Author’s note: Since the appearance of early commercially designed wrist-worn timepieces (starting with ladies’ bracelet watches in the 1800s), many factors have influenced their styles such as wars, fads, art movements, technology, and economic conditions. This six-part feature explores the historical progression of many wristwatch styles and reviews many of the characteristics that have developed since the 1800s. Before World War I, watch manufacturers in countries including Switzerland, England, and the United States were producing wristwatches in small quantities for a limited customer base. Wristwatches gained worldwide mainstream popularity following World War I, and production quantities steadily increased until they surpassed pocket watch production in the early 1930s. With the proliferation of cell phone usage starting in the 1990s, wristwatch popularity seemed to be in decline. Since 2013, however, Smartwatch popularity has helped put wrist-worn timepieces, of various and unprecedented styles, back in the mainstream, offering stylish models that appeal to all ages.
Wristwatches logically evolved from pocket watches and no one person is credited as the inventor of the wristwatch. History does not have an agreed-on account for the creation of the wristwatch. Following are three of the more plausible historical accounts that mention watches being worn on the wrist before the emergence of the contemporary wristwatch during the World War I (1914–18) era.
When watches were first worn on the wrist and available as a commercial item (mid-1800s to the early 1900s), they were predominately worn by women and sometimes referred to as “bracelet watches”3 (Figure 1) because they were an extension of the bracelet. The styles for bracelet watches were more along the lines of fashionable pieces of jewelry; this included ornately engraved gold and silver cases and bracelets, some adorned with gemstones. Many historical accounts indicate that most people of the period thought that the bracelet watch would only be a passing fad because it was not seen as durable enough for everyday wear and tear. During this time, most men carried pocket watches as their timepieces and frowned upon ever wearing a bracelet watch, as bracelets in general were considered to be feminine. Additionally, small mechanical movements specifically made for bracelet watches were still scarce, fairly expensive, and not as accurate compared with pocket watch movements. A timepiece was considered a necessary investment and the pocket watch, being somewhat affordable and reliable, was the overwhelming choice for the majority of the mainstream market.
News of soldiers (men) wearing wristwatches during the Second Boer War4 (1899–1902) coupled with the development of new types of watch straps prompted various watch companies to start to design and produce wristwatches in limited numbers before and during World War I.
As proven during the Second Boer War, the wristwatch has an obvious advantage over the pocket watch as it is possible to read the time at a glance, without having to reach into a pocket to retrieve a timepiece. This advantage could be leveraged in more applications than just military operations. Subsequently, several early wristwatch pioneers risked their reputations and businesses on the premise that the wristwatch was the device for the “modern” timepiece. New concepts in technology and design before World War I were achieved, and wristwatches began to be marketed for men. Although many of the first wristwatches used pendant watch movements and had the styling of a pocket watch, different-shaped wristwatches started to be designed and taken seriously in the worldwide watch market.
In 1900, the Omega Watch Co. produced their first wristwatch (Figure 2) and it was used by British officers in the Second Boer War. These wristwatches withstood the test of battlefield use and military maneuvers, and were considered an essential wartime instrument. They were available with the crown on the right for left wrist wearers and with the crown on the left for right wrist wearers. This feature is rare even in today’s vast watch industry with its multitude of available options.
In 1904, Louis Cartier5 designed and built a pilot’s wristwatch (Figure 3) for his friend Alberto Santos-Dumont,6 who was having problems checking the time during flight using a pocket watch. The style of this early wristwatch was dramatically different from round-cased traditional pocket watches of the time. It was easily accessible and fitted onto the wrist with a leather strap and secured with a buckle. This style has withstood the test of time and is still in production today, more than 100 years after it was first designed. Cartier was a believer in the wristwatch as a practical commercial product, for both men and women, and he pioneered several other early wristwatches models of historical significance.
Louis Cartier did not invent the wristwatch, but he surely paved the way for progressive wristwatch designs and was influential in the transition from pocket watches to wristwatches.
In 1909 Edmond Jaeger7 invented the deployant buckle, which helped to affix a wristwatch to the wearer’s wrist. The deployment buckle folds open and securely snaps shut, which proved more efficient than the traditional watch straps of the time.
