The Importance of Winding Crowns
The aesthetics of any watch are influenced by the fusion of many individual components in order to produce a pleasing overall form.
While most of our attention is usually drawn to the color of the dial, the style, shape and size of the hour markers, or the design of the bezel, the winding crown also plays a major yet often overlooked role.
In the real world, the crown is the most interacted with piece of any watch bar the bracelet. It is how the time is set, and in most cases, the date and other functions as well. On manually wound models, it is the part which keeps the whole watch working and it is the only portion of the movement we can actually touch.
But on top of its other duties, the crown is also responsible for securing the integrity of a watch, sealing it against the elements, and water in particular in the case of dive models. Therefore, this one multifunctional constituent has to be both easy to manipulate and incredibly tough.
Over the years, there have been a huge range of different types of crown, and some of them have defied their marginalized status and become instantly recognizable facets of the model, or even the entire brand itself.
So, in order to give the humble winding crown some much deserved consideration, we have put together this list of the most famous and iconic examples in the category.
It is impossible to ignore the contribution Rolex has made to the development of the winding crown.
It was company founder, Hans Wilsdorf who registered the patent for the screw-down crown in 1926, as the essential third part of his famed Oyster case, along with the screw-down bezel and case back. However, the component was actually invented in 1925 by Paul Perregaux and Georges Perret in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland, who came up with the system whereby the crown could be screwed tightly into a tube within the case to form a watertight seal.
Rolex has introduced several different types of the arrangement for their watches throughout their history, upgrading the effectiveness of its water barrier as ambitions for their dive watches have increased.
The Twinlock: Although Rolex’s screw-down crown on their Oyster cases had already proved itself extremely effective, even surviving Mercedes Gleitze’s grueling 10-hour English Channel swim unscathed, by the 1950s something a little more robust was needed. The craze for Scuba diving was in full flow, and brand’s were racing to develop watches that could be taken on underwater adventures.
With the crown the most obvious weak spot of any design, Rolex devised their Twinlock system.
The invention added one O-ring gasket underneath the crown to seal against the case to keep out moisture, and another inside the tube surrounding the winding stem, which kept water out even if the crown was unscrewed.
The system found its first, and most famous, home on the Rolex Submariner. The dive watch against which all others are measured, the earliest examples all had the Twinlock, in either ‘Small Crown’ (100m water resistance) or ‘Big Crown’ (200m water resistance) versions.
The Twinlock arrangement is still used on modern Rolex watches, identified by two dots on the crown on gold models, one dot on platinum models and a bar on steel pieces.
The Submariner, however, has upgraded its crown once again, to…
The Triplock: No prizes for guessing the difference between this and the Twinlock. When commercial deep-sea diving operation, COMEX came knocking and commissioned Rolex to make their crews the mother of all watches, the manufacture realized even the Twinlock’s abilities were not going to cut it. They consequently included a third O-ring gasket inside the tube to create three sealed zones as opposed to the Twinlock’s two, and called it the Triplock.
Debuting on 1967’s inaugural Sea-Dweller ref. 1665, it has now rolled out to all of Rolex’s dive trio; the Submariner (water resistant to 300m), the Sea-Dweller (1,220m) and the Deepsea (3,900m).
As with the Twinlock, the Triplock is also marked on the crown with three dots; all equal size for steel models, a larger center dot on gold watches and a smaller center dot on platinum pieces.
The Panerai Luminor
The crown on Panerai’s Luminor model, and its offshoots, is rightly famous. Not for the crown itself perhaps, but for its guard.
First appearing on the original Luminor model in 1955, the ‘Tight Seal Device’ consists of a horseshoe-shaped crescent of steel over the crown, complete with a manually-operated pivoting lever arm to allow the user to set or release the pressure on it. Unlocked, the crown can be used as normal, to set or wind the watch. Locked, it gave the Luminor of the 1950s a water resistance of 200m.
Since then, the collection has been joined by the Luminor Due and the Submersible, both using the same system but with ratings of just 30m and 300m respectively.
IWC Big Pilot
Another immediately identifiable crown, on another very familiar watch, the IWC Big Pilot stems from a time when tool watches truly lived up to their name.
The model was based on the Spezialuhr für Flieger (Special Watch for Pilots) created by the brand in the mid ‘30s, a few years before the outbreak of WWII. At 36mm, it was an especially large model for the time, but by 1940, aviators were demanding something more.
That gave rise to the original Grosse Fliegeruhr (Big Pilot’s Watch), an enormous 55mm piece, built for aircraft navigators in the German Luftwaffe.
Powered by a pocket watch movement and designed for ultimate legibility, its cone-shaped crown was similarly enormous, to allow wearers to manipulate it while wearing gloves.
IWC brought the Big Pilot back to the commercial market in 2002 to great acclaim, dropping the dimensions to a more manageable, but still significant, 46.6mm, and wisely reinstating that distinctive crown.
Aviation watches are still very much the backbone of the IWC portfolio, and the Big Pilot especially, with a range of various sizes and materials available along with some extraordinary complications.
The King of Jewelers and the Jeweler of Kings has a couple of distinctive crown designs in its arsenal.
Probably the most famous features across several collections, but was first seen on that undeniable statement of all things chic and sophisticated, the Cartier Tank.
I am, of course, talking about the cabochon-cut blue sapphire atop the watch’s conical shape crown. It is a highly ornate flourish on an otherwise relatively simple model and has now gone on to be included on a number of others in the Cartier lineup. You will find the jeweled ornament on certain versions of the Santos-Dumont, Panthère, Pasha and Ronde de Cartier series’ among others.
Another much more recent addition from the marque came along in 2007 in the shape of the Ballon Bleu de Cartier models. These beautifully rounded unisex watches have taken their cue from Panerai and encased their winding crown in a similar, albeit far more elegant, guard, one which encroaches into the dial itself for a unique styling feature.
Regardless of the type of crown, all of them have a number of responsibilities to take care of, each vital for the operation and safety of the watch.
Whether it is setting the time or protecting the inner workings, if it wasn’t for the presence of this often unnoticed component, modern watchmaking as we know it wouldn’t exist.
But some manufacturers have taken to making their winding crowns prominent features of their creations, often with great success. Either by leaving them as purely decorative items or instilling in them an even greater robustness, when done right, the humble winding crown becomes one of the most important parts of any watch.
— Featured Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.