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Mon 12 Feb 2001 04:00 AM

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In with the old and out with the new?

Someone asks you for the time and you reply with nothing more than a quick glance at your wrist. What if every technology in your life was as accessible as telling the time?

Introduction|~||~||~|When the all-important client leans across to ask you the time, or the beautiful stranger next to you makes an effort to start up conversation, it's another chance to send out the right signals. There is a school of thought that argues history got it right the first time. Never mind that your new watch plays 'Happy Birthday' in three different languages. And no, it doesn't matter that your digital LED display glows in the dark. Nothing today conveys the man with his finger on the pulse better than a timeless timepiece: a heavy-duty watch with classical aesthetics. And yet, while traditional watch manufacturers are largely shunning the latest trends in gadgetry, technology manufacturers are vying to develop wearable electronics. Old guard or new wave? Where should the self-respecting T2 reader turn? Seeking answers, we went in search of the ultimate weapon to holster beneath your shirt sleeve. It's been a long ride. John Harrison is credited in nautical circles as the father of the modern chronometer. His timepieces were the only navigational aid that sailors possessed and kept in splendid chests as testament to their near-sacred status. Renowned the world over, only the invention of electronic movements would eventually bring about a new age.The challenge then was to miniaturise timepieces. By the 18th century, clocks could be bought in wristwatch form. A fantastic achievement in theory, early pioneers found that lightweight materials in small packages were not enough: a tool isn't truly portable if it isn't reliable. In particular, sailors found that salt water could wreak havoc with their beloved timepieces. Stainless steel was yet to be invented and silver tarnishes with ease, so early watches were made from brass or gold for their resistant properties. Later, in the trenches of the First World War, necessity again proved the mother of invention. Exposed to nightmarish scenes, covered in mud and soaked in sweat, wristwatches were adapted to survive extreme environments. Tougher straps, waterproof cases, and larger, legible dials were all essential attributes in an effective watch. ||**||Waterproof Obsessions|~||~||~|Since then, an obsession with waterproofing has dominated the development of the watch. Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, patented the Oyster back in 1926. Soldered with lead, the Oyster was worn by Mercedes Gleitze when she swam the English Channel in 1927, the first woman ever to do so. The Oyster survived its bath unscathed and emerged working perfectly. The Rolex PR machine quickly sprang into life and soon had Oyster watches displayed throughout the world — immersed in fish tanks. All modern Rolexes are descendants of this Oyster model, with screwed-down backs and protected winding mechanisms. Take the Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller, for example: this minimalist silver and black beauty can go to a depth of 4000 feet, where a valve allows helium and other gases to escape, enabling the watch to withstand compression. Extensions to the Fliplock bracelet also allow it to fit over a wet suit. The GMT-Master II, on the other hand, targets 'serious' travellers, with a 24-hour rotating bezel distinguishing day from night. It's available in several guises, including 18 ct gold for the ostentatious and stainless steel for those who favour a cooler exterior.It is tempting to end the search where it began - with Rolex. But smart shoppers will do well to persevere. Several rivals are striving to set new standards in watch resistance. Jacques Mayol wore an Omega Seamaster when he broke the world free diving record in 1981 and James Bond now wears the same watch on his wrist. In 1972, Audemars Piguet upped the stakes with its Royal Oak range. Marketed as 'the most expensive steel watch on the market', it was the first time that steel had received the recognition normally reserved for a precious metal. The watch is named after the original 'Royal Oak', built in 1862 and the first armoured British ship ever to set sail, its steel frame hidden by a wooden hull. ||**||Sport and Sophistication|~||~||~|For a sophisticated timepiece that bears the mark of history, look no further than the Gondolo from Patek Phillipe. While it's elegant charms won't captivate the rugged athlete — it is only water resistant to 25m — this is a thinking man's watch. Though demand for