World time watches tell a story of wealth and power

World time watches have changed with the times — and they have a curious tale to tell us

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Using a world time watch — a timepiece with global cities arrayed around the dial or bezel, one per timezone — to find what the hour is in, say, Denver or Dubai is one thing. But we can learn much from these watches about history, politics and economics if we look at them in the right way.

That is why the Financial Times has examined 25 world time watches, dating from a 1951 Breitling to 2016 models by Vacheron Constantin, Louis Vuitton and IWC Schaffhausen. We fed all the cities on the watches’ dials and bezels into our system and came up with two lists: the places most mentioned on watches between 1951 and 1971, and those most mentioned between 2005 and 2016. You can see the results of this endeavour in the graphic below, the earlier ring on the inside, the later on the outside.

© MEESON

This is for more than curiosity. Given the relationship between these watches and wealth — their cost runs into the tens of thousands of pounds — we expected the cities chosen would reflect where wealth has grown and diminished.

And so it has proved. Some cities have remained constant in wealth and on watches: London, Tokyo, Sydney, New York and Rio de Janeiro are all six-decade stalwarts. But there are many more replacements: Baghdad has given way to Moscow, Réunion to Dubai, Bombay to Karachi, San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Baghdad, like Tehran, used to be a cosmopolitan capital in the Middle East. But its recent history, from dictatorship to invasion to chaos and the attempted caliphate of the so-called Islamic State, does not render it quite as glamorous. Watchmakers shy from putting such a reminder on their work. By contrast, Moscow has moved from the austerity of the Soviet Union to a city home to 78 billionaires, according to Forbes. A switch between the two makes sense in that context. (A note: Moscow only moved into Baghdad’s timezone — Greenwich Mean Time +3 hours — in 2014; previously it was +4.)

The rise of Dubai (GMT+4) tells a similar story. The GDP of the United Arab Emirates in 1973 was less than $20bn, according to the World Bank; in 2014 it was $400bn. Dubai’s rise, based first on its oil reserves, then on its pivot into a business hub, brought it to global attention. The island it displaced in its timezone, Réunion, is a small department of France in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

There is, of course, an element of luck over which cities appear: the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans lack major cities. Contrarily, there are many contenders in Europe and Asia. Geneva, the home of watchmaking, might feel legitimately aggrieved to have been displaced by Paris in GMT+1. Singapore, formerly GMT+7, now competes with Hong Kong and Beijing in the +8 timezone — and disappears from the dial. Hong Kong itself has given way to the mainland.

What is most intriguing to consider is which cities might appear if we revisited this in 30 years’ time: where will power and wealth reside in 2050?

1951 Breitling Unitime
1960 Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Memovox
1992 Porsche design by IWC
2009 Habring
2011 Vacheron Constantin
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