Cottier, Churchill and the Watch of the Sceptred Isle
In 1894 Louis Cottier was born in Carouge, a hamlet crowded with buzzing boutiques and studios packed with artisans and craftsmen, in Geneva. As a young man Cottier displayed the manifest talent of his father, Emmanuel, who was himself a renowned watch and automata maker. In fact it was he who invented the first World Time system, in 1885, and presented it to the Société des Arts. Forty years later his son was stepping in his oversized footprints. Louis went on to study watchmaking at Geneva’s esteemed horological school. Of course he soon became a distinguished student, lauded by his teachers and showered with prizes. After finishing his studies Cottier prospered as a tinkering watchmaker, starting out in the cluttered back room of his wife’s bookshop and eventually advancing to the manufacture of fine desk clocks, pocket watches and wristwatches thirteen years later. He was widely praised for his practical and innovative systems, specialising in the design of complex world time watch models for most of the high-end Geneva brands, from Rolex to Agassiz.
In the early 19th century there was a wave of watchmakers tasked with the invention of practical and aesthetical mechanisms. The challenge was to conceive of a design that reflected the fact the earth was divided into 24 different time zones. It was Cottier, working in the lakeside sanctuary where his father had once made his name, who dreamed-up a device that could rotate and identify the local times of different locations, which were finely engraved on the bezel.
Cottier patented the mechanism; a twin-crowned World Time system, widely regarded as one of the most revolutionary practical innovations of the 20th century.
The designs that utilised this system were notable for the precision with which they identified each city of reference. Owing to the success of this sleek system the ultra-luxury Swiss manufacturer, Patek Philippe, soon entrusted Cottier with the development of a series of complicated watches that utilised the invention of ‘dual time’ single movement. In 1954, Cottier, backed by an elite team of Patek Philippe’s specialists, devised a way of synchronising the minute hand to conform to the precise specifications of this Two Time Zone movement, using two or three hands. Today Cottier’s timeless design is used as the standard means of mechanically recording world time.
There is another reason Cottier will be remembered in the world of horology. A long time ago there was an English writer who described Britain as a ‘sceptred isle’, long coveted by its surrounding enemies who huddled together on the mainland, looking over the narrow channel with envious eyes. Over the centuries there have been countless invasions, the most recent of which was launched by the Nazis. As Churchill predicted we did fight them on the beaches and in the air and on the landing grounds and we never surrendered. The victory of the Allied Forces was the significant event of the last century. To honour the gravity of the moment each of the four Allied Leaders was awarded a personalised and exquisitely wrought watch. Like the powerful rings that Tolkien distributed between the races of Middle Earth, a unique masterpiece was given to the commanders: one for the writer, statesman and former soldier, Charles de Gaulle, one for the unyielding patriot, Harry S Truman, one for the inexorable bulldog, Winston Churchill, and one for the moustachioed Russian tyrant, Joseph Stalin. Winston Churchill received what is today called the ‘Agassiz and Co Victory Pocket Watch’, designed by… yeah; you guessed it – Louis Cottier. This legendary timepiece features an impeccable cloisonné enamel depiction of Saint George, the patron saint of England, positioned over a writhing dragon, his weapon lifted, ready to deal the killing strike. The dynamic figure is tinged with pale turquoise and framed by the pale halo of a risen sun. On the back of the piece is a black enamel map of the world bestrode by a V for victory. What is most unique, though, is the golden lettering inscribed in an arc over the globe, which reads: ‘Prime Minister Winston Spencer Churchill’. Also the hour hand is specially tailored to befit the respective leader. In Churchill’s case the hand is a trident used to symbolise the might and heroic Lion spirit with which he and his armies defended their island. Interestingly the piece carries Cottier’s signature in so far as it’s a world watch that can tell the time in a number of corresponding cities.