Watches: The best new world time watches bring the globe to your wrist

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on December 11, 2017.

(From left) Jaeger-LeCoultre geophysic tourbillon universal time, price upon request; Frederique constant classic manufacture worldtimer, US$4,195 (RM17,158); Ulysse Nardin executive moonstruck worldtimer in platinum, US$75,000; and Patek Philippe, 7130G ladies’ world time, US$45,700. Photo by Bloomberg

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World time as we know it began in 1884, when the International Meridian Conference convened in Washington, D.C. Leaders there accepted a ­proposal by Sandford Fleming, a Scottish civil engineer who’d helped build Canada’s transcontinental railroads, to slice the globe longitudinally into 24 time zones—­standardizing the hours to comply with the demands of the Second Industrial Revolution.

The first watches with a world time complication arrived about 50 years later, when the Swiss craftsman Louis Cottier devised a pocket watch for Vacheron Constantin and then a wristwatch for Patek Philippe SA. Each house issued a design with a rotating exterior ring (or bezel) around the perimeter that listed the names of locations to represent each time zone. Moving the bezel made it simple to compute the hour anywhere in the world.

The power of such a watch is plain to see on its face, now typically featuring a God’s-eye view of the northern hemisphere, with the North Pole at the centre of the dial. It’s a look that conjures the international glamour of a worldwide network of connections — business dinners in Dubai, old friends in the Azores, urgent appointments in Mexico, Moscow, and the Midway Islands. Glancing at the map, a captain of industry feels like he’s at the wheel of a ship charting a circum­navigatory course—or maybe, in a naughtier fantasy, like a supervillain plotting global domination from his wrist.

For most of these timepieces, the hours are calculated by moving a bezel with a number of cities or countries listed on it. You line up your location at the 12 o’clock position, usually using the crown on the side of the watch. As the day goes on, a smaller interior bezel marked with hours 1 through 24 slowly rotates. By looking at where a city falls against the ring of hours, you know what time it is there—while the hours and minutes in your own time zone are marked by the standard watch hands.

Oddly enough, in an era when a phone can instantly tell the time anywhere you wish, worldtimer watches have become distinctly on-trend. Call it a symptom of an increasingly global society that yearns for a bit of tradition. “More companies have adopted worldtimer watches in some shape or form. They’re more available,” observes Ruediger Albers, the US president of high-end watch retailer Wempe, who wears a Patek worldtimer himself. The buyers who come into his Fifth Avenue location are often businesspeople who are making deals in faraway lands. They don’t need a mechanical watch, “but everything else is plastic”, he says. “It doesn’t go with your nice suit.”

The Earth’s current revolution around the sun has spun forth a number of beautiful versions from brands that have made these watches for years. The most exclusive option just might be the Ulysse Nardin Executive Moonstruck Worldtimer, available in two limited 100-piece editions, one platinum, the other rose gold. Not content to combine the pleasures of horology and cartography, this one also throws astronomy and oceanography into the mix. The 46­mm model depicts the motion of the moon and sun in relation to the earth—as well as the phases of the moon and the ebb and flow of the tides. And push buttons at 8 o’clock and 10 o’clock allow even the groggiest globe-trotter to adjust the hour forward or backward with ease.

This year, Patek Philippe, the house where worldtimers began, has rendered its 7130G Ladies’ World Time in a new colour, meaning a woman can enjoy this 36mm masterpiece in white gold, with a delicately etched dial of radiant blue. Granted, she’s not an everyday woman—there are 62 diamonds on the bezel of her timepiece and 27 more on the buckle of its ­peacock-blue alligator strap. Rather, you should imagine Carmen Sandiego buying herself a treat after an especially successful international heist.

The most theatrical of these releases is the Jaeger-LeCoultre Geophysic Tourbillon Universal Time, which is fitted with a flying ­tourbillon — a complex, ever-moving gadget that protects the watch’s timekeeping from the effects of gravity. The tourbillon window, poised at the 4 o’clock position, cuts dramatically into the dial’s carved oceans and satin-brushed continents as it rotates through its 24-hour journey.

Less showy but no less stately, the Frédérique Constant Classic Manufacture Worldtimer offers a dashing view of the earth, with ­chocolate-brown oceans lapping at the shores of rose-gold land­masses. As with the Jaeger-LeCoultre, the hour and minute hands come with luminescent strips, so they are easier to read against the busy background. Those clear sightlines do not, however, extend to the continent of Antarctica, which is blotted out on the dial’s map by a date subdial. But who cares? The context down there calls for a field watch, and penguins don’t even have wrists to wear its attractive brown-leather strap anyway. — Bloomberg