The Evolution of the WristwatchCopyright © Notice
Although many watch manufacturers claim to have invented the wristwatch, such a simple development really didn't need to be actually " invented" - it is obvious. That is why there is no patent for the wristwatch; something that is obvious cannot be patented. However, the story of how the watch came to be worn on the wrist, or at least on a man's wrist, is interesting.
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The Earliest Wristwatches
In their monumental "Technique and History of the Swiss Watch" (ISBN 0 600 03633 2, and weighing in at nearly 2.5kg, a truly monumental book!) the authors, Eugène Jaquet and Alfred Chapuis, relate the following story on the origin of the wristwatch: "Much has been written about this subject, and we ourselves have heard the following story from an old engraver: A good woman, seated on a bench in a public park, was suckling her child. In order to observe the time, she had attached her watch around her arm. A passer-by was struck by this naive ingenuity. On his return home, he soldered two lugs on to a lady's watch, and added a strap."
Are Jaquet and Chapuis really expecting us to believe that the combined brains of the watch industry, which had produced such mechanical complications as the chronograph, minute repeater, perpetual calendar, and the tourbillon, were unable to come up with the idea of soldering two bits of wire on to a watch case before they saw the "naive ingenuity" of this good woman? I hardly think so!
Queen Elizabeth receiving a "wristwatch" in 1571
From 1926 Gruen Guild advert
Professor Jaquet and Doctor Chapuis were two very eminent horologians. Professor Eugène Jaquet was Principal of the Geneva School of Horology, and Alfred Chapuis was Doctor Honoris Causa of the of the University of Neuchâtel. Just about every watch manufacturer claims to have been the first to make a wristwatch and this story is Jaquet and Chapuis poking fun at these claims. Notice how they say "... and we ourselves have heard the following story ..." and point out that strapping a watch to ones wrist is merely "naive ingenuity" and not a huge technical breakthough.
So if wristwatches were an obvious invention, as Jaquet and Chapuis point out, and women had been wearing them for centuries, why did it take so long for men to catch on to the idea of the wristwatch? There are two aspects to this question: technical and fashion. Could a watch small enough to be worn on the wrist keep accurate time? And would a "real" man wear something that looked like a bracelet? Rather than a massive technical breakthough where some genius had a flash of inspiration, the real story of the mans wristwatch is of how it overcame these technical and social barriers.
One of the earliest references to what we would perhaps now call a wristwatch, or at least an "arm watch" was the new year gift received by Queen Elizabeth from Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, in 1571. It was a richly jewelled armlet, having "in the closing thearof a clocke, and in the forepart of the same a faire lozengie djamond without a foyle, hanging thearat a rounde juell fully garnished with dyamondes and a perle pendaunt." What exactly this item was is not known because it no longer exists, but it clearly contained a spring driven clock or watch, and was intended to be worn on the arm, presumably somewhere where the watch would be easily visible, which would mean the forearm or wrist. The imaginative illustration shown here is taken from a 1926 Gruen Guild advert and shows Robert Dudley presenting the queen with her wristwatch.
1868 Patek Philippe Bracelet Watch
©Patek Philippe SA Genève
The very first wristwatches we have details of were small watches on bracelets (bracelet-watches or montres-bracelets) intended for ladies. An account book of Jaquet-Droz and Leschot of Geneva mentions, in 1790, "a watch to be fixed to a bracelet, ". When Eugène de Beauharnais married Princess Auguste-Amélie of Leuchtenbergin 1809, the Empress josephine presented her daughter-in-law with two bracelets, one containing a watch, the other a calendar. These were made in 1806 by the Parisian jeweller Nitot.
In 1810 the famous French watch maker BréguetPronounced "Bre-gay" was comissioned by the Queen of Naples to make a wristwatch, which was completed in 1812. Patek Philippe made the key-winding lady's bracelet watch shown on the left in 1868 for the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary.
Similar developments were taking place in Switzerland. In February 1889, Albert Bertholet of Bienne registered a claim, which was granted Swiss patent number CH 576 in April 1889, for a "Montre bracelet simplifiée" or simplified wristwatch, which implies that there must have been a more complicated wristwatch before. Bertholet's simplification was to do away with the winding and setting stem completely. The watch was wound by turning the bezel, which was geared directly to the mainspring barrel, and to set the hands a gear which engaged directly with the cannon pinion was brought to a small slot in the side of the case so that it could be turned with a finger. M. Bertholet does not specify whether his montre bracelet was intended for men or for women but, given the name "bracelet watch" and the prevailing fashion at the time, we must suspect that if it was used - and I have never seen even a mention of such a watch - it would have been in ladies watches.
Fashion and Technical Challenges
By the middle of the nineteenth century many, if not most, watch makers were producing bracelet watches, often with elaborate enamelling and jewelling of saphires, rubies, or diamonds. These early pretty, jewellery like, bracelet watches were worn by ladies. Men considered that wrist watches were too small to be properly engineered in order to keep time accurately; and too prone to damage by shock, or contamination with dust and moisture due to their exposed location; and, perhaps most damning of all, effeminate: because wristwatches were only worn by ladies.
A gentleman who wanted to keep track of time wore a pocket watch, usually tucked into a pocket of a waistcoat, a garment introduced by King Charles II in the 17th century, on the end of a long "Albert chain," a chain introduced by Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, which had a clip at one end to attach to the bow of the pocket watch and a bar at the other to fasten it to a button hole to prevent the watch being dropped. This was a long standing fashion of how a true gentleman dressed to present himself to the world.
Apart from fashion, there was another challenge for makers of wristwatches to overcome. Portable watches had developed from miniaturised spring driven clocks in the 15th or 16th century, and had been gradually made smaller and slimmer. But there was a general perception, which had an element of truth about it, that an accurate watch needed to be of a certain size, and that to make it small enough to be worn on the wrist would be to sacrifice accurate timekeeping.
The final challenge that a wristwatch had to deal with was what safety engineers call "hazards". The environment within a waist coat pocket is relatively benign; warm, dry and relatively protected from shocks. But strapped to the end of an arm, the wristwatch is exposed to all manner of hazards and rough treatment, it is prone to getting knocked, exposed to dust and splashed with water. All of these hazards presented problems to watch movements of the time, which did not live in hermetic cases, and therefore would get gummed up if dust mixed with the oil, rusty if moisture got in, and were prone to shocks breaking the delicate pivots of the balance staff, only a few 10ths of a millimetre in diameter.
