Fashion-Forward Alarm Timepieces
by roberta naas
Engaging and stylish at once, timepieces that emit sound can make a strong impression. Such is the case with mechanical-alarm watches—highly functional timepieces housing extra parts that make it possible to issue an audible tone at preset times.
“Mechanical-alarm watches are a fantastic tool, especially for the busy traveler,” says Mark Wasserman, president of Vulcain USA. “They can be used in place of keeping your cell phone on all night in a hotel or needing to ask for wake-up calls, and they are reliable because they are a mechanical function that doesn’t depend on a battery.”
Long a function reserved for clocks, the alarm mechanism was finally miniaturized and perfected enough to fit into a wristwatch just about a century ago. Eterna Watch Company patented the first alarm wristwatch in 1908, though it didn’t go into production until 1914, and its volume was quite low. It wasn’t until 1947 that Vulcain, often referred to as the “President’s Watch” because former President Harry Truman wore it during his presidency, unveiled its first mechanical-alarm wristwatches, which held the distinction of being resonant enough to wake a person. After much research and development to bring this function to fruition, a clear and audible sound was achieved in the Vulcain: a hammer striking a pin attached to a thin metal membrane inside the watchcase. The membrane’s low mass allowed the energy from the hammer to be converted efficiently into sound. Small holes in the caseback ensured that the sound would not be muffled.
Aptly calling the collection Cricket, Vulcain enjoyed great international attention because of Truman’s preference for it, as well as for the many presidents who wore Vulcain thereafter. In fact, since 1953, every US president has been gifted a Vulcain Cricket. Dwight D. Eisenhower was rarely seen without his along with others who wore the model while in office, including Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson (who, while serving his term, presented more than 200 Cricket watches as gifts). It is said that the Secret Service hated the noisy “insect,” becoming startled when it rang unexpectedly. The watch chagrined Truman’s Secret Service especially, who, unused to the alarm function, would mistake the ringing for a bomb!
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, mechanical-alarm wristwatches enjoyed a grand heyday with several top Swiss brands also unveiling their own models. In 1956, Jaeger-LeCoultre released its first automatic-alarm watch—the Memovox—which has since become an icon for the brand.
Today, a small and select group of watch brands build mechanical-alarm wristwatches. Among the most difficult challenges to overcome in making these is establishing a sound that is loud enough and long enough, and being able to preset the alarm for a time more than 24 hours away.
Some brands offer alarms that sound for 10, 20, or 30 seconds. Vulcain offers an alarm that rings loudly for 20 to 30 seconds as well as a Cricket model that works underwater. Glashütte Original equips its Senator Diary watch with an appointment module that enables the wearer to preset the alarm to any time within 30 days, and the alarm rings for more than a minute. All of this is accomplished thanks to a 631-part movement (the appointment module alone consists of 373 components). A second spring barrel built into the module ensures that even if the Senator Diary watch runs down, the alarm remains wound. This type of craftsmanship and innovative thinking has kept the powerful on schedule for more than a century.
photography by jeff gale; getty images, Styling by Terry Lewis