Hans Wilsdorf8 believed in the future and practicality of wristwatches. He concentrated on quality and precision during the development of his new Rolex wristwatches. In 1910, a Rolex watch became the world’s first wristwatch to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision by the Official Watch Rating Center in Bienne, Switzerland. In 1914, a Rolex wristwatch was awarded the class “A” precision certificate from the Kew Observatory in Richmond, London, UK. This distinction helped legitimatize the wristwatch as an accurate and dependable timekeeper.
A good example of an early radically designed wristwatch is the “Banana” model which was released in 1916 by the Tissot Watch Co. (Figure 6). It had an elongated and curved tank-style case with exploding (exaggerated) Arabic numerals on the dial. Its design was far removed from that of a traditional pocket watch and was surely influenced by Art Deco visual arts styling of the time. It was popular in Russia and one watch sent back to the Tissot factory in Le Locle, Switzerland, for service remains there. When the Czar was overthrown in 1917, shipping anything to Russia was prohibited by law.
It is said that World War I was fought in the trenches. Because soldiers were wearing watches on their wrists that were built to withstand the thrashing of war (often fitted with what is popularly called shrapnel guards, which were actually a metal protective cover that acted as a crystal guard), the term “trench watch” (Figure 7) was coined. A common style for the dials on World War I wristwatches included a red numeral 12 to improve the orientation of the dial and the use of radium on the hands and hour markers to increase brightness. Cases were also built to more robust standards to seal and protect against dust and moisture.
World War I proved the wristwatch to be a worthy and essential piece of military equipment. Because of the ease of use compared with a pocket watch, some soldiers provided their own wristwatch if one was not issued to them. The wristwatch was no longer a passing fad or a feminine piece of bracelet jewelry as it gained worldwide admiration and acceptance by proving itself a worthy and practical timepiece.
After wristwatches started becoming popular with men, jewelers soldered wire lugs onto pocket watches (Figure 8) and pendant watches, removed the bow, and attached a strap through the wire lugs to enable the watch to be worn on the wrist (this technique is sometimes referred to as a “conversion watch”). As real wristwatch production increased using fixed lugs (which were often referred to as “horns” in the early years of wristwatch designs), the soldered-on wire lugs technique became obsolete.
After World War I, the wristwatch became globally accepted as a masculine timepiece. Companies such as Waltham, Rolex, Cartier, Omega, Longines, and Elgin took notice, increased production of real wristwatches, and began to expand on the designs and styles for public sale. Not only were wristwatches useful in military applications, but modern commercial and societal requirements helped propel them to dominance as the reading of time quickly and in a single glance was now a necessity.
Men’s wristwatch styles were quickly expanding beyond the traditional pocket watch designs as their sizes decreased and cases and dials took on various shapes. Innovations and technical inventions continued to increase the accuracy and durability of the wristwatch as it grew into the preferable timepiece for everyday wear. The wristwatch was now starting to challenge the pocket watch for worldwide timepiece dominance.
Adams, Ariel. “Important early Cartier men’s watches.” A Blog to Watch. February 4, 2015. Accessed June 5, 2017. http://www.ablogtowatch.com/important-early-cartier-mens-watches/
Brunner, Gisbert. “The turning point: World War 1, which broke out 100 years ago, made the wristwatch mainstream.” Watchtime (October 2014):102–109.
Friedman, Uri. “A brief history of the wristwatch.” The Atlantic, May 27, 2015. Accessed June 5, 2017. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/05/history-wristwatch-apple-watch/391424/
Judy, Dean. 100 Years of vintage watches. Iola, WI: KP Books, 2004.
Kahlert, Helmut, Richard Muhe and Gisbert Brunner. Wristwatches: history of a century’s development. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1986.
Randy Jaye has been the president of Chapter 154 in Daytona Beach, FL, for many years and was the General Chairman for the 2016 and 2017 Florida Mid-Winter Regionals. He is a watch and clock collector and occasional restorer. He has contributed several articles to the Watch & Clock Bulletin and is planning on completing several more in the near future with a focus on wristwatches and “modern” horology.