Tick tock of the mechanical kind

By Maia King

10 December 2021

The practice of measuring time is commonly traced to Egypt around 3500-1500 BC, when the first gnomon sundials began to record the position of shadows cast by the sun. Since those early origins of horology to astrolabes, pendulums and hourglasses, timekeeping devices have evolved into some of the most sophisticated examples of human ingenuity and design.

The first mechanical wristwatches began appearing in 19th century Europe as a more functional response to the pocket watch. Most sources credit the invention to Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe, who made the timepiece for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1868.

Another early design was crafted by French jeweller Louis Cartier for his pilot friend, Santos Dumont, as a practical way for him to check the time while keeping both hands on his aircraft controls.

Island Companies Brand Development Manager Steve Biancardi says that mechanical watches of today have a lot in common with those of yesteryear.

“People were making watches with incredible mechanisms in the 1800s without the technology of today," he says. "Those kinds of watches are still made in almost exactly the same way now. That’s what I love about these watches. Some pieces are composed of 700 to 800 parts, right down to the pallet fork that makes the watch tick.”

Steve Biancardi in the shop
Island Companies Brand Development Manager Steve Biancardi in the Island Jewellers shop in Camana Bay. Photo: Maia King

Biancardi inherited a passion for watches from his father and recalls taking an interest in them at an early age. After being made redundant by an investment company he was working for early in his career, Biancardi fell serendipitously into jewellery store management, a job he did for 10 years that brought him deeper into the world of watches and timepieces.

He relocated to Cayman in 2000, where he now works directly with watchmakers to build Island Companies’ brand partners list. He even has a hand in designing new pieces.

“I’m one of the lucky people; I get paid for my hobby," he says. "I’m not artistic at all, but I have a love for watches and I like to see something that’s a bit different. Watches are an extension of people’s personalities. There are brands that everyone knows, but we choose to work with brands that create more unique pieces that tell a story — brands like Hublot, Roger Dubuis, Ulysses Nardin — and that are exceptional at what they do, but not necessarily known by everyone.

hublot watches
The luxury Swiss watch company Hublot has made limited edition Cayman Islands watches that are available at Island Jewellers.

Biancardi worked directly with Hublot to design the first Hublot Cayman Islands watch in 2020, a 50-piece limited edition run that sold out within three months. The second version of the watch started delivery in November 2021. “With Hublot, we wanted it to be subtle and fit their brand. Blue is a very popular colour for men’s watches, and with the ocean here being such a striking colour, we incorporated that into the original one. The marker that’s at the three, four and five are done in red for Cayman’s international dialing code. It’s simple and subtle, but creates a talking point.”

Biancardi says mechanical watches are always evolving. "There’s always something new being designed, including the materials watches are made out of," he says. "It used to be that people wanted watches with sapphire crystal glass, because it’s the most scratch-resistant, but now you get brands like Hublot, which is making the entire watch out of sapphire. Some brands even take it to the extreme — Bovet, for example, has a watch with a dial made of dyed sugar.”

While mechanical watches typically have a minimum of five "stages," including crown, balance wheel, escapement, pallet fork and hands, any individual timepiece will have its own specific mechanisms based on functionality and features, Biancardi says.

“The most complicated watches have hundreds of ‘complications,' and the number of parts will depend on how accurate the watch is intended to be,” he says. "There is range even in watches with calendar features, for example, where there might be 10 different types of calendars, each with its own specific mechanism."

hublot face watch
The back of the limited edition Hublot Cayman Islands watch has depictions of Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.

The finely crafted luxury watches designed are frequently purchased as investment pieces to be passed on as heirlooms or resold when they appreciate. Others with a passion for the subject like Biancardi, buy timepieces simply for the appreciation and aesthetics of them. 

In addition to Hublot, Roger Dubuis and Ulysses Nardin — the three pillars of Island Companies’ watch brands — it also sells Piaget and Zenith, the sister company to Hublot.

Piaget recently developed the world’s thinnest mechanical watch at only two millimeters.

Biancardi is currently looking forward to welcoming a new luxury brand to stores very soon, and to reopening The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman store, where new and exclusive Hublot models will be available.

This article was first featured in the December 2021 print edition of Camana Bay Times.

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