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Top 10 Technically Important Mechanical Wrist Watches

Top 10 Technically Important Mechanical Wrist Watches ABTW Editors' Lists

Most wristwatches made today are hardly state-of-the-art, but rather continue a tradition of watch making set in motion long ago. One reason many collectors are interested in vintage watches is because many of them represent important achievements in technology and functionality that we take for granted today. aBlogtoWatch has done its homework and brought to you what we feel are the top 10 most technically important mechanical wrist watches. By the 1920s, consumers had accepted wristwatches as practical and pocket watch sales had started to decline dramatically. By 1930, the ratio of wristwatches to pocket watches was about 50:1.

During the past 100 years, the mechanical wristwatch has seen many changes, even seeming to come close to demise. Important electronic watches will merit a list unto themselves.  Let’s have a look at mechanical wrist watch history and some of the technological milestones that have helped it evolve.

Top 10 Technically Important Mechanical Wrist Watches ABTW Editors' Lists

The Chronograph 

The chronograph is the most popular complication today (aside from the date) and its uses extend from simply boiling eggs to helping spacecraft return home safely.

The history of the chronograph was actually recently re-written with the discovery that it was invented by Louis Moinet in 1816 but it wasn’t until a century later that it actually made its way into the wristwatch.

Longines arguably produced the first chronograph wristwatch in 1913. A single pushpiece (monopusher), 29mm in diameter, it was accurate to one-fifth of a second and used their 13.33Z caliber. This was the precursor to Longines 13ZN caliber which was another milestone released in 1936: the first flyback chronograph.


Incidentally, for those interested in Longine’s first chronograph, they produced a limited edition anniversary version released at Baselworld 2012, which was a faithful recreation. The main difference being instead of an in-house movement, it uses one outsourced from ETA.

Breitling also invented one of the first wristwatch chronographs in 1915. Gaston Breitling who a year earlier had succeeded his father, had the idea of creating a single pushpiece chronograph separate from the crown that would control the start, stop and reset functions. In 1923 the system was further perfected so that resetting could be done separately from the start and stop functions.

Universal Geneve capitalizing on the developing interest in chronographs, presented one of the first in 1917 and then later in 1936 unveiled the first chronograph with an hour counter.

These early chronograph innovations paved the way for later developments such as the Valjoux 7750 movement which is used in the majority of mechanical chronograph watches on the market today.

Top 10 Technically Important Mechanical Wrist Watches ABTW Editors' Lists

The Water-Resistant Watch

“We must succeed in making a watch case so tight that our movements will be permanently guaranteed against damage caused by dust, perspiration, water, heat and cold. Only then will the perfect accuracy of the Rolex watch be secured “ wrote Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf to his technical assistants early on in the development of the Rolex Oyster watch.

The main difficulty they encountered in producing an “impermeable” watch was preventing water and dust from entering through the crown. But in 1925 two Swiss watchmakers, Paul Perregaux and Georges Peret patented a new crown locking system, and Wilsdorf, understanding the importance of this system, purchased the patent. Using the watertight case Rolex had developed along with a modified version of the crown locking system, they registered their “Oyster” design under a British patent in 1926. Named so because it was intended to be sealed as tight as an oyster.

Incidentally Rolex’s motivation to create a self-winding movement was also driven in part by their desire to create an impermeable watch. Because although the Oyster case was impermeable to dust and water, if the owner forgot to screw the crown back in tightly after winding or if the crown threads and seals wore out over time, then dust and water could still enter, a self-winding movement solved this problem.

Rolex wanted to prove the claims of water resistance made for the “Oyster” and were able to do this when young English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze completed a successful ten hour swim of the English channel wearing the watch in the 1927 Cross-Channel Challenge. Rolex used this event in their publicity for the watch up until the 1950’s – as well as giving their authorized dealers fish tanks to put in their windows to show-off the waterproofness of their watches.

Omega also introduced a waterproof watch in 1932, and to avoid infringing on Rolex’s patented locking crown, they placed the whole watch inside another outer casing and advertised their watch, called the Marine, as the first diver’s watch. In 1936, it was taken to a depth of 73 meters for 30 minutes in Lake Geneva and was certified to a depth of 135 meters the following year by the Swiss Laboratory for Horology in Neuchâtel.

The Omega Marine was endorsed by William Beebe, who was famous for his 1934 descent in the “Bathysphere” to a depth of 3,028 feet. Beebe also pioneered helmet diving and in 1936 wore the Marine on one such dive, afterwards reporting that “I wore my Omega Marine in the Pacific Ocean at a depth of 14 meters, where the pressure is twice the normal one. My watch sustained this test with success. Its tightness to water and dust and its robustness to corrosion represent a true progress for watchmaking science.”

Rolex and Omega have since gone on to further develop the water resistant wristwatch with their modern day counterparts found in the  Rolex Sea Dweller and Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean watches.



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  • Ulysses31

    Some gorgeous watches featured here.  That Longines chrono and the first couple of Rolex models, as well as that wonderful Omega DeVille.  If Rolex still made stuff like that i’d be a customer; a shame they went in the direction they did.  So uh, should we expect the “Top Ten Significant Electronic Watches” list any time soon?

    • Ulysses31 maybe… we are still putting the list together. Anything we may forget? A lot of Seikos on that one…

      • Ulysses31

        aBlogtoWatch Ulysses31 There are too many, makes it hard to choose.  I’ll pick one at random ; the Seiko Thermic.

