific experiments like withstanding the vacuum of Space (the Omega Speedmaster) saw watch case development accelerate rapidly.
A Modern Tag Heuer Moncao
Watch Case Design Details
Broadly speaking, what we call a watch case has three parts: a core case with integrated lugs, a caseback, and a bezel to secure the crystal or provide a useful function. Almost every case you'll find today is engineered like this, however some notable alternatives exist.
These watch cases do not have a detachable caseback, so the case is all in "one block" which is what the word Monocoque means. The watch movement is placed in from the front and the crystal and Bezel then screwed down onto the case to create the seal. This makes for very very strong cases, but is not a particularly common design.
Three or more parts:
Some case makers split the case further, so that the mid part which holds everything in place is separate to a frame that includes the lugs. This allows for more varied and innovative lug designs (the lugs are the parts which stick out and the strap is attached to). It also allows the different parts to be made of different materials, or be in contrasting colours and finishes.
Cases with cut-out or see-through sections
Modern case materials are extremely sophisticated, and the development of ever stronger sapphire crystals has allowed watchmakers to have see-through parts to their cases to allow the appreciation of the movement or other watch functions. This has been seen mostly at the high end of watchmaking, but clear and see-through casebacks are now available even for microbrands and the low end of the mechanical watch market.
The Famous Breitling Top Time from the 1960s has a monocoque case where the movement is put in from the front.
This Altitude Pilot's Watch from Bremont has a three-part case. The Black centre part is separate to the top and the caseback, and comes in many different colours and finishes.
This highly unsusual case from a Japanese manufacturer Minase, has facets to the case containing crystal so that you can see the dial and movement from all different sides, while still preserving the strength and waterproofing of the case.
Modern Watch Cases
Fortunately for the modern watch lover, there are cases of every conceivable shape size, material and finish available on the market today. From precious metal cases on dive watches, to carbon fibre curves, to see-through sapphire, ultra-strong titanium, and environmentally friendly plastic, anything is possible for watch designers.
Some brands have made case design part of their DNA. The fascinating Trip Tick case from British watch brand Bremont is a good example of what an innovative design-led watch brand can do. It has a central barrel section that can be customised and finished in different ways and textures, to either stand out or blend in. It is flexible enough to be used in many different styles of watch and still be a signature of the brand. This exploded image shows the parts which combine to protect the watch movement in a Trip-tick case.
The three parts of the Bremont Trip-Tick case. From left to right; the main section, holding the movement and the lugs, the barrel which comes in a variety of colours and finishes, and the case back.
Watch cases are often praised for their beauty but under-appreciated for their variety. There is as much to focus on case design as there is when we talk about dial design and manufacture. We at The Watch Collectors' Club enjoy looking in-depth at all aspects of the watches we love, and hope to help you learn about every part of them. Find out more by joining one of our watch events, and if you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask!
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We explore rare and unusal functions found in mechanical watches.