A Short History of Men’s Wristwatches

Following on from our post documenting the origins of the wristwatch for women, here we chart what could be easily described as ‘The Much Shorter History of the Men’s Wristwatch’.

Abraham Louis-Breguet

Depending on what version of events you believe, the invention of the wristwatch can be credited to Abraham Louis-Breguet, he of the Breguet overcoil fame, in 1810 or to legendary Swiss Watchmakers Patek Philippe some fifty years later.

What is certain is that Countess Koscowicz of Hungary became the very first recipient of a Patek Philippe ‘wristlet’ in 1868, the 19th century term for what would later be called the wristwatch.

Until well into the following century, these new contraptions were worn almost exclusively by women, and much more for decoration than any sort of accurate timekeeping—with aristocratic ladies having very little need to be precisely on time for anything.

The male alternative, as it had been for hundreds of years, was the pocket watch.

While it had evolved throughout its long lifetime to a point of impressive timekeeping, the pocket watch had always remained susceptible to the effects of the elements. With temperature variations, moisture or dust playing havoc with their fragile inner workings, wearing a watch safely tucked away in a vest pocket was as much a practical consideration to protect its intricate mechanisms than a fashion statement. For men, the only people allowed to hold positions in business or the military, the need to know the correct time was of far more importance than for women.

The Start of the New Wave

The beginning of the end for the pocket watch can be traced back as far as the Napoleonic era. There are reports of the French leader growing frustrated at having to constantly open his watch in the heat of battle.

While that may have started the first rumblings of the wristwatch revolution, it would take a little longer to truly cement its position, and as usual, it was the desperate inventiveness that only occurs during the hellishness of war that did it.

The first examples of a workable men’s wristwatch were supplied to the German Imperial Navy by the Swiss manufacturer Girard-Perregaux in 1880. A naval officer had modified his standard pocket watch to fit on a strap on his wrist, simplifying its operation while simultaneously freeing up both hands. With the usefulness of this new arrangement clearly evident to his superiors, several of Girard-Perregaux’s watchmakers were sequestered to Berlin to mass-produce specially designed timepieces attached to bracelets.

However, these were still very much soldierly equipment, not seen on male civilian wrists. It would take two more campaigns before the utility and effectiveness of the wristwatch would truly prove itself.

The Second Boer War between 1899 and 1902 marked the first serious shift in public perception. With several watchmakers now supplying purpose-made ‘Service watches’, snapped up by soldiers to replace their own improvised efforts, their reliability and toughness in the harsh desert environments of South Africa gave them a reputation completely at odds with that of fragile pieces of jewelry worn exclusively by high-born ladies.

Rough and ready veterans returning home from the battlefields of the Boer War wearing watches on their wrist suddenly made it an acceptably masculine thing to do. More civilians started to emulate them, safe from the fear of mockery.

Along with the military doing its bit to dispel the ‘fad’ label that had been attached to the idea of the wristwatch, 1907 saw the start of its long association with the pioneers and adventurers of the world; a relationship that continues to this day in the marketing departments of the leading watchmakers.

Cartier Santos Watch

Jeweler Louis Cartier created the ‘Santos’, a wristwatch made especially for his friend, legendary Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. With nothing in the way of reliable navigation technology, an accurate timepiece was essential for the pioneering pilot to plot his course, and he had decried the impracticality of having to take his hands off the controls of his aircraft to work the simple cockpit clock during previous flights. His new Santos allowed him to work out his time and distance calculations while keeping tight hold of the yoke.

However, while the start of the 20th century saw some definite advances in the notion of the men’s wristwatch, with the likes of Omega and Wilsdorf & Davis (better known today as Rolex) spearheading the cause, they still languished far behind the pocket watch as the timepiece of the gentleman.

The War to End All Wars

It was the innovations in technology and the horrifying realities of life in the trenches that finally secured the importance of the wristwatch.

With World War I, a more modern type of warfare required a more precise form of timekeeping. The first war to be fought over immense distances, and with soldiers ensconced in subterranean ditches, the line-of-sight forms of communication of previous conflicts, such as semaphore, were rendered useless. Now, attacks had to be coordinated through radio transmission, with officers synching their watches to ensure offensives began at the same time.

Although some still relied on the pocket watch, it was soon clear that the chaos of trench warfare required a much quicker way of ascertaining the time, while keeping both hands free as much as possible. Reaching into your vest or tunic, retrieving your watch, opening it and then replacing it again just wasn’t practical anymore.

‘Trench watches’ started to make an appearance from several English manufacturers to address this very issue. Simple, ruggedly constructed timepieces that fit on the wrist began replacing the officers’ own jerry-rigged items.

As pocket watches were still the standard government issue, any officer wanting to take advantage of this new equipment was expected to buy his own, and it led to a highly contested market amongst watchmakers. The fierce competition drove numerous innovations for a wristwatch fit for war heroes. WWI saw the introduction of luminous paint on hands and indexes to make the time more legible in the murk of the trenches. The porcelain dials of most pocket watches was replaced with much more resilient metal, and covered with unbreakable glass to further protect the watch in the throes of battle.

By the end of hostilities, the wristwatch had completed its transformation from a ladies accouterment to the accepted way for modern men to wear a timepiece, helped over the line by an entirely new type of public idol.

The Great War had brought the concept of aerial combat and the first fighter pilots had captured the collective imagination as little less than superhuman. The image of these fearless gentlemen warriors, going into battle in the skies above Europe, was irresistibly romantic. The world had a new type of champion to look up to and imitate; the aviator—and aviators wore wristwatches.

As the Roaring Twenties ushered in a decade of extravagance and hedonism, the pocket watch began to feel more and more antiquated. Giant strides were being made in aircraft and automobile design, with more and more daring feats attempted and records beaten. The wristwatch, still known as a strap watch, went from strength to strength—its association with those magnificent men in their flying machines, and with other prominent figures in this adventurous age, was seized on by a number of watchmakers, most effectively of all by a certain Mr. Wilsdorf.

The founder of Rolex set his company on its way to its current status as the world’s leading watchmaker by aligning his creations with the great and the good, making sure the pioneers of the world wore his products as they performed the kinds of feats mere mortals can only dream of emulating.

Mercedes Gleitze

After Mercedes Gleitze proved the imperviousness of the Oyster case during her swim across the English Channel in 1927, Rolex’s found their way onto the wrists of land and water speed record holders, and later, conquerors of the highest and lowest points on the planet.

By the end of the thirties, sales of wristwatches outdid pocket watches by fifty-to-one, signifying the completion of their move from military equipment to indispensable fashion accessory for the well-dressed man and woman.

In the subsequent decades, the pace of innovation has continued unabated. Fine mechanical watches are as desirable today as they have ever been, even seeing off the emergence of quartz in the seventies and the more recent rise of the Smartwatch.

A product of more than a century of constant refinement and perfection, high-end wristwatches are still one of the few pieces of jewelry men wear every day—an unmistakably masculine flourish to complete any outfit and one that tells its very own story.