rectangular watches faded after the Second World War, a resurgence in interest at recent auctions has prompted Patek Phillipe to release the Gondolo, curved for a more comfortable fit to the wrist and elegantly finished in a blend of rose and white gold.Bulgari too has countered with a watch that tells of refined pursuits. Also based on a stainless steel body, the Rettangolo is adorned with white gold and diamonds. The emphasis here is on class and not functionality: sharp geometrical lines marry Art Déco styling with modern quartz movement.A new breed of watch, the après cruise timepiece, has emerged demanding unprecedented style, if not the rugged resilience expected of true diving watches. Zenith's Chronomaster El Primero leads this pack, available with a steel or Louisiana crocodile strap. Zenith claims the first automatic chronograph movement and the most accurate stopwatch mechanism in the world today; the El Primero balance wheel oscillates at a staggering thirty-six thousand alternations per hour. Just as seductive, if a chunkier no-nonsense watch, is Zenith's matt-satin, stainless steel Fly-Back. Its deep black and luminous display is designed to entice aviation enthusiasts. Back on the oceans, meanwhile, true racing yachtsmen are turning to the new Yacht Timer from Frederique Constant, water resistant to 100 meters. It counts down those heart-stopping minutes before the big race starts, in bright, easily legible discs, which change colour as the seconds tick by. The Yacht Timer marries class and durability, sport and sophistication, as with the best of the timepieces featured here, making for a tantalising lifestyle and technology crossover.||**||Convenience is the Watchword|~||~||~|Convenience is the watchword of the 21st century. And the ultimate tool of convenience is the watch. It seems that the manufacturers of tomorrow’s technology are queuing up to deliver the functions you need in a package that can be worn on the wrist. Once the stuff of science-fiction daydreams, from Dick Tracey to James Bond, the all-purpose watch has finally arrived. But would you buy one?The pioneer of the do-it-all watch must be Casio. Several releases even within the past month have left little to the imagination. At the beginning of the year, Casio expanded its line-up of Global Positioning System (GPS) watches with the Satellite Navi PAT-2GP. The watch communicates with the constellation of GPS satellites currently in orbit around the globe to pinpoint your exact location. But the GPS watch is just a single breed within the Casio family. The BZX watch offers a quick and easy way to synchronize personal information management (PIM) data with a desktop computer, while the WMP-1V lays claim to the title of world’s first wrist-type wearable MP3 player. According to Gary Rado, president, Casio, it’s all about “unexpected extras in our timepieces, from the first data bank watches with names, numbers and memos to watches that turn on your TV or VCR.”Telecommunications has crept into every avenue of modern life. You can go where you want and do what you want to — without losing touch with the rest of the world. The demand is such that even mainstream mobile manufacturers are departing from conventional marketing strategies with weird and wonderful gadget-phones. Take the new SPH-WP10 from Samsung, otherwise known as the ‘Anycall.’ It’s the first CDMA-based wrist-worn communicator in the world, weighing in at close to 50g without a battery. Samsung has launched its watchphone in the US, targeting the ‘younger and sports-minded sub-category.’ While it’s certainly a bold step towards wearable communications, we suspect that it will take an adventurous personality to strap it on and parade about town.Samsung may be the first to market, but it’s not the only company contemplating a wireless future. Motorola too is planning a mobile phone in a wristwatch format. On the drawing board today is a tri-band GSM phone with GPRS packet data capability. Tomorrow’s surfers may browse the Internet, wirelessly, with just a tap or two on their watches.Demonstrating the future with Motorola’s prototypes, Jim Norling, executive vice president, personal communications, Motorola, declared: “Consumers want and need to be wowed by new technologies that enable them to communicate in ways that offer flexibility to their lifestyles.” Yes, we do. But we’re also looking for metallic resilience wrapped in svelte styling. The wireless expertise demonstrated here boasts of an exciting future. But until that day dawns we guarantee you’ll be reaching for the Rolex, fumbling for your Frederique Constant or strapping on a Scuba GMT when the big date beckons.||**||

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