Clocks began to greatly miniaturize during the 15th century as a result of the invention of the coiled mainspring. The compact mainspring provided the necessary energy to the mechanism in the same way that heavy iron and lead weights provided energy for the massive public tower clocks and the early wall clocks for the home.
By the year 1500, the increasing miniaturization and portability of the mechanical clock led to an entirely new category of time measurement - the mechanical watch. Extremely expensive for their time and initially equally rare, the first watches from the 16th century were beautifully decorated, featuring fine engravings, often with allegorical and mythological themes as well as floral and foliage imagery.
One of the dominant shapes of watches during the 16th and 17th century was not the round design that eventually became standard for watches, but it was the oval shape, often referred to as the ‘Nuremberg Egg’ for one of the regions in which they evolved and for the distinct oval shape. These were large watches by today’s standard as they adopted the same technology of the clocks from the era - the crown verge escapement. It would be centuries before watches were worn in the pocket - initially they were attached to necklaces, then to chatelaines.
The oval shape not only provided proportional room for the robust movements with crown verge escapement, but they also provided space on the dial for the complication displays. The time would typically be displayed in a circular chapter ring with its single hand, while the calendar and/or alarm settings would be above and below, making use of the oval dial. For oval watches with no complications, detailed engravings would border the circular time display.
1567. Portrait of a dignitary wearing his watch as a necklace. Nuremberg. Close-up. Germanisches Nationalmuseum.
By the mid 17th century, the oval shape had largely given way to the round forms that have become synonymous with pocket watches. Additionally, watches taking other forms were being made, including the cruciform shape, however these are extremely rare. As the accuracy of watches greatly improved in the 1650s with the invention of the balance spring, and as more efficient escapements like the cylinder and lever allowed watchmakers to create significantly thinner designs, experimentation with watch shapes occurs in parallel with the more common round form. Some of these designs are even fantastical and poetic as artisans created watches in the forms of flowers, musical instruments, insects, and countless other creations during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
The oval shape largely remained marginal compared to the 16th century, yet would reappear during the Art Nouveau period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Inspired by nature, Art Nouveau embraced curves, arabesques and other forms derived from flora and fauna.
During the late 1910s, a new era emerged - Art Deco, and it is during this period in the early 1920s when the oval (or ellipse) made its first appearance at Audemars Piguet. Not only was the case oval-shaped, but so was the movement so it could fit perfectly into the case. Several examples were made, but like all watches at Audemars Piguet made before 1951, each was unique creation.
1926. Oval watch movement. Audemars Piguet Archives.
1920s. Wristwatch with an oval case. Audemars Piguet Archives.
The first golden age of oval watches at Audemars Piguet occurred during the 1960s and 1970s - an era of great experimentation with design and form language in watchmaking and beyond. Before his design of the Royal Oak in 1972, Gérald Genta designed some of the most fascinating oval watches of the time.
The oval shape was interpreted in different ways - horizontal, vertical, wide, narrow, with integral bracelet, on strap, for women and for men. These wristwatches often incorporated precious stones and hard stones with a fascinating array of color and texture. Some were unique, others were made in very small production batches. Several are important objects of the Audemars Piguet Museum collection as they demonstrate creative design, use of various materials and exceptional craft.
It is these watches that led to the creation of an entirely new collection for Audemars Piguet in 1995 - the Millenary. Now, almost 25 years later, the Millenary continues to be a canvas of daring and original design, from the oval shape with off center dials, the use of precious and hard stones as well as the meticulous crafting of beautiful bracelets. They are highly contemporary, yet they are also a subtle echo of the origin of watches.