Of all the metrics that define our lives — the spatial dimensions of homes, our fluctuating body weight, and so on — none is as elusive, or as powerful, as time. We use it not only to measure the intervals between meetings or birthdays, but also as a guiding force that helps shape and define our day-to-day existence.In fact, time has become such an integral part of our lives that it now registers as more than a metric; it’s an entity unto itself. We think of days, seasons, and years not as units of measurement, but as the sum of every moment and milestone that occurs within their boundaries. The same cannot be said for, say, distances or surface area, which are handy standardization tools, but little more.
For millennia, humans have gone to great lengths to chart and measure time. In ancient Egypt, the summer flooding of the Nile River was the best indication that another year had passed. Many scholars believe Stonehenge to be a solar calendar, constructed in part to track the changing seasons. Eleventh-century Iranian engineers invented water clocks driven by a complex series of weights and gears.
In 1657, the balance spring was invented, bringing forth a modern technology that led directly to the creation of mechanical clocks. Within 50 years, the world would see the arrival of calculators, reflective telescopes, and all manner of related devices to change the way humans measure, and interact with, the world.
Thanks to the contemporary equivalent of the balance spring — the microchip and every resulting technology it spawned — many of today’s timepieces are essentially mini supercomputers built specifically for our wrists, walls, and pockets. These devices provide computing, communication, and data storage capabilities to surpass even the science fiction fantasies of previous generations. Atomic clocks, for instance, measure electromagnetic vibrations to keep time so perfectly that nary a second will be lost for billions of years. This is what allows for academic pursuits like radioastronomy, but also their practical applications, like the GPS device in your phone.
Nevertheless, the wizardry powering these devices is only part of the equation. Technology also allows designers to push aesthetic boundaries, and it allows for unprecedented large-scale manufacturing and distribution. More people in more places have more access to more timepieces than at any point in human history — and these days, telling time is a tiny fraction of our device’s capabilities.
So here we are, moving swiftly into the 21st century’s adolescence, where time is both precious commodity and foundational necessity. And hey, lucky break, we also have the technological skills and design chops to make timepieces that put the fun in functional. The Apple Watch has brought a whole new wave of attention to the way we track and display time, but it’s not the only game in town. Here are a few of our recent favorites.
Stainless steel and aluminum meet hand-formed glass and neon gas to create this single digit tube clock whose orange glow recalls an old-fashioned amplifier valve. The numerals are arranged in a stack and display sequentially, which means 10:15 a.m. flashes 1 … 0 …1 … 5. And believe it or not, the Keo produces no heat or noise. Call it vintage digital.
Is it a timepiece? A sculpture? A mathematical innovation? Yes, yes, and yes. Silo plays on the tangential relations and triangular forms you slept through in math class to create a sculptural clock comprised of 12 perspex markers and a set of triangular hands that can be arranged to your liking. With incomplete triangles for hour and minute hands, the clock’s shape changes with every passing minute.
Swiss-based watchmaker ochs und junior sells only about 150 watches per year, but make no mistake: They’re heavyweights in the world of timepieces. Their Perpetual Calendar displays the correct date for every month (even February!) for the next 80 years. In an effort to overcome the limitations of most calendar watches, this one uses analog dots to make for clean legibility without an oversized display. Is that level of detail worth the $22,000 price tag? You be the judge.
Think of Glance Clock less as a timepiece and more as a colorful-but-efficient personal assistant. Like other smart watches, it syncs with your calendar to provide reminders of upcoming meetings, appointments, birthdays, etc. The functionality is robust, with everything from weather alerts to customized notifications for the arrival of your Uber. It even interfaces with smart home devices like Amazon’s Alexa.
But what really distinguishes Glance Clock is the way it represents all this information: With a colorful and endlessly clever display. Events are indicated in brightly colored blocks of time, making it easy to see that you’ve got about 10 more minutes before that conference call… or to visualize the duration of your last workout… or to see how heavy tonight’s snowfall will be. The frame is smooth aluminum and the face is crafted from soft fabric, which conceals full-color LEDs until a notification pops up — at which point the appropriate lights shine through crisply. It even says Hello with a smile. Now that’s a good clock.
Billed as the watch that will change your life, this may also be the watch with the steepest learning curve. The dial features a single hand and a decidedly unfamiliar numeric layout that represents all 24 hours in a day, rather than the usual 12. As such, accuracy fluctuates between two and five minutes. Interested? Block out some extra time for a crash course in wundrtime.
Eschewing the traditional use of numbers in favor of typography, Qlocktwo from Biegert & Funk (the German design brand, not a German jam band) actually tells you the time – in words. We’ve loved this clock for years, and this new edition puts the icing on the cake with its alarm-clock functionality. The 17-inch square beauty comes in a wide variety of materials and colors, with magnetic front panels that can be swapped with ease. It even adjusts to ambient light. How clever.
Designed by Dutchman Ernest Koning for Ilias Ernst, the CLORK table clock is cut from a large piece of cork and shaped by hand. One corner forms a right angle, which allows it to stand upright on virtually any surface. The dial is metal, and in true minimalist style, you’ll find no numbers on the face. Instead, there are subtle impressions at 12, 3, 6, and 9. Tick tock.
For athletes and technophiles alike, the Spartan Ultra has 80 pre-set sport modes, GPS and heatmaps to provide route navigation, compass and barometric altitude tracking, and is water resistant up to 300 feet. It also has a color touch screen and the ability to update both the software and firmware. Handmade in Finland, it looks sharp, too.
THE PRESENT and TODAY by SCOTT THRIFT
It’s safe to say Scott Thrift is interested in time on more of a macro than a micro level. In 2012 the designer-filmmaker raised nearly $100,000 via Kickstarter to develop ThePresent, a clock that tells time in seasons rather than hours. Pure white at the top (12:00 on a traditional clock) represents the winter solstice; pure yellow at the bottom (6:00) is the summer solstice; and green and red at the 3:00 and 9:00 positions indicate the spring and fall equinoxes, respectively.
By viewing time in vast expanse rather than tiny increments, ThePresent provides a gentle disruption to the way we view time — and the moments that make up our lives. Calling it his "spiritual follow-up," Today is Thrift’s newest innovation: A 24-hour clock that moves at half the speed of a regular time piece, making just one full rotation per day. Like ThePresent, Today uses the subtle transition of color to mark the passage of time with less precision, more intuition. The idea is to help regulate sleep patterns and provide a general sense of calm in the face of an over-scheduled world. And even if that weren’t the case, its beautiful design and meticulous engineering are reason enough to change the way you look at time.