The true story of the wristwatch, or at least of the mans wristwatch (because as we know ladies wristwatches had been available for centuries) is of how it overcame these technical and social barriers to become an essential part of every mans wardrobe - just as the finest and most complicated wristwatches still are today, despite the fact that, with every gadget from phones to computers having a clock built in, they are no longer needed to tell the time!
Wristlets: From Pocket Watch to Wristwatch
The development of the mans wristwatch from the pocket watch was a gradual process, not an overnight event. Although there were many twists and turns along the way, and almost every manufacturer now claims to have been the first to make a man's wristwatch, the true story behind the man's wristwatch is broadly as follows.
Wristlet, or Wrist Strap for Pocket Watch
Want one? See Why I can't supply wristlets
It all began in the second half of the nineteenth century with the needs of the military for the precise timing of manoeuvres, combined with the difficulty of using a pocket watch during such manoeuvres. Faced with the difficulty of pulling out a pocket watch every few minutes whilst holding the horse's reins with the other hand and yet still needing to wield a pistol, officers soon recognised the utility of strapping their watches to their wrists. Thus began the development of the man's wristwatch.
At first pocket watches were adapted by being placed in leather cups with wrist straps like the one shown in the picture. These were often called "wristlets" and had the benefit that a man could wear his watch on his wrist when circumstances demanded, and then return it to his pocket when fashion rather than expediency ruled. The earliest patent I have seen for one of these wristlets by G. R. Baldock has the priority date of 7 March 1900 and is entitled "An Improved Watch Wristlet", which of course begs the question, improved compared to what? Clearly there was an existing, pre-1900, design which Mr Baldock thought he could improve on.
Registered Design RD 217622
I have a couple of these straps that have inside them the legend "RD 217622". I recognised this as a reference to a Registered Design, so I went digging and found a record in the Board of Trade ledgers as shown in the picture on the right. The entry in the Board of Trade ledger, written in beautiful copper plate handwriting, shows that the registrant is Arthur Garstin of Queen Square in the Bloomsbury district of London, a leather goods manufacturer. The date of registration of RD 217622 is 2 September 1893. Queen Square seems to have been quite a posh residential area at the time and this was probably his home address.
The Garstin company was making these leather wristlets before 1893. I have recently found evidence that they wer making them as early as 1888 or even before. I am currently tracking down a contemporary reference to support this and will update here when I have it.
The company of A. Garstin and Co. was established in 1871. Its address in 1922 is given as 159 Adgersgate Street, London, EC1 for Offices and Showrooms with a factory called Leatherville at Hendon. They were a manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of leather goods. During the Great War they made, inter alia, binocular cases for the British Army - one was sold on a popular auction site carrying the legend "Case No.2 Prismatic A. Garstin & Co. Ltd. 1916".
Ledger entry for Arthur Garstin
During the nineteenth century watches changed from being expensive items that only a few wanted or could afford into everyday items, partly due to improvements in production reducing their cost, and partly due to the increasing importance of accurate time keeping. Military men soon realised that strategic manoeuvres could be coordinated by time instead of visual or audible signals, thereby increasing the element of surprise. It became possible to arrange for attacks on defended positions to occur simultaneously from all sides without any signal that could alert the enemy. Strapping a watch to ones wrist so that it could regularly be checked quickly and easily whilst on horseback, rather than having to fumble about with a pocket watch, was an obvious thing to do.
The first wristlets or wrist straps for pocket watches were probably one-off affairs, commissioned by officers who, frustrated with repeatedly having to haul out their pocket watch, realised that it was a good idea and got their local saddle maker or some other leather worker to make a custom strap for them. The registration of RD 217622 in 1893 shows that by then Arthur Garstin had realised that by 1893 there was sufficient demand for these to make it worth while going to the trouble and expense of producing an original design that could be registered, and going in to production. This indicates to me that the practice had started some time before. Where did Garstin get the idea from? Maybe he had a relative or a customer serving in the army who suggested it to him, or asked him to make one and as a result he realised the potential.
The British Army was involved in various overseas campaigns during the second half of the nineteenth century, and it appears that it was during these that British military men began strapping their watches to their wrists. A friend of mine and long time watch collector Richard Edwards has a photograph of soldiers wearing wristwatches in leather holders taken at Nimal in India during the Hazara Campaign on the Northwest Frontier in the Autumn of 1888, and another photograph showing watches in leather bracelets taken during the Third Burma War of 1885-7.
In an article in the BHI Horological Journal, "The Early Wristwatch in Times of War 1899 - 1920", Dennis Harris remarks that reference to ladies wearing watches in leather bracelets like this when riding or hunting first appeared in the December 1887 issue of the Horological Journal. From this Harris concludes that it is likely that this was the first occurrence of this fashion. However, I would suggest that the soldiers adopted wristlets before the ladies, because men would never have considered adopting female fashions during the Victorian period. It was also not vitally necessary for a lady to be able to read her watch whilst hunting, shooting or riding, and it seems most likely that the ladies had seen wristlet watches worn by officers returning from active service and emulated them.
1901 Goldsmiths Advert
The Second Boer War was fought between the British and descendants of Dutch settlers called Boers (farmers) between 1899 and 1902 in Southern Africa. It was a long war for the time involving large numbers of troops from many British dominions. The Boers operated as self-organising commando units, they were used to life in the saddle and to hunting with a rifle; they knew the terrain, and were highly motivated. Against such a highly mobile adversary, British officers were forced to develop the technique of using precision timing to coordinate troop movements and synchronize attacks against the Boer's positions.
Mappin & Webb Advert 1901
Pictured left is an advert from 1901 by Mappin and Webb for their "Campaign" watch. The watch is described as: "Mappin & Webb's 'Campaign' Watch. Solid leather wristlet. Small compact watch is absolutely Dust and Damp Proof. Oxydised Steel Case. Reliable timekeeper under the roughest condition. Complete, as illustrated. £2 5s."
The advert says that the watches can be "Delivered at the Front" for an extra one shilling. In 1901 this "front" can only refer to the Boer War war in South Africa.
