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Why Louis Cottier is the Father of World Time Wristwatches

Patek Philippe Two-Crown World Time Ref 2523

As this article was initially published in the recent Global issue of Oracle Time Magazine, it would be remiss of us to not touch upon the World Time watch. It’s one of the quintessential traveller’s complications alongside the GMT and is in many ways a cut above the more streamlined, dual time zone display, but showcasing not two or three but 24 different zones.

It’s also a lot more rare than the GMT and it’s not hard to see why. Adding a fourth hand doesn’t hugely impact the layout of a dial or the space that you have to show the actual time. Fitting the city names, shortened or otherwise, that correspond to the various medians around the world, is easier said than done. Indeed, it’s difficult to the extent that there’s only really one main way to do it, a way that has remained relatively unchanged since the early 1930s.

Patek Philippe Two-Crown World Time Ref. 2523

Patek Philippe World Time Ref. 2523, 1953, image credit: Christies

First, it’s worth pointing out that this was long, long before the advent of commercial flight. The GMT might have its roots in the 1950s (the Glycine Airman or the Rolex GMT-Master, depending on your definition), but when the World Time was designed, it was more evocative than useful. It’s no surprise then that the complication is synonymous with Patek Philippe and is indeed to this day one of its signatures. The actual man behind it however was one Louis Cottier.

Louis Cottier Portrait

Cottier was born in Carouge to watchmaker Emmanuel Cottier, so there wasn’t much chance of him doing anything else. Horology is hereditary, don’t you know. And in fact, his father Emmanuel had himself dabbled in world time displays – along with automata, mystery watches and other intensely mechanical concepts – which had never panned out. Nobody’s attempts had. They were always cramped, illegible and generally useless at doing their one job.

At the same time, Louis Cottier was working in a workshop behind the book store he ran with his wife. He’d only been fully trained for a couple of years, but given his upbringing, he had more knowledge than your average fresh-faced horologist. And so he applied himself to, amongst other things, solving the display issues with World Time watches.

Original drawing for the World Time Watch by Louis Cottier

Original drawing for the World Time watch by Louis Cottier

In 1931, Cottier came up with a solution – one that like the best inventions was ingeniously simple. Dubbed the ‘heures universelles’ – world time in English – it showed local time at the centre, with the usual three- hand layout. This ensured that at the very least, it was a useful watch for daily wear. But then he linked the 12-hour hand to a 24-hour ring, which rotated counter clockwise, half a rotation for every one of the hour hand.

Around this, he wrote out the 24 cities that had come to determine the world’s time zones. As the hours ticked by, the inner ring would move in step so that at any time the wearer could see the correct hour in every part of the world. As the minute hand was always at the correct minute regardless of time zones, it meant the wearer could read the time anywhere at a glance.

Vacheron Constantin Ref. 3372 Pocket Watch

Vacheron Constantin Ref. 3372 Pocket Watch, 1933, image credit: Phillips

At first, Cottier had a lot more room to play with as his first World Time pieces were pocket watches, made for a jeweller – but that didn’t mean the big boys of the Swiss watch world weren’t taking notice. In 1932, Vacheron Constantin commissioned the independent watchmaker to build a version, the ref. 3372. Yet at this time pocket watches were already becoming a thing of the past and soon enough Cottier was called upon to downsize the complication to a wristwatch by, of course, Patek Philippe.

Those watches, realised in 1937, were the rectangular ref. 515 HU and ref. 96 HU in a Calatrava case. While the 515 didn’t see much beyond prototyping, the 96 HU went on to become one of the most collectible Patek Philippe watches in existence.

Louis Cottier 515 HU Patek
Louis Cottier 96 HU Patek

Patek Philippe Ref. 515 HU / Ref. 96 HU

During this time Cottier was making watches for other brands, too. Alongside Vacheron and Patek, Cottier built world time watches for, amongst others, Rolex and Agassiz (which would become Longines), disseminating his design to the biggest players in the watch world and cementing the layout as the archetype it still is.

If Cottier’s story was to end there it would still be a miraculous contribution to watchmaking cannon. But in 1953 he did what nobody expected: he improved his own invention. Previously, the only way to adjust the 24-hour ring was using the local time which was simple but a little frustrating, especially if it went out in the latter half of the day. So, in 1953 Cottier added the ability to adjust the ring via a second crown.

Louis Cottier

It was a small change, but a significant one, directly leading to the methods we have today, including the jumping hour pusher that’s become a Patek Philippe mainstay. Indeed, between them Cottier and the watchmakers at Patek Philippe are responsible for everything we love about world timers. While the movement was indeed all Cottier, things like the enamelled maps on the dial that are often imitated by other watchmakers today were all Patek Philippe.

Patek Philippe 5935A World Time Flyback Chronograph

Patek Philippe 5935A World Time Flyback Chronograph

Today more collectors know about the early Patek Philippe world time models than the man who made them a reality. It is reassuring to know however that Cottier’s Carouge workshop is now a museum commemorating his contributions to watchmaking. So, if you ever find yourself there (don’t worry, it’s not too far from Geneva) it’s worth stopping by to appreciate why you can now tell the time in Tokyo, London and New York from a single glance at your wrist.

You can still find modern interpretations of Louis Cottier’s signature work to this day, such as the Andersen Geneve x Asprey Worldtime which we recently reviewed or the Patek Philippe 5935A World Time Flyback Chronograph.

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About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.