Louis Cottier strolls through the narrow streets of Carouge, looks up at the treetops and ponders whether they might make a good subject for a painting: the watchmaker likes to spend his free time behind his easel. But first he has more important things to attend to. The year is 1935, and Cottier has just returned from the neighbouring city of Geneva, where he met with the management of Patek Philippe, the world-famous watch manufacturer. He turns into Rue Vautier and heads for number 45, a stationer’s and bookshop run by his wife Antonie. “I have a big order!” he calls to her as he enters and makes his way through the shop to the rooms at the back, where his watchmaker’s studio has been located since 1931.
Louis Cottier, born in 1896, inherited his talent for watchmaking from his father Emmanuel, who specialised in mechanical automata. It was also he who came up with the idea that Louis Cottier would soon bring to perfection with the commission for Patek Philippe, and which today is mentioned in the same breath as his name: the World Time Clock.
“HE WOULD NEVER HAVE DREAMT THAT ONE DAY A PARK WOULD BE NAMED AFTER HIM.”
It’s not an entirely random idea: Cottier lives in a time characterised by tremendous advances in travel. As trains, ships and planes become ever faster, distances are shrinking, and with them the globe. Barely fifty years earlier in Washington, the decision had been made to divide the circumference of the earth into 24 time zones and that the prime meridian should run through the Greenwich Observatory. In his 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne had described what complicated consequences a journey around the world can have on your time management if you don’t keep an eye on the time.
TWO RINGS JUGGLE WITH TIME
The clock that Cottier is devising for Patek Philippe, and which will be completed in 1937, captures the spirit of the times. It will let business people see at a glance whether it is a good time to call New York or whether they might disturb someone’s lunch.
The concept is as simple as it is ingenious – and has remained so to this day. Like conventional clocks and watches, Cottier’s World Time Clock has a dial with twelve indices in the centre, on which an hour and a minute hand indicate the time as usual. Its special feature, however, is the ring that surrounds this dial (see illustration on page 67). It has a 24-hour scale and is divided into a light half for the day and a dark half for the night. A sun marks noon, while a moon is emblazoned in the place of the number 24.
This ring does not stand still, but rotates anticlockwise around the central dial once a day, causing the numerals to slowly pass the twelve o’clock position of the central clock and indicate the time at the destination, i.e. the second time. Now the only thing missing is the time for the rest of the world. Cottier placed a selection of destinations on a stationary outer ring, but this can be rotated to indicated a new home time if required. The rotating inner ring takes the sun, moon and times with it and sends them on their journey to all the places printed on the outer ring. If a time is not exactly under a place name, the deviation can simply be read off from the central minute hand.
GRANDE SONNERIE AND MOON PHASES
The world time clock with which Patek Philippe commissions Louis Cottier in 1935 is to be something very special. So Cottier decides to rebuild the entire movement from scratch. It not only contains an eight-day drive for the time display, but also announces the time acoustically with a Grande Sonnerie, marking the full hours with chimes. An addition touch is the moon, which is represented as a sphere with a light and dark half that rotates slowly and provides the viewer with a visual representation of the moon’s phases. Cottier does not have to worry about creating a magnificent case. It is decorated by the best enamel artists in Geneva with seafaring motifs using the cloisonné enamelling technique.
Louis Cottier died in 1966, aged 71 and at peace with himself. He would never have dreamt that he would go down in the annals of history as one of the most important Swiss watchmakers of the 20th century, and that one day a park would be named after him in Carouge. A thoroughly modest and humble man, he did not sign any of his 455 creations. The only distinguishing feature he sometimes left behind was the specially shaped hour hand with a ring; it is found only on Cottier’s timepieces.
After his death, his watchmaking estate was bequeathed to the city of Geneva by his heirs: it can now be found in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire. The Patek Philippe World Time Clock, however, has long since found a home in Zurich – in the Beyer Clock and Watch Museum.
TIME TRAVEL EXHIBITION
From 12 June to 20 October, the Beyer Clock Museum is presenting a special exhibition on the theme of travel and timekeeping. Highlights are Sir Hillary’s Rolex ‘Explorer’, the Rolex ‘Deep Sea Special’ and the World Time Clock by Louis Cottier. A puzzle tour introduces families to the topic in an entertaining way.