In an article in the Horological Journal of August 1998, Dennis Harris records the following statement by Frank Thirkell, a past employee of Mappin and Webb: "I started my career in horology in 1933 with Mappin and Webb and the name 'Campaign' was often discussed, although by that time the watch was discontinued. I remember being told by a senior colleague (A. H. Lorryman) that the first Campaign watch sold by Mappin and Webb was an Omega pendant watch fitted into a leather cup wrist strap and sold to Officers serving in the Boer War. I have never seen a surviving example." Adverts by Mappin and Webb during the Great War (see below) state that the watch was first used in great numbers at Omdurman. The battle of Omdurman was fought on 2 September 1898 when a British army commanded by General Sir Herbert Kitchener defeated the army of Abdullah al-Taashi as part of British efforts to re-conquer the Sudan. This was a short time before the Boer war broke out, but no doubt the requirements of mounted cavalry for ready access to the correct time were much the same.
Pictured right is an advertisement for a military pocket watch, "The Company's Service Watch," which appeared in the 1901 Goldsmiths Company Watch and Clock Catalogue. It was described as "The most reliable timekeeper in the World for Gentlemen going on Active Service or for rough wear." The "UNSOLICITED TESTIMONIAL" at the bottom of the advert, dated June 7th 1900, states "Please put enclosed Watch in a plain Silver Case. The metal has, as you can see, rusted considerably, but I am not surprised, as I wore it continually in South Africa on my wrist for 3½ months. It kept most excellent time, and never failed me. Faithfully yours, Capt. North Staffs. Regt.".
Although this is clearly a pocket watch, the captain's atatement that he wore it on his wrist shows that he had mounted it in a leather cup sewn onto a leather wrist strap, the same as "wristlet" illustrated above, and he was obviously on active service during the height of the Anglo-Boer war. Was this a wristwatch? A moot point.
The watches in the Goldsmith's advert are cased in Swiss patent Borgel cases, where the movement, dial and bezel are fixed to an externally threaded carrier ring, and this whole assembly then screws into the threaded case from the front. Patented by François Borgel in 1891, this design was an early attempt at making the case less permeable to water and dust. These watches would have been imported complete with case by Goldsmiths from Switzerland. You can read more about these Borgel cases on my Borgel page.
Interestingly, the same 1901 Goldsmiths catalogue contains two pages of advertisements for ladies wristwatches mounted on either rigid or flexible bracelets, and 12 pages of adverts for men's pocket watches, but no adverts at all for men's wristwatches. Men's pocket watches by this date had reached a high degree of sophistication. The cheapest and simplest watch advertised is a silver keyless watch with a jewelled lever movement, compensation balance, enamel dial and crystal glass at £2:10.
The most expensive watch illustrated is a Gentlemen's gold, London made, keyless repeater, with chronograph registering minutes, seconds, and fifths of seconds, and a perpetual calendar showing day, date and month, and a moon phase indicator, with fully jewelled movement, BréguetSay: "Bre-gay". An overcoil balance spring where the last coil is raised above and parallel to the others with a smaller radius. Invented by Abraham-Louis Bréguet in 1795, the overcoil form allows the hairspring to expand and contract concentrically, which improves timekeeping and is still in use today. balance spring, compensation balance, adjusted for all temperatures and positions, guaranteed to keep most accurate time, for the princely sum of £ 200. No wristwatch at the time could hope to compete with such a display of English horological excellence! (and not many have since, come to that!)
The Goldsmiths Company catalogue notes either that "These watches are made abroad specially to the order of the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Company, Ltd., who examine them in London and guarantee them." or that "Some of the intricate parts of these watches are made abroad" without even mentioning where (although this was presumably Switzerland) let alone a makers name.
Why The Wristlet Persisted
It would not have been difficult for watch manufacturers, or indeed retail jewellers, to produce watches with attachments for a strap that could hold the watch onto the wrist without the need for the rather bulky wristlet pocket watch adapter. But the pocket watch wristlet continued in production for many years. An advert in the 1912 Wm. Potter catalogue shows a huge variety of these leather watch wristlets available from the company, in 7 different sizes and 10 different leathers ranging from cow hide to crocodile, and each leather is available in a range of colours - a huge range. It would seem that the fashion for strapping a watch to ones wrist was seen at the time as a purely utilitarian or functional answer to working needs of a military man, a bicyclist, an avaiatory etc., but that in polite society one took one's watch out of its wristlet holder and returned it to its proper and fashionable place, in a waistcoat pocket. It was not technical difficulties that held back the adoption of the wrist watch, it was fashion and society's acceptance of it.
1915 Electa Watch with Fixed Wire Lugs
Wire Lug Watches: Watches with Handles
By the start of the twentieth century, watch manufacturers had noted this trend and, recognising that a standard man's pocket watch was rather too large to be comfortably worn on the wrist, started producing purpose made wristwatches. These used existing movements that had originally been designed for smaller sized pocket watches, which were placed into cases that had loops of wire called "wire lugs" soldered onto the sides of the case to take a leather strap. The picture to the right shows one of these early wire lug watches, and you can see how simple the additional wire lugs that take the strap are. No wonder Jaquet and Chapuis made fun of watch manufacturers who claim to have "invented" the wristwatch. However, also note that this watch was not made by simply soldering wire lugs onto an existing watch. It has a savonnette movement that would normally be used in a hunter case with a lid over the glass, but has been used in this watch in an open faced case to bring out the seconds indication in the right place on the dial, and the case has been made slightly different as well. Not complicated modifications for a manufacturer to bring together, but certainly not as simple as just soldering wire lugs onto an existing watch. I explain this in more detail below.
Although these early wristwatches, both the leather cup and the wire lug variety, were taken up by aviators, automobilists and the military, they didn't find favour with the general public. They were regarded as too small to keep accurate time, too vulnerable to damage or dust and water, and simply not the fashionable thing for men to wear.
Déposé No. 9846
Which was the first firm to actually make wristwatches with wire loops to take a leather strap? In 1903 the Swiss watchmaking firm of Dimier Frères & Cie of la Chaux-de-Fonds, who as Dimier Brothers & Co. were an important watch importing company in London, made an attempt to monopolize the nascent wristwatch market, and this is the earliest documented evidence I have seen of watches with curved wire lugs. You can read more about Dimier Brothers & Co. on my Sponsors Marks page.
