Watch Me: Keeping Time and Keeping Up

Close up of hand in pocket of Caucasian businessman
Close up of hand in pocket of Caucasian businessman

From the dawn of civilization to the invention of the atomic clock, our lives have been governed by time. We've parsed our days and our activities with the seasons, with society, and with each other. Consciousness of time is so fundamental that it's hard to imagine how units of time, and the very process by which temporal progress is tracked, have greatly evolved over the centuries. The technology of timekeeping has changed the world and, in turn, has been changed by that new world, over and over again throughout history.

In the beginning, the only time that mattered was Father Time: the journey from birth to death, symbolized for millennia by the old man with the scythe. Of course, there was also Mother Earth, who dictated when to sleep, when to rise, when to reap, and when to sow. Minutes and hours were inconsequential. Our only clocks were the sun and the moon, and time was determined by need. The closest we came to modern clock-oriented time -- and it wasn't very close -- was in the broader sectioning of the day into rough ideas of morning, noon, and night, each demarcated by the sun's position in the sky.

Now let's press pause. For a moment, I want to take a leap from the dawn of timekeeping to a technological field of twenty-first-century interest: eye tracking. Eye tracking and its study are a modern innovation, an emergent field in our understanding of the psychology of attention. This will show us the role vanity, emulation, and most important, attention seeking, have played in the development of timekeeping technology.

The way eye tracking works is complicated. First, a small device is fitted to the face over the eyes. This device quite literally "tracks" in which direction a subject's eyes move, where they rest, and for how long. It's an indisputable record of what appeals to the eye and to what degree. It's far more accurate than simply asking a subject what interests him or her -- people lie, of course, and more important, people don't actually seem to know what they're looking at or why.

Eye tracking technology has been used in humans to inform advertising strategy and to understand how we interpret visual data on a page or screen. The results are often comically obvious. For example: When a mixed group of men and women were shown the same advertisement of a woman in a bikini, the women predictably looked the longest and most frequently at her face, whereas the men divided their time fairly evenly between her face, her breasts, and her other ... assets. (Don't misunderstand -- the women ogled the bikini-clad women too, but their attention was more predominantly focused on the face.) Interestingly, when men and women were shown a photo of an attractive man, the results were exactly the same, rather than reversed. The women still mostly looked at his face and marginally at his body, the men still primarily checked out their imaginary rival's physique and particularly his equipment.

What are we really looking for? It's not as simple as sex. Heterosexual men and women aren't primarily, let alone exclusively, focused on the bodies of the opposite sex. We can't reduce our looking patterns to envy either, or women would look longer and harder at the figures of their competition than they do at their faces.

What we're unconsciously looking for is the human equivalent of the peacock tail. What do they have that we don't? A more symmetrical (i.e., genetically "fit") face? A body that implies children? Perhaps the affluence to eat well, or maybe the genetics to outsize the competition? We're looking to place ourselves in some subjective rank, by making objective assessments of our peers. Eye tracking allows us to chart exactly what sort of assets we're comparing.

We can observe a less obvious but more concrete display of this tendency when we take sex -- and bodies themselves -- out of the experiment. When both groups, male and female, are shown a picture of a man and woman from the shoulders up, the eye tracking results for both groups are nearly identical. Both genders spend an equal, and extraordinarily long, amount of time looking at each and every piece of jewelry the subject is wearing -- in most cases, far longer than they spend looking at the faces. They are unconsciously searching for assets, for signs of position and rank, for ways to compare.

People's need to assess the value of who and what is around them, and to place themselves in some positional context, is universal. It's in our animal nature to compete and to measure, compare, and rank. It's also a pretty standard instinct to want to be the most valued or the most desired. It's the basis of sexual selection and Darwinian evolution.

But to be desired, one must first be seen.

Like glittery blue butterflies or peacocks with giant fanning tails, the fastest way to grab attention is to have something special. When it comes down to it, that's really the primary function of jewelry -- to stand out, to sparkle, to catch and hold people's attention. Sometimes jewelry enhances beauty, while other times it telegraphs wealth and power. Either way, it's always an expression of advantages, either natural or procured.

Look at it this way. Genetic fitness, youth, and fertility are pretty hard to fake -- though in the twenty-first century, we do our best. But other material assets can convey other, more mate¬rial advantages, ones that either aren't physical, or don't fade with time -- or, possibly, both. Things like money, power, influence, or access. Maybe that's why, while women look more at the faces and men look more at the bodies, everybody looks most at the jewelry. The fastest way to get attention and communicate privilege is to possess a status symbol.

