The Evolution of the Wristwatch  

There are many staple items in our daily lives that we barely give a second thought to. Turn your mind for a moment to, say, a band-aid, a pair of reading glasses, a teabag, or a paper clip; they fade into the background until the moment they are needed, and then it would be unfathomable that they did not exist at all.      

Soldiers in France during World War One sychronising their watches with a clock mounted on a post in the camp / Alamy

More often than not, as the old adage goes, it is necessity that is the matriarch of great inventions. This was certainly true for the birth of the 20th century horological mechanical marvel, the wristwatch. With its introduction, we gained the ability to track the passage of time through miniaturised personal devices that could be worn on the wrist. How inventive, liberating and hitherto inconceivable it must have seemed. In fact, we can go further than that; in the context of the battlefield, we could also describe it as ‘life saving’.

These days, we would not usually refer to a watch as a ‘wristwatch’ – we take it for granted that this is where it is worn. Yet, before the wristwatch became this ubiquitous object of modern daily life, it was necessary to specify where and how you might wear your timepiece. After all, watches had previously been worn on chains and usually deposited in pockets.

Patek Philippe Ref 2554/1
A Platinum Wristwatch Circa 1960 | $8,000–12,000

Such is the social and historical significance of the watch that many watchmakers have laid claim to being the ‘first’ to invent the wristwatch. Records from 1810 have credited Abraham-Louis Breguet as designing an ‘oblong shaped-repeater for wristlet’, for the Queen of Naples. Patek Philippe followed suit with their bracelet version in 1868 for a Hungarian Royal. Wristwatches – or “wristlets” as they were then known – reached the heights of women’s fashion in the second half of the 19th century. These delicate jewel encrusted wristlets served more as status symbols for upper class women than as instruments of accurate time telling – conveniently so seeing as these ladies of leisure needed not rely on time very much at all. 

With wristlets now firmly ensconced in every fashionable lady’s wardrobe, the only masculine choice for the fashionable gentleman remained the pocket watch. It took World War I to change all that. During battle, it could prove costly for soldiers to tie up one hand in the operation of a pocket watch. Initially, the trend was for soldiers to strap their pocket watches to their wrists for easier and quicker access. Gradually, trench watches, designed to be worn on the wrist, became standard issue equipment.

Confined to use on the European battlefields and still in the midst of WWI, a New York Times article in 1916 decried “bracelet watches” as “more or less a joke” and a “silly ass fad.” However, as the war drew to a close, it was becoming increasingly apparent that this ‘fad’ was not going away. The wearing of wristwatches amongst soldiers returning home was spreading in popularity in civilian society. Wristwatches were now becoming reimagined symbols of masculinity and bravado, reflecting the spirit of a soldier, and spelling the end of widespread popularity for the pocket watch.

The wristwatch was here to stay, and whilst styles and technologies have come and gone, the essence of the wristwatch remains true to its genesis on the battlefield. 

PATRICIA KONTOS / Senior Jewels & Timepieces Specialist

Banner Image: IWC Fliegeruhr Mark XVI, Ref 3255 a Stainless Steel Wristwatch With Date Circa 2007 | $1,500–2,000

September 2022