Words by Simon de Burton – a journalist and author based in Dartmoor, South Devon, specialising in heritage and luxury living. He writes for the Financial Times, Country & Townhouse, Daily Telegraph, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among many others.
Plenty has been said about the synergy between cars and watches – but what of the equally strong connection between watches and guns?
The celebrated Cornish watchmaker John Arnold is thought to have begun his career working for his gunsmith uncle during the mid-18th century, and it is probably then that he developed the eye for action, fit and finish that led to him becoming one of the greatest of all English horologists. Then there's the shared terminology – barrels, calibres, levers and engraving – plus, of course, the fact that precision is as key to creating a perfect Purdey gun as it is to creating a watch that keeps (near) perfect time.
This week (March 27th to April 2nd), horophiles from around the world have gathered in the Swiss city of Geneva for the annual ‘Watches & Wonders’ show, at which retailers, collectors, journalists and time-curious members of the public have been introduced to the latest creations from some of the most prestigious dial names in existence.
Among them are Florentine brand Panerai, which first came to prominence in the 1920s as an optical instruments maker that supplied luminous gun sights to the Italian navy. The Ronconi sights could be used in the dead of night thanks to a glow-in-the-dark powder called ‘Radiomir’, which the Panerai family adapted to illuminate the dial of a dive watch also designed for the navy in 1936. It was so successful that they continued to make military watches as a sideline until the late 1950s, after which demand dwindled and the firm returned solely to instrument manufacture.
For almost 20 years, Panerai has enjoyed a partnership with Purdey, the aforementioned links between horology and gunmaking being recognised in a remarkable series of watches that have since become collectors’ pieces. Focusing on the present moment for now though, those who have visited ‘Watches & Wonders’ will have newer innovations front of mind – and, once you know what you’re looking for, drawing parallels between horology and gunsmithing is almost another sport in itself.
The shared worlds – and words – of watchmaking & gunmaking
Let’s take Panerai’s new Radiomir ‘Otto Giorni’ or ‘Eight Days’ model as our case study. The number refers to the length of time that the watch movement will run between re-winds – to have an eight-day ‘power reserve’ is impressive, to say the least. Achieving such autonomy is all down to the size and capacity of the ‘barrel’ which, in the case of a clockwork movement, is the component that contains the mainspring, providing the power that drives the gear train and, ultimately, moves the hands. This vital, cylindrical box turns on a tiny axle or ‘arbor’, connected to the crown of the watch to enable it to be re-wound. Due to a reduction in the gear train, the seconds hand of a watch typically takes one minute to rotate around the dial, but the barrel rotates only once every eight hours or so.
Moving onto more familiar territory: in a gun, the word ‘calibre’ refers to the diameter of the bore, as well as to that of the cartridge or bullet it is designed to fire. The horological ‘calibre’, however, simply refers to the movement inside the watch. As with ammunition, watch ‘calibres’ come in different diameters, thicknesses and shapes and can have many different functions or complications. Movement manufacturers distinguish these by giving different numbers to different calibres – Panerai’s eight-day, hand wound movement mentioned above, for example, is designated the P.2002.
As for ‘levers’ – on a gun, a ‘lever action’ refers to the large metal hinge behind the trigger that opens the action to eject a spent cartridge or to enable a fresh one to be loaded. In a watch, the ‘lever’ is an anchor-shaped component made from brass (or sometimes steel) that transmits energy from the mainspring, via a series of wheels, to the balance wheel – the familiar part that oscillates back and forth, and governs the rate at which the watch runs.
The final word common to gun making and clockwork? Engraving – a self-explanatory term when referring to the beautifully elaborate decoration of the case and dial of a watch. On high-end models though, this technique goes one step further, to the remarkable art of engraving many of the minuscule components that make up the watch’s interior movement.
And there you have it, a comprehensive guide to the wonderful synergies between watchmaking and gunmaking. Take this as your cue to celebrate both.