How We Came To Tell Time Around The World

Collector’s Guides • 29 Aug 2017

How We Came To Tell Time Around The World

by Victor Toth

There has never been as wide a variety of complicated timepieces as there is today. From perpetual calendars to column wheel chronographs, all the way to exotic multi-axis tourbillons, watchmakers go all out to prove their prowess while pleasing ever more demanding clientele. However, there is one complication that may be more useful today than it has ever been, but yet it is a complication that few watchmakers have gotten just right: the world time.

The origins of the world time – a watch that is capable of displaying the time in multiple time zones – lie in the late 1930s with a watchmaker named Louis Cottier. As with how the normal indication of time is done with just two hands, Cottier’s ingenious world time is also based on the same display, remaining largely unchanged ever since its invention. Though the world time mechanism has made many watch brands and timepieces famous, scarce credit has been given to its inventor.

A remarkable talent for invention was in the blood of Louis Cottier, the son of a successful maker of clocks and automata. In fact, Cottier’s world time took inspiration from another world time mechanism his father had invented some forty years before. Calling it the “heures universelles”, or universal time, Cottier’s invention made its debut around 1931. It became particularly useful for intercontinental travel, back then still mostly done by rail or steamship.

Travelling across time zones was still a nascent activity back then, but one that was rapidly growing, so watchmakers had to adapt to the newly globalised world. Cottier’s world time was the solution, with local time indicated by central hands on the main dial, while a combination of a 24-hour disc and a 24-time zone disc allowed for the simple reading of the time elsewhere in the world. Since the world is split into slices of 15 degrees of longitude, creating main 24 time zones each separated by an hour, the world time was graduated in one-hour steps. That being said, today the world has a total of 38 different time zones, with the additional time zones being just 15 or 30 minutes apart. But world’s most important time zones remain the original 24, which is why Cottier’s invention is still eminently practical.

As the number of time zones in the world grew, so did globalisation, rendering the world time watch more useful and relevant today than when Cottier first conceived it. Not even a smartphone offers as easy a method to track multiple time zones at once.

A prominent feature of traditional world time watches is a beautifully crafted world map, or at least a segment of it, taking pride of place on dial. This brings us to the first piece in our round-up of stellar world timers, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Geophysic UTC. Short for “Universal Time Coordinated”, the Geophysic UTC is a business-first, no-nonsense world time.

Available both in steel and 18k pink gold, the case is 41.6mm wide, providing just the right fit on the wrist. A map that leans towards technical rather than artistic is executed in silver and blue or gold and silver, depending on the case material, showing the continents in incredibly minute relief.

Beyond the edges of the world map lies the 24-hour track with a neat AM/PM shading for easier distinction of where in the world in the day or night.

Reading the time in the desired metropolis is as easy as locating the city’s name on the periphery of the dial and reading the hour next to it. The JLC cal. 772 in-house movement offers 40 hours of power reserve and features the manufacture’s “True Beat” jumping seconds mechanism as well as a proprietary Gyrolab balance wheel that takes the form of the JLC logo.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Geophysic UTCJaeger-LeCoultre Geophysic UTC


Doing away with the map-theme is the sleek Girard-Perregaux 1966, short for “worldwide time control”. Controlling the time around the world it might not, but the sure does a splendid job at displaying the world time in a streamlined and elegant manner.

With the main dial surrounded by the high-contrast world time display, the 1966 offers a timeless aesthetic made inspired by a vintage wristwatch that’s been made much more functional with a travel complication. In this new iteration of the, Girard-Perregaux has reduced the case size to a wearable 40mm and 12mm high, making it the most elegant model in the longstanding collection.

Girard-Perregaux 1966

Girard-Perregaux 1966 WW.TC


The Richard Mille RM 63-02 is both typical and atypical of the brand. Like every Richard Mille, the RM63-02 is remarkably complex, detailed and positively over-engineered, however, it is also a world time, a rare complication in the brand’s line-up that’s heavy on tourbillons and chronographs.

The movement is assembled around an electroplasma-treated grade 5 titanium base plate, which is further enhanced by the use of plated and grained German silver bridges and hand-executed skeletonisation. The easy-to-use multi-time zone mechanism is like most Richard Mille complications: it has to be seen and felt in the metal to appreciate its ingenuity. At 47mm in diameter, the RM 63-02 makes a statement like all Richard Mille watches.

Richard Mille RM 63-02

Richard Mille RM 63-02


At the other end of the horological spectrum sits the restrained, sensible and Teutonic Nomos Zurich World Time. Available with a white or blue dial, the Zurich World Time is where elegance meets exceptional functionality. It’s designed to show two time zones simultaneously: local time on the main hands, while home time is indicated on a disc at three o’clock located appropriately enough beside the silhouette of a house.

A button at two o’clock advances the second time zone hand in one hour steps, moving it in sync with the cities disc, so that the watch can show any one of the 24 main time zones in the world. Despite being affordably priced, the Zurich World Time is powered by an in-house movement that also boasts Nomos’ own escapement.

Nomos Zurich World Time

Nomos Zurich World Time


A round up of world timers wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of a Patek Philippe, since it is the manufacture widely credited for making Cottier’s ingenious design famous (though its rival Vacheron Constantin was the first to produce his invention).

The Patek Philippe refs. 5130 and 5230 offer a different take on the same complication that has a button at 10 o’clock to advance the world time function. The ref. 5130, which is 39.5mm and distinguished by graciously curved lugs and a rounded bezel, is classically elegant. Its sunburst pattern dial is matched with unusually shaped hands – combining both dauphine and Breguet hands – that contrast against the wide and easily legible cities disc on the periphery.

Patek Philippe 5130Patek Philippe Ref. 5130


The newer ref. 5230G, launched just last year, features a more structured lug design, a flat bezel, along with an open-worked hour hand and an elaborate guilloche dial. Many of its design details are inspired by vintage world time watches from the 1950s, so it is fitting that the ref. 5230G is 1mm smaller than the ref. 5130, with the case a timeless 38.5mm wide.

Patek Philippe 5230G

Patek Philippe Ref. 5230G


From Nomos to Richard Mille, world time watches of today do a fantastic job at offering every watch enthusiast a chance to enjoy this functional complication in practically every form factor to suit every taste, and also every budget.

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Tags: girard-perregaux hour glass hour glass singapore jaeger-lecoultre nomos glashutte patek philippe richard mille the hour glass

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