A Short History of the Wristwatch

The first fully portable timepieces began to appear in the early 1500s, but they were so inaccurate, they only needed one hand: for the hours. Watches made in subsequent years were carried in a specially made box, worn as a pin, or suspended around the neck by a chain or cord. Watches specifically adapted to the wrist made rare appearances as early as the late 1500s.

Early single hand ring watch, circa 1615.

Early single hand ring watch, circa 1615.

Queen Elizabeth I is said to have worn one. One of the first people known to have worn a watch on the wrist was the noted French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). He attached his pocket watch to his wrist with cord. Queen Marie Antoinette also was known to have started a style of “wrist watch” by wrapping the gold chain of her lavaliere watch around her wrist instead of around her neck. She subsequently commissioned a diamond-encrusted “bracelet watch.” This new style went out along with her head.

Early gentleman’s pocket timepiece Windmills London, circa 1665.

Early gentleman’s pocket timepiece Windmills London, circa 1665.

A close-up view of the dial on the Windmill single hour hand and alarm hand.

A close-up view of the dial on the Windmill single hour hand and alarm hand.

Gem-encrusted wrist watches worn by royalty made more frequent appearances in the mid 1800s, but only women wore them. They were very expensive, custom made contrivances requiring miniscule high-tech mechanisms. While their timekeeping was marginal at best, it was considered inconsequential, as “women of leisure don’t need accurate timepieces.”

A pair of jewel-encrusted Key Wind bracelet for Empress Josephine, circa 1806.

A pair of jewel-encrusted Key Wind bracelet for Empress Josephine, circa 1806.

The concept of the wristwatch gained acceptance despite the “feminine” association due to the military’s need for an accurate, durable, easily viewed timepiece as warfare became more mechanized. The ability to read time with a quick glance was critical in battle. A lost, broken or fragile pocket watch could prove disastrous to the military timetable. By World War I, the U.S. Army began to request “strap watches” of the preeminent makers. The term “strap watch” was an alternate term intended to distinguish these watches from the effeminate “wristwatch.” Strap watches became especially crucial to aerial combat operations, as timing in navigation and landing is critical. Demand for “strap watches” in warfare grew, and more rugged timepieces were introduced. Hans Wilsdorf established the Rolex watch, based upon this very need. He also went on to produce highly accurate women’s wrist watches.

LeCoultre 1917 military issue.

LeCoultre 1917 military issue.

Wristwatches still did not see widespread public use until the 1920s, or even 1930s. Before that, men still tended to regard the wristwatch as inherently feminine. After World War I, that perception slowly began to change. But it was a long process.

“… after the end of World War I, a lawyer was arguing a point of law in court when Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis noticed that the lawyer was wearing a wristwatch. The judge halted the lawyer in mid-sentence and asked him if he served in the war. When the lawyer responded he had not, Judge Landis ordered him to remove the watch, admonishing him that it was inappropriate for non-veterans to wear a wristwatch. Judge Landis was subsequently appointed the commissioner of Major League Baseball to clean up the sport’s image after the “Black Sox World Series” scandal in 1919. This involved “Shoeless” Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox and seven of his teammates. Landis ruled baseball with an iron fist from Nov. 12, 1920 to Nov. 25, 1944.”

— Frederic J. Freidberg, “The Illinois Watch”

The “wrist watch” lent itself much more readily to the current styles of the day than the pocket watch, being more prominently visible and malleable in form. The watch companies of the day were quick to “jump on the bandwagon” of this new style watch, and several companies distinguished themselves with their unique creations. The Illinois Watch Co. was in the vanguard of this movement, but too late to save itself from bankruptcy; it was subsequently bought out by the Hamilton Watch Co.

Gentleman’s 1940s Hamilton in 14K gold.

Gentleman’s 1940s Hamilton in 14K gold.

Hamilton was quick to pick up the gauntlet and produced hundreds of differently styled wristwatches, all with high-grade mechanisms. The Gruen Watch Co. was close behind, also producing many different styles and models at the cutting edge of style and technology. Dietrich Gruen, a German nationalized citizen, founder of the Gruen Watch co. and the Columbus Watch Co. invented a new and different style of wristwatch mechanism called the “Curvex.” This innovative wristwatch movement lent itself to a more ergodynamic wrist watch case and was immensely popular. Elgin and Waltham also produced good wristwatches, but were nowhere near as successful as Gruen and Hamilton.

But soon the American watch companies were subsequently “run over” by the Swiss watch revolution. Longines, Omega, LeCoultre, Bulova and plethora of sundry watch companies commandeered and dominated the wristwatch market, until the Japanese watch revolution, which was led by Seiko.

The “top end” of the wristwatch market was and is dominated by Patek Philippe, Vacheron & Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and finally Rolex, the king of the Sport Model Wrist Watch. Tiffany and Cartier are the top of the “bling” heap, but do not actually produce watches; they contract with actual watch manufacturers to make watches for them according to their design.

American watch companies have long since disappeared and exist today in name only, incorporated into Swiss Firms. Today, the major Swiss watch firms are all incorporated under a government-controlled umbrella corporation called Swiss Watch Specialties, Inc. This newly formed organization was a result of the Japanese watch revolution of the 1960s-’70s. Nearly all of the old established and previously successful Swiss watch companies floundered under the Japanese competition, and were all on the brink of failure until the Swiss government got involved. The advent of the Swatch finally turned the tide and put the Swiss watch industry back on an even playing field. But, that’s another story.

By the mid 1930s men’s “strap watches” became “wristwatches” without the feminine association, although they were still believed to be a passing fad; much less respectable than the traditional and “manly” pocket watch. Heavy use of the men’s wristwatch during World War II finally earned it a ubiquitous ranking in American culture. In 1914, when a wristwatch was shown at an exhibit in Switzerland, it was called “just a passing fancy.” Today, this “passing fancy” is the number-one jewelry item in the world. About 80 million watches are made around the world each year.

David Mycko is a Worthologist who specializes in watches.

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