Modèle Déposé No. 9846
Evidence for this is the legend "Déposé No. 9846" (sometimes "DEPOSE 9846", or even DÉPOSÉ 9846) which is often seen on the back of early wristwatches as shown here, sometimes with the Swiss cross symbol, sometimes without. Déposé is shorthand for Modèle Déposé, which is Swiss/French for "Registered Design". Copyright exists for designs whether they are registered or not, but it can be diffcult to prove without evidence of the date the item was designed or made; hence, an entry in a register is a useful offcial record. NB: This is a "Registered Design" and not a "Patent"; a patent is something quite different.
The picture to the right here shows the official Swiss register entry for Modèle Déposé No. 9846. It is dated July 29, 1903. As you can see, the description is very short compared to that of a patent: it simply says "Montre à bracelet-courroie" or "Wristwatch belt" and shows a picture of the design.
The exact translation of Montre à bracelet-courroie is important. A "montre" is a watch, "à"" means with, "bracelet" is a bracelet and a "courroie" is a belt. The addition of courroie or belt is clearly intended to distinguish this design from a "montre bracelet", a watch on a metal bracelet which ladies had been wearing for hundreds of years.
So the specific design features being registered were the use of a leather wrist strap like a belt, and by implication the "anses", handles or wire lugs, that attach the leather strap to the watch case. This is the earliest documented evidence I have seen of watches with fixed curved wire lugs
There is also another number in the picture, No. 405488, which appears to be subsidiary to the main registration number 9846, although it is not clear what this means.
The announcement shown in the next figure was published in La Fédération Horlogère Suisse in October 1907, which translates as.
La Fédération Horlogère Suisse
I have only ever seen the number "No. 9846" stamped in the back of watch cases, and the wording of the announcement implies that the design registered as No. 9846 was for curved handles for wristwatches. I have seen a watch strap resembling the one in the picture and with the number No. 405488 stamped on it, implying that the shorter number was for the curved handles or wire lugs, and that No. 405488 was the registration number for the leather strap, the "courroie".
Judging from the number of very early wristwatches that are stamped with the legend "Déposé No. 9846", the threat must have been taken seriously by other manufacturers, at least initially.
Pocket Watch Conversions
Hmmm, If I soldered on a couple of wire lugs,
would this pass as a wristwatch?
Post factory conversions from pocket watch to wristwatch, by the simple method of soldering on two lugs as described by Jaquet and Chapuis, are not as common as people sometimes think.
Wrist watches don't usually have a lid, as in a hunter, so if a pocket watch was converted into a wristwatch, it would usually have been from an open faced pocket watch. Here is a picture of a small open faced Borgel pocket watch that I have rotated to bring the crown to 3 o'clock as if it were a wristwatch. A couple of problems are immediately apparent. The 12 is in the wrong place, as is the sub seconds dial. Another problem is the bow on the pendant to which the chain is attached. Although the position of the 12 could be moved by a making a new dial, the bow could be removed, and the pendant and winding stem shortened, the position on the seconds display cannot be moved and would appear at 9 o'clock, or would have to be omitted altogether.
This sort of mucking about is just far too much trouble to be the way the first wristwatches were made. Although there are undoubtedly some wristwatches that were made by soldering wire lugs onto a small pocket watch, these are usually obvious and not very well adapted to their new role. From their appearance they were usually done by a local jeweller who was not used to the work, and some of them look like they were done by the village blacksmith.
The key to the successful wristwatch - an open faced watch with small seconds at 6 o'clock - was the paradoxical use of savonnette (hunter) movements in open face cases. (For more details about lépine and savonnette movements, go to my "Movements" page.)
Instead of messing about converting pocket watches they had already made, when a manufacturer wanted to make some proper wristwatches they would say something like this to their watch case maker "You know those small open face pocket watch cases you made for us, well make some more, but this time make the pendant shorter and miss off the bow, and put some lugs on the sides to take a strap." Were these converted pocket watch cases - no, because they weren't first made with a long pendant and bow and then altered, they were specifically made for wristwatches.
The manufacturer would then take some small savonnette (hunter) movements they were already making, fit them with dials that had the small seconds at 6 o'clock, put them into these open face cases with short pendants and lugs for a wrist strap and, hey presto, a wristwatch! Were these pocket watch movements? No, they were just small savonnette movements that could be used in either pocket watches or wristwatches. They may have been first designed for pocket watches, before there was any demand for men's wristwatches, but does this mean they are always pocket watch movements, even when used in a wristwatch? Of course it doesn't, they are just watch movements.
Was putting a small savonnette movement into a case made specifically for a wristwatch actually a "pocket watch conversion"? No: not in any way.
Developments in accuracy and case design ensued, and by the time of the Great War (the First World War, World War One or WW1) almost every manufacturer had a man's wristwatch in their range, even if they weren't selling many of them. The war changed the perception that wristwatches weren't for men. Many officers recognised the drawbacks of using an officially issued pocket watch and purchased their own wristwatches. Civilians started seeing men home on leave wearing wristwatches, and of course after the war men who were demobilised continued to wear the wristwatch they had worn on active service and this gradually changed the fashion so that the wristwatch became first an acceptable, and later an essential, mans accessory.
A number of companies were producing men's as well ladies wristwatches in the first decade of the twentieth century, or at least had them available in their range, and had perhaps made the odd one or two to special request. However, the vast majority of the wristwatches that were actually sold, as opposed to just being available in the manufacturer's catalogue, were ladies wristwatches. The idea of a man wearing a watch on his wrist was gradually gaining acceptance with military men, sportsmen and automobilists, but not with the wider public.
1912 Borgel Advert
This advert appeared in a 1912 issue of Revue Internationale de l'Horlogerie. The cases illustrated at the bottom of the advert are Borgel one piece screw cases, the same as the ones in the Goldsmiths catalogue. But there is also a new twist: unlike the pocket watch in the Goldsmiths advertm which had to be strapped to the wrist by a purpose made leather strap, the case at the bottom right of the advert has been adapted with wire lugs to take a "bracelet" and be worn as a wristwatch!