    • Panagiotis

      Ulysses31 I second that! A list with Astrons, Aerospaces, Bulovas, Campanolas… mouth watering!!!

  • Oelholm

    What a great read. Thanks a lot!

  • AlbertoPerez

    Nice reading.Thanks,it looks Rolex and Longines lovers have a lot to be proud.

  • TimelyOne

    This was a great read….thank you very much!

  • Kris C

    Good read, but coming off the heels of a top 20 list, it is a bit strained. I can only take so much ranking, its just so subjective.

  • JaimeSilvera

    Great article!

  • zaki2004

    Wonderful article! Affirms that Rolex is more than just a watch non-watch people know and love to own.  It is the real article.

  • makemineaglock

    Swiss loving fool! One Seiko! You clearly have little understanding on the mechanics of a watch. Do some homework Matt.

    • makemineaglock  I had had no bias in writing this, it just so happens that in terms of mechanical wristwatch innovations most of them are Swiss. Sorry if you dont like that but thats the way it is. Just as a similar list on Quartz/Electronic watch innovations you would find a lot of Japanese watches on it.

  • Evosam

    A great article and as much as many people hate to bash on Rolex, I think it’s important to mention the Rolex GMT in the  “Navigational Watch” section as one of the icons for multi-time zone measurement.


  • aleximd2000

    Please do not write that the article is this or that, if you are so clever write yourself a better one.That’s for Matt. I think the article should be grouped like this: manual automatic, waterproof , shockproof,  chronograph manual and automatic, antimagnetic, steel and the new alloys , quartz and electroquartz and springdrive. Something like that.
    And about Seiko: it is very interesting why this big player is knowingly forgotten in any classification. Just look in Uhren Exclusive it is not in the top 40 of all. Beside the revenge of the quartz war , try to forget that and focus on what’s important .I my opinion Seiko’s big mistake is that they are making low and high end watches under the same umbrella, not like Swatch which is making cheap  watches and very expensive ones under different names. So one cannot choose wrongly between a swatch and a Breguet for example but can be put in front of a difficult task to choose between a sping drive and a seiko 5.Of course a novice. But the image is that.
    Thanks for the patience luv

  • DG Cayse

    A well-presented overview of significant innovations in the watch world. This piece will, no doubt, be used as a reference guide in the future.
    Particularly nice are the accompanying dates, personages and companies along with excellent photos of the significant watches mentioned.
    Good job Mr. Boston.

  • IsmaelMartinez

    What would this article include in 3 years. I-Watch, Glyde and others. Who knows. Great piece. Thanks.

  • Thanks very much to all those leaving positive comments, glad you enjoyed reading it as it was a bit of work to put together. Interesting hearing your thoughts too.

  • RaoMak1

    An amazing article and a must must read, I have not only learned, amazed, blown away, fascinated but also fallen in love with many of the watches, specially the IWC’s Da Vinci.
    A job very well done and much appreciated.

  • RaoMak1 Thanks very much for the kind words, pleased to hear that.

  • Biffo10

    I fail to see how Rolex’s creation of a self-winding movement solved
    the problem of dust & water ingress into the case. Whether it is manual
    wind or automatic, the crown still has to be pressed home to ensure the
    integrity of the hermetically sealed Oyster case.  And to liken the said case
    to a real living oyster on the basis of the creature being 100% sealed tight, is

  • Biffo10  Thats right it didnt solve it – that wasnt stated in the article, it just helped prevent dust & water entering through the crown. An automatic movement doesnt need winding therefore the only time you would need to use the crown is for setting the watch, the less you use the crown the lesser the chance of things auch as “if the owner forgot to screw the crown back in tightly after winding or if the crown threads and seals wore out over time, then dust and water could still enter.” So it was Rolex covering all bases along with the main preventative measures a sealed/screw down crown and case.
    I dont think Rolex were being so literal, my take would be that “Oyster” is a term implying a sealed case/water resistance and coined by Rolex to help market the watch.

  • Biffo10

    Hi Matt
    I think if you read the piece again, that’s exactly what was stated  lol !

    “Because although the Oyster case was impermeable to dust and water, if the owner forgot to screw the crown back in tightly after winding or if the crown threads and seals wore out over time, then dust and water could still enter, a self-winding movement solved this problem.”

    ‘addressed, minimised, but certainly not ‘solved ‘, & certainly not by the creation of an automatic movement.
    Let’s face it, water only needs to get into the case once to cause problems, & that can happen on day 1 or 31
    manual or automatic.

    Take your point about not taking anything literally from the lips of Rolex ha ha

    Im still trying to fathom …” it takes a year to make a movemet”   Hmmn…
    So 1,000,000 watches produced annually, produced by 8,000 employees ( & robots ) = 1,000,000 years of work !??
    Strange, Rolex have refused to substantiate the claim. Maybe Rolexspeek ( or b*******t ) should be added to Oxford dictionary  lol !

  • HJK

    This list needs an update: Zeniths mechanical 15Hz Watch.

  • Stella Gough

    Very Nice Written Blog. I really like it,. I have learned so many things about mechanical watches through this blog. I want to say that yes definitely mechanical automatic watches are best and it has amazing features. I also used these watches. I purchased Fortis watch for myself last week and i really like its dial color price and its attractive features. And always my first choice to buy watches is

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