They are also among the more useful items to come out of 16th Century Europe. Originally created as novelty items for German nobles, the earliest portable timepieces could barely be bothered with telling time. They had only an hour hand, and their verge and foliot movements were so inaccurate that that one hand tended to be off by several hours.
Worn by high society in Nuremberg and Augsburg, these early watches served as pieces of 16th Century flair, fastened to jackets or worn on chains as necklaces. The dial was not under glass, but rather a curved and carved brass or metal decorative lid. They were shaped like eggs, animals, crosses or even skulls.
Fortunately, the addition of the balance spring in 1657, and the focus on technological advancement during Europe’s late 18th Century period of Enlightenment, greatly improved the accuracy of the next wave of watches. Watchmakers like Abraham-Louis Breguet began creating luxurious timepieces that combined fashion and function.
In 1868, a Swiss up-and-comer named Patek Philippe created the first wristwatch. The ingenuity of the company, founded by two Polish watchmakers and a French colleague who just so happened to invent the world’s first keyless winding mechanism, also includes such milestones as the perpetual calendar, chronograph and minute repeater.
Switzerland’s Girard-Perregaux watchmaker was commissioned by the German Imperial Navy to develop a series of wristwatches for sailors in the late 19th Century. Kaiser Wilhelm I was such a fan that he ordered one for himself.
Cartier got in on the game in 1904. Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont asked his buddy Louis Cartier to create a “hands-free” device that he could use to time his flight performances. The resulting wristwatch, Cartier’s fittingly named Santos model, went on sale to the public in 1911.
Haute horology continues to develop today, with Patek Philippe, Breguet and Cartier joined by the likes of Chopard and Piaget. Fine watches value intricate complications, elegant workmanship and spring-powered mechanisms, while more affordable versions with quartz movements are sold by everyone from high-end designers to humble drug stores.
Our ranking of the world’s 11 most expensive watches spans antique clocks with removable pocket watches, to bespoke wristwatches studded with gemstones, gold and even rare galactic materials like the Rosetta Stone. These pieces elevate timekeeping to a bona fide art form.