The advert goes on to say that this wristwatch case has been "specifically requested by motorists and members of the English and colonial army." So by 1912 watch manufacturers were beginning to wake up to the idea that certain activities, and military men in particular, were starting to demand wristwatches. The earliest known Borgel wristwatch like the one in the advert has been dated by IWC factory records to late 1906. But even in 1912 wristwatches were still a long way from public acceptance and fashionability.
There was still the general view that a watch worn on the wrist, being necessarily smaller than a pocket watch, and subject to being more generally knocked about, exposed to dust, water from hand washing etc. would never be able to keep accurate time, and it was still perceived by some as unmanly. Two things now conspired to bring about a more rapid change in the fortunes of the wristwatch: the commitment of one Hans Wilsdorf; and the occurrence of the first World War.
Hans Wilsdorf, with financial help from his brother-in-law Alfred Davis, founded the watch importing and distribution firm of Wilsdorf & Davis in London in 1905. Wilsdorf was convinced that the wristwatch was the way of the future, and soon contracted the firm of Hermann Aegler to manufacture wristwatchs for him. Wilsdorf was a perfectionist, and never ceased pressing Aegler to improve the timekeeping of the watches they made for him, which he now insisted be branded "Rolex" - a name Wilsdorf had invented.
In 1910 Aegler submitted a Rolex wristwatch to the Bienne testing station. It received a First Class certificate and thus became the first wristwatch to be officially certified as a chronometer in Switzerland. On July 15th 1914, a Rolex wristwatch received a Class A precision certificate from the Kew Observatory in Greenwich, which had previously only been achieved by marine chronometers. Wilsdorf remarked that this was a "red letter day" in the development of his firm, which he would never forget. The ability of a wristwatch to maintain accurate time keeping could no longer be be held in any doubt. You can read more about Hans Wilsdorf and the Rolex story on my Rolex page
Great War (World War One - WW1) Officer's Trench Watches
Canadians advancing on Vimy Ridge, April 1917
Now that the wristwatch had been shown to be capable of being an accurate time keeper, it was only social acceptability that held it back. The Great War (the first World War or World War One, 1914 - 1918) first required, and ultimately legitimised, the wristwatch. The standard timepieces issued to officers were still pocket watches, but these were impractical to use in the cramped conditions of the trenches, and in the open cockpits of early aircraft, and many officers soon purchased their own wristwatches, hence these watches are often referred to as " officers" or "trench" watches. The fact that they were purchased by individuals rather than being issued by the military authorities accounts for the enormous variety of WW1 era wristwatches, which makes them so interesting to collectors.
Robert Graves, the war poet, joined up soon after the war started in 1914, taking a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. In May 1915 he was sent to the front in France. On joining his new company at the front he was briefed by Captain Dunn the commander of "C" company. Graves remarks in his autobiography "Goodbye to All That" that after explaing the usual daily routine of inspections, sentry duty etc., "He looked at his wristwatch." There was no explanation or remark about this, evidently by 1915 seeing a military man wearing a wristwatch gave no cause to comment.
In "Now It Can Be Told", the war correspondent Philip Gibbs related a scene during one of the battles around Hooge in Flanders, Belgium during August 1915: The men deployed before dawn broke, waiting for the preliminary bombardment which would smash a way for them. The officers struck matches now and then to glance at their wrist-watches, set very carefully to those of the gunners.
As the war progressed and the techniques of warfare developed, the role of the wristwatch changed from being a convenience, to a life or death requirement when the "creeping" or "walking" barrage was introduced to protect advancing troops. A creeping barrage involved artillery fire moving forward in stages, so that the shells were falling just ahead of the advancing infantry. First used at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, it was soon appreciated how important it was for the attacking troops to follow the barrage closely, "leaning on the barrage", not allowing time for the defenders to emerge from their dug out shelters. This strategy required precise timing by both the heavy artillery and the infantry. Failure to achieve this would result in the artillery killing their own soldiers, and there was no opportunity to stop during the advance to fish out a pocket watch. The creeping barrage was used to great effect in the Canadian success at Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
The takeup of wristwatches amongst military men during the Great War was rapid. A book published during the war in 1916 "Knowledge for war: Every officer's handbook for the front" by Captain B. C. Lake of the King's Own Scottish Borderers included the list of Officer's Kit shown in the picture. The first item on the list, ahead of otherwise indispensable items such as "Revolver" and "Field glasses" is "Luminous wristwatch with unbreakable glass".
The 1916 Annual General Meeting of H. Williamson Ltd., a wholesaler of clocks, watches and gold and silver ware, was told that " The public is buying the practical things of life. Nobody can truthfully contend that the watch is a luxury. In these days the watch is as necessary as a hat - more so, in fact. One can catch trains and keep appointments without a hat, but not without a watch. It is said that one soldier in every four wears a wristlet watch, and the other three mean to get one as soon as they can. Wristlet watches are not luxuries; wedding-rings are not luxuries. These are the two items jewellers have been selling in the greatest quantities for many months past." (Emphasis added) Williamson's watch factory in Coventry, an important English watch making town, was set up by Charles Hutton Errington in the 1880's and acquired by Henry Williamson in 1895. The firm was one of the first in the UK to recognise the important new market for wristwatches and owned the Buren watch factory in Switzerland.
The war also led directly to some serious problems for British importers of Swiss watches. In September 1915 the British Government imposed an "ad valorem" duty of 33.⅓% on imported luxuries including clocks and watches to conserve foreign currency reserves as part of the war effort. This meant that any watches imported into London, even if only for checking for subsequent export abroad, would be subject to this high rate of tax. As a result of this, companies like Rolex, Rotherham and Sons, George Stockwell and Baume & Co. etc. set up Swiss offices and sent watches direct to their outlets overseas, bypassing London and the 33.3% import tax. Rolex opened their Bienne office in 1915, and subsequently the Rolex headquarters moved from London to Geneva. Prior to that Rolex checked all Swiss made watches in London before re-exporting them to the Empire. The tax on imports would of course have provided an excellent opportunity for the British watch industry, but British made wristwatches from the Great War era are rare - I would go so far as to say non-existant, but I am not that sure - and it seems that the British watch makers, such as still existed in 1914, were still making expensive pocket watches in small numbers largely by hand for an elite few. They weren't ready to make wristwatches at all, let alone in large volumes as demanded by the War and by the public, and so the remnants of the traditional British watch industry declined and faded away.
