World history on your wrist

How the Cold War is reflected on watch dials from the 50s to the 80s

Wristwatches are not only timepieces, but also documentary witnesses of an era in terms of what was technically feasible for their manufacturers at that time. First and foremost, however, because they reflect the individual style and therefore the spirit and the mindset of the years in which they were made: The flamboyant watches of the early 70s, colorful like Pop Art images, represent a time of fundamental change and the gleeful questioning of old rules after the sober, austere designs of the 60s had replaced the staid, round watches of the 50s. And the retro waves we have seen again and again in recent years? They always come to the fore in phases of uncertainty when we tend to hark back to supposedly better, safer times.

No names from the Evil Empire

Zodiac World Time Automatic

However, watch dials can portray a whole lot more than diffuse mentalities. Those that display the time at various places around the world can also point to the geopolitical situation.

Soon after wristwatches were introduced, models featuring a second time zone or a world time indication were developed. Their dials featured the names of one or more cities for each time zone – preferably the most important major cities, of course. Anyone wearing one of these watches showed themselves to be either well traveled or well connected worldwide, which in an era when intercontinental flights were only just being introduced was far more impressive than it is today. Swiss watches mostly featured the comparatively small Geneva to represent central European time. Otherwise, of course, apart from Buenos Aires, London and Cairo, east of New York there were the capitals of two of the world’s largest countries, Moscow and Beijing. In the 50s, however, those two places disappeared from the dials of most Swiss and American watches and from then on the time zones were denoted by places such as Cairo, Aden, Réunion, Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore, and Manila. Although some of these places may have became more important as trading centers, above all they served as replacements for the major cities of countries with Communist governments – for some the “Axis of Evil” that had to be avoided at all costs and whose names were not worthy to appear on their watches. With its multilingualism, the wording on the Zodiac World Time from 1965 seen here in the picture (Island, Acores, Europ Center, Tokio) is more of a curiosity, but highly typical in its ideologically flawless sequence of eastern time zones: Johannesburg, Bagdad, Reunion, Karachi, Bombay, Djakarta.

Timepiece from the «Raketa» factory, Russia’s oldest factory.

Many places of longing

This type of dial propaganda was more like something you’d expect from an authoritarian Eastern Bloc regime and its state-run watch industry, but they did things quite differently: The Raketa shown in the picture is far younger than the Zodiac – more like the late 80s – and the English lettering shows that it was made for the export market. However, even its predecessors with their Cyrillic lettering made for the domestic market were quite casual about the choice of names for their time zones. New York and Chicago may well be two synonyms for the capitalistic system on the dial, but San Francisco and Honolulu were possibly genuine places of longing. The US cities could also have been replaced with cities in South America, but the timepieces from the Soviet watch industry did not exploit this propaganda opportunity – although Beijing, however, the capital city of their ideological competitors – did not appear on them.

Since the 90s, Moscow has again become standard on Swiss watches. Many have also adopted the time zone “Beijing” – and in view of the main sales markets of many brands being in China, that is also a sign of the times.

Get more information about the Adhaesio
(The first single-hand watch that features a second time zone)