Preferably a very sparkly one.

Humans have few biological means at our disposal to communicate wealth or convey an advantage. Unlike our glittering and feathered friends, we have no tails or wings or scales. So we look to our one unique competitive advantage over the rest of the animal kingdom: mechanical ingenuity.

Let's go back a few hundred years, to the emergent technology of the day: pocket watches.
Sometime in the fifteenth century, well before the development of the balance wheel and spring in 1657, the earliest proto-pocket watches emerged, barely different from earlier portable spring-loaded clocks. They were remarkably large and barrel shaped in order to accommodate the spring inside. They had to be wound repeatedly throughout the day, only had an hour hand, and kept terrible time -- they often lost several hours of time a day.

Despite their cumbersome nature and questionable utility, they were designed to be worn. They were so desperately expensive and so hard to find that their scarcity made them an immediate and ostentatious display of wealth and privilege. By the sixteenth century they had become a favorite form of ornamentation among the elite.

Eventually, having just a single pocket watch wasn't enough, and in a classic expenditure cascade, the wealthy of Europe demanded increasingly complicated, and therefore increasingly expensive designs. Within a century, the fad was for small clocks in whimsical shapes that could be worn fastened to one's clothing or on a chain around the neck. They ranged from iconic items, like stars and crosses, to more elaborate decorative themes, like flowers and animals. They were even crafted in the form of skulls. The so-called Death's Head watches were a poetic, if morose, reminder that Father Time was coming for all of us.

By the seventeenth century, the artistic demand for smaller portable clocks in interesting shapes gave rise to more advanced timekeeping technology, like the balance spring. Charles II of England had just introduced waistcoats, a fashionable garment with side pockets, and so it became trendy to keep a relatively accurate, small, flat clock in one's pocket. The "pocket watch" was born.
Until the early twentieth century, functioning clocks were the epitome and apex of modern technology. Then, just as now, the smaller the technology was, the newer and more expensive it became. Watches were, traditionally, the specific purview of the extremely wealthy. Even when they didn't work well, which was pretty much from the time of their inception until about one hundred years ago, they were still priced like rare jewels and were just as difficult to come by.

Henry VIII, never shy about showing off, was the first to demand a "pocket clock": a salad plate-sized clock that he could wear on a chain around his neck. Predictably classy. His daughter, Elizabeth I, wore one around her upper arm. A round pocket watch encircled by diamonds and attached to an "armlet," the watch was a gift from her favorite admirer and alleged lover, the earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley. Even Marie Antoinette got in on the action, having supposedly commissioned a diamond bracelet involving some sort of a timekeeping mechanism.

Ring watches, which were also quite popular, date back to at least the Renaissance. These watches, which substituted a time¬keeper for a gemstone, were primarily ornamental and had only an hour hand to indicate the general time, one that often got stuck or skipped ahead. They were utterly useless, but still a favored form of showing off for centuries. A diamond tiara doesn't keep your head dry either.

By the eighteenth and nineteenth century, pocket watches, though still fragile and susceptible to every kind of damage, were finally accurate enough to be valued for their utility alone. Even so, they were still regarded, to a great degree, as jewelry. The watches themselves were dressed up in cases of gold, enamel, diamonds, and other gems, meant to catch the eye like jewelry.

But like the jeweled reliquaries that hold the bones of saints or the shroud of Turin, those precious glittering cases were really just a tribute to what was inside, something beyond common value: time.

While it takes extraordinary skill for a diamond cutter to cut a diamond, or a goldsmith to fashion a ring or a chain, piecing together a clock takes even more skill. Mechanics needed to match the extraordinary precision necessary to create such tiny, intricate moving parts with an understanding of the mechanics of time and space. People needed a solid understanding of day and night cycles and of the movements of the planets and stars in order to build a functioning sundial. Add to that a substantial grasp of metallurgy and mechanical engineering, and you could make yourself a clock. With the greatest and rarest skill, along with a decent grasp of harmonics, a watchmaker could miniaturize that technology and create a pocket watch.

What better way to convey your wealth and privilege to those around you than by wearing the very workings of the cosmos on the end of a gold chain?

Excerpted from Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World by Aja Raden courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, copyright 2015.