J C Vickery Advert 1916
During the Great War, many jewellers and retailers advertised "Service" watches. Amongst the best known of these were J W Benson of Bond Street and Ludgate Hill who advertised "Benson's Active Service wristlet watch", S Smith & Son, Watchmakers to the Admiralty who advertised "Smith's Allies Watch", Sir John Bennett who advertised "The Service Wrist Watch", The Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company who advertised "The Military Luminous Watch", and Harrods who advertised "Harrods Military Luminous Watch".
These "Service" watches usually had the features required by Captain Lake's list of kit; luminous hands and figures, or "luminous dials" as they were often called, and unbreakable glass. They also were often described as being suitable for rough wear, some with screw back and bezel construction, and many of them with Borgel cases, although this isn't stated in the advert. The picture of the watch, with typical Borgel onion crown, pin set and with milled bezel together with the description of a one piece case into which the movement screws, dust and damp proof, sometimes with reference to it being a patent case, shows clearly that these were Borgel cases. In 1916 J C Vickery advertised the watch shown here with a Borgel screw case and a two piece or cuff strap like the ones I supply. Alongside it is a curious little humanoid mascot called a "Fumsup". These charms first appeared in 1880s and werevery popular during the Great War, often sent to troops at the front by Sweethearts. The mascot has raised thumbs, hence the name Fumsup for "thumbs up", and a wooden head so that its owner could "touch wood" whenever he felt the need.
1915 Mappin & Webb Advert
Mappin "Campaign" Watches in the Great War
During the Great War Mappin and Webb ran the advertisement shown here many times. The advert for "Mappin's famed 'Campaign' watch" states that "This fine movement wristlet watch was first used in great numbers at Omdurman. And desert experience is the severest test any watch can have" and "During the Boer War it renewed its high reputation for reliability under trying conditions."
The 1915 advert is clearly trying to make an historical link between watches worn at Omdurman and the watch in the advert by referring to "This fine movement wristlet watch ..." although by 1915 the watch has evolved from a pocket watch in a leather wrist adaptor into a purpose-made wristwatch.
The watch is described as "compensated and jewelled. In silver case with inner dome, it is absolutely dust and damp proof" which is rather a bold claim and the actual watches wouldn't have been up to the copywriter's flight of fantasy; no snap back case can be absolutely dust and damp proof, even with an inner dome and given the expectations at the time.
The watch is "fitted with a luminous dial, which shows the time on the blackest of nights." The luminous paint was powered by radium salts so that it glowed stongly all the time and didn't rely on being exposed to sunlight to charge up the luminous effect. The radium in this paint is still radioactive and needs to be treated with caution, see my page about luminous paint.
1917 British Military Wristwatch
British Military Wristwatches
In his book "A concise guide to Military Timepieces 1880-1990", Wesolowski remarks that: "Probably as a result of popular demand, the War Department procured a variety of wristlets for evaluation and issue, circa 1917. All the wristlets that were made available have a number of different unsigned Swiss 15 jewel lever movements, while the case designs came in two types. Some had snap-back cases, which could not form an adequate hermetic seal and consequently were judged unsuitable for field conditions; many of these were sold off as surplus in the 1920s and bear the broad arrow cancellation mark. Other wristlets came with screw-back cases which offered better protection. All the wristlets had black enamel dials and radium numerals and hands."
The picture to the left is of one such watch in my collection, identical to one of the watches pictured by Wesolowski with the " pheon" or broad arrow on the case back which denotes it as War Department property. The watch has a screw back and bezel case made from nickel, and the movement is one of the apparently unsigned Swiss 15 jewel lever movements Wesolowski refers to. Thanks to fellow watch collector Cary Hurt, this movement has been identified as made by A Schild, and during a recent service the tell tale letters AS in an oval were found on the top plate underneath the dial.
The Schild family, along with the Girards, set up the first factories making ebauches in Grenchen, and this became the principal industry in the area. Adolf Schild set up A Schild & Cie in Grenchen in 1896 with the intention of making high quality ebauches with all the parts being interchangeable, and did much research into tooling to achieve this. In 1914 the company won a gold medal at the Swiss National Exhibition in Berne for the interchangeability of its parts. A Schild made the movements for John Harwoods revolutionary self winding watch, and supplied ebauches to many Swiss watch manufacturers including Gruen and Girard Perregaux.
The substantial screw back and bezel case is made of nickel so carries no hallmarks or sponsor's mark to show who made it, but the case has several very distinctive features; the milling that gives a grip when unscrewing the back and bezel, the shape of the crown, and the large diameter stem tube that is cut away at the back and front to allow the bezel and back to screw down. Silver versions of this case also exist and the hallmarks in those show that they were made by the Dennison watch case company of Birmingham.
Other Military Wristwatches
American forces seem to have been issued with wristwatches as soon as they entered the war in 1917. I have also come across a suggestion that Ingersoll "Radiolite" wristwatches were issued to British tank crews at the battle of the Somme in September 1916, but so far as I have been able to ascertain, the Ingersoll watches issued to these tank crews were pocket watches. If you can add anything to this, please get in touch.
To protect the delicate glass crystal of the wristwatch, many manufacturers offered shrapnel guards made of pierced metal. These slipped onto the wrist strap, and the piercing allowed the wearer to read the time through the holes.
Wristwatches become Fashionable
The public soon became used to seeing battle hardened military veterans coming home on leave from active service, and still wearing their wristwatches. After the war was over, thousands of veterans were demobilised and went back to civilan life. Of course they continued to wear the wristwatch that had served them faithfully and survived the terrible conflict with them. Seeing these battle hardened veterans wearing their wristwatches changed the public perception that wearing a wristwatch was not manly, and sales of wristwatches to the man-in-the-street started to take off.
In December 1917 the Horological Journal, the journal of the British Horological Institute, noted that "The wristlet watch was little used by the sterner sex before the war, but now is seen on the wrist of nearly every man in uniform and of many men in civilian attire."
By 1930 sales of wristwatches had overtaken those of pocket watches. In 1937, at the Paris International Exhibition, one commentator wrote "Who would have thought only a few years ago, that the wristwatch would one day be presented in so many forms, and in such variety?" The age of the pocket watch was over.
The British Watch Trade
The attitude of the British watch trade to mens wristwatches seems to have been the same as their attitude to imported Swiss pocket watches. The best watches in the world were English, and they were pocket watches.
People could buy cheap watches, and even wristwatches, if they wanted, but the English watch industry would sail on unaffected, still producing small quantites of very expensive pocket watches at great labour with very little use of machinery, unlike the Swiss and Americans who had mechanised and produced many more watches, more cheaply and of uniform high quality. And so, like the dinosaurs, unwilling or unable to adapt to changing circumstances and changing fashions, the English watch manufacturers, slowly, one by one, died out.
1915 Electa Watch with fixed wire lugs
Anatomy of an Officer's Trench Watch
The easiest way for a manufacturer to satisfy the demand for wristwatches was to add small loops of wire, called lugs, to an existing design of small pocket watch. Pocket watches called "savonnettes" or "hunters", which had a hinged metal cover to protect the crystal during rough wear, already had the dial arranged so that with the winding stem at 3 O'Clock the seconds dial was at 6 O'Clock. It would have been a simple matter to take a savonnette movement and put it into an open face case which had simple loops of wire, called fixed wire lugs, attached to take a leather wrist strap. Note that this is not a "conversion" of a pocket watch, it is assembling in a different way parts that were already being made, with just the small addition of the wire lugs to the case.
Pictured left is a trench watch by the Swiss company Gallet et Cie., who made watches with the brand name Electa. This watch exhibits many of the typical features of a trench watch: You can see the fixed wire lugs which give this type of watch one of its names, wire lug. They are just simple loops of wire soldered to the sides of the case.
In addition to the fixed wire lugs, which in this case take a 12mm strap, the dial has open outline numerals, intended to take luminous paint which has long since worn away or been removed; the hands are "poire - squelette" (pronounce "skelette") alternatively referred to as "cathedral" style because they look like a leaded stained glass window,; there is a subsidiary seconds dial at 6 o'clock; and finally the large "onion" winding crown is very typical. These crowns are often worn down so that the fine ribbing or fluting, which is so well preserved on this one, has disappeared.
The watch is in a silver case of the "Borgel Patent" design, hallmarked with London import marks for silver, and the date mark for 1915. The Borgel case was an early attempt to make watches resistant to dust and moisture, a serious problem for a wristwatch in its exposed location.
François Borgel's Marque de Fabrique
The Borgel case is a one piece case with no opening at the back. The movement, dial and bezel are mounted on a threaded carrier ring, and the whole assembly screws into the case from the front. The winding stem is split, and the part which carries the crown is attached to the case by a spring. This allows the part stem to be withdrawn by pulling on the crown so that the movement can be screwed in.
Because the stem is split so that the movement can be screwed in, the method of setting the hands is unusual. Normally the crown winds the spring as usual, but when the pin just below the crown is pressed in, turning the crown then moves the hands. This is often referred to as nail-set, because you use a finger nail to press in the pin.
You can see another example of a Borgel cased watch in the Goldsmiths Company advert above, which shows the movement of the central watch in its screwed carrier ring and its relation to the case clearly. The two watches below that one also show the pin-set detail to the right of the stem, but the illustrator has included hinges on these two possibly in error. You can read more about Borgel cases on my Borgel page.
The case is also marked "A·G·R", which refers to Arthur George Rendell of Clerkenwell Road, London who were importers of Swiss watches from 1907. You can read more about case marks on my Case Marks page.
When is a Trench Watch a Soldiers Watch, or is it a Ladies Wristlet?
A correspondent posed the question: "There are many so called "Trench Watches" listed on auction sites (not just eBay), that are in reality ladies wristlets. Given that the introduction of the first wristwatches (or Wristlets) were for ladies, which men of that perod, considering them something "that real men would not wear", continuing to prefer a pocket watch, how can one tell whether a so called " trench watch" is a mans or a ladies watch?"
My reply was: I think it is a bit like like mens versus ladies shorts, (I mean the garments, not liquor!) the difference is in both the size and the style. Mens watches, like their shorts, would tend to be larger and more manly looking, ladies smaller and more feminine. My grandfather's watch is larger than my grandmother's at 34mm versus 28mm, but it is also clearly more manly in style, even if they were the same size.
I tend to regard any trench watch smaller than about 30mm diameter, excluding lugs and crown, as a de-facto ladies watch. However, I have had at least one correspondent swear to me that a 28mm watch belonged to their grandfather. It is entirely possible that a man of small stature with a small wrist, as many were in those days due to poor diet - in the Great War the army found that many men called up were unfit for service - could not wear a larger watch and so chose a "ladies" size watch. So in this case the exception proves (tests) the rule, which must change as follows: "Men wore large wristwatches" => "Most men wore large wrist watches".
I have also noticed that gold watches appear to be on average smaller than silver watches, presumably on account of the cost of the gold used to make the case. I have not done a survey to establish whether this is generally true (which would be difficult because so many gold cases have been scrapped over the years) it is just an off-the-cuff observation based on the examples I have seen.
Any wristwatch with what I would call a "fancy" dial - e.g. fancy guilloché patterns, gold numbers, gold dots for the minute track, jewels etc. also goes into the ladies category for me. But again, who can say? I see men wearing ear rings and although I wouldn't do it personally, I can't make a rule that says it doesn't happen.
Note that the 30mm size doesn't apply to watches made in the 1930s and 1940s when there was a trend to smaller watches. I am not an expert on this area so I can't say exactly when and why it happened, but some watches that are clearly mens from the middle 1930s are only 28mm diameter.
So in answer to the question: there is no definitive rule or way of telling whether a watch is a mans or ladies watch. My personal rule is that "I know it when I see it", based on the foregoing. Many things which are clearly ladies watches are described as trench watches, presumably in the majority of cases because the vendor thinks this will lead to a higher price. I think we just have to accept this as a fact: that the term is now being used to describe a type of watch, one with fixed wire lugs, and not necessarily one that was actually used, or likely to be used, in the trenches. As with anything, caveat emptor: do your own research, look closely at what you are buying, and don't trust the salesman's patter to be entirely accurate.
Some Early Makers of Wristwatches
The list of makers below is not intended to be exhaustive or definitive. It is a collection of makers of early mens wristwatches with interesting tales to tell. It begins with Girard-Perregaux, who claim to have been the first to make significant quantites of wrist watches. Unfortunately they are unable to produce any factual evidence to support this claim, and some doubt its veracity. The next entry is Cartier, and the wristwatch they made in 1904 is well documented, but was a single item made following a very specific request, so that doesn't qualify them as the first mass maker of wristwatches. And then follow a parade of well known industry names, who all claim to have been the first to make wristwatches.
But who was the first factory to start mass producing and selling wristwatches to the general public? The simple answer is that we don't know, and probably never will: because there wasn't just one visionary pioneer who saw the future and single handedly converted the public's taste and fashion from pocket watch to wristwatch. The demand arose first from adventurers, sportsmen and automobilist, and then the big demand came from military requirements during the Great War. Manufacturers responded to it by taking watches they already made and adding attachments for straps. It wasn't very difficult to do, and it seems to me that they all climbed onto the bandwagon at about the same same time, in the years between 1900 and 1920.
Similar to German Navy Watch? © Girard-Perregaux
In 1879 the German Emperor Wilhelm I visited the Berlin Trade Fair and saw some experimental wristwatches made by Girard-Perregaux of La Chaux de Fonds in Switzerland. He gave an order for 1,000 of these for the German Imperial Navy, and as many as 2,000 such wristwatches were delivered in 1880, so Girard-Perregaux claim to be the first manufacturers of wristwatches in significant volume.
Unfortunately, not much is known about these wristwatches because the archives of Girard-Perregaux were partially lost some years later, and it is thought that all the watches are lost too. This is a little surprising if there were thousands produced, and hopefully one will turn up one day. But in the absence of such evidence, some have claimed that the story isn't factual.
It is believed that they were 10 or 12 lignes,A ligne, or line, is 1/12 of an old French inch, which itself is 1.0657 of an English inch. So a ligne is 2.256mm. with a small seconds hand, in gold cases to resist the corrosive effects of salt water, on chain wrist bands, and with a grid-like metal cover over the dial. To the left is a picture kindly provided to me by Girard-Perregaux of a watch thought to be similar to the German Navy Watch. It shows a gold watch with fixed wire lugs holding it to a leather strap. To protect the crystal there is a metal grill attached to the case with a hinge at 12 O'Clock, and a push release at 6 O'Clock to open the grill and look at the dial. However, this can't be very similar to the German Navy watch because it has dial with radium paint on the hands and numbers, and a shrapnel guard. Radium metal wasn't
A modern Cartier Santos
In 1904 Louis Cartier made a wristwatch for the aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont. Santos-Dumont had won the Deutsch prize for flying his airship from the Park Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back in under 30 minutes. He celebrated his success at Maxim's, where he complained to Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch while flying. Cartier went to work and produced a watch to be worn on the wrist with a leather strap and a small buckle. Santos-Dumont never again took off without this wristwatch, and Cartier started selling Santos-Dumont wristwatches to the public in 1911, and is still selling them today, which is some achievement.
IWC - International Watch Company
IWC now has its own page here: IWC.
Omega now has its own page here: Omega.
Gruen made both men's and women's wristwatches starting in 1908, but these proved popular only with women. Like the others mentioned here, Gruen was one of the few companies to take wristwatches seriously this early, seeing their potential in spite of disappointing early sales to men. Gruen made both wrist and pocket watches for the military during World War One. Most had silver cases, which would tarnish but would not corrode under the conditions in the trenches, and to meet U.S. military regulations, luminous dial markings and hands.
By 1918 Gruen were making a "Moisture Proof Military Wrist Watch" under US patent 1,303,888 registered by Frederick Gruen on May 29, 1819. The watch was contained inside an outer case, which had a screw-on bezel with crystal, but no crown, and hence no hole for the winding stem. The drawback was, of course, that every day the owner had to unscrew the bezel, flip the watch from its outer case and wind it up, being careful not to lose the loose bezel in the process. And the same procedure was necessary to set the time. A picture of this watch can be seen at 1908: Gruen Wristwatches. This is part of a fantastic history of the Gruen Watch Company written by Paul Schliesser.
The 1918 Gruen design is eactly the same design as the "Hermetic" case supplied to Rolex and others under a 1921 Swiss patent number CH 89276 registered by Jean Finger. A comparison of the two patents can be seen in the picture, and you can see how similar they are. Did Finger copy Gruen's patent? It would appear so. The principal difference between the two patents is that in the Gruen patent the watch is held to the outer case by a hook and can be easily removed, the watch in the Finger patent is hinged to the case and the hinge pin must be removed if the movement is to be freed from the outer case.
Movado was founded in 1881 by 19-year old entrepreneur Achille Ditesheim in the village of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. The name of the firm was changed to Movado, meaning "always in motion" in the international language of Esperanto, in 1905
In 1912 Movado created the Polyplan, a revolutionary, patented movement constructed on three planes to fit a case curved to follow the wrist, and in 1914 developed their "Soldier's Watch" with an integral protective grill or shrapnel guard in a shrewd anticipation of the forthcoming conflict. This was a very successful product for Movado, and it is believed that they sold some 2,000 each year during the First World War.
Gallet and Electa
Gallet and Electa now have their own page here: Gallet-Electa.
Longines now has its own page here: Longines.
A watch making firm was founded in Geneva in 1755 by Jean-Marc Vacheron. He was clearly talented as a watch maker, and within 15 years of founding the company Vacheron was making watches with "complications". In 1779 Vacheron produced their first watches with engine turned dials - metal dials with fine patterns cut into them by special machines, sometimes called "rose engines". In 1819 Jaques-Barthé lemy, grandson of Jean-Marc Vacheron, formed a partnership with François Constantin. The company was called "Vacheron et Constantin". François Constantin was responsible for introducing the company's products to new markets and he travelled widely. On 5 July 1819 François wrote a letter from Turin to Jaques Barthélémy Vacheron containing a phrase that was to become the company's motto: "Faire mieux si possible, ce qui est toujours possible" (Do better if possible, which is always possible).
Possibly the greatest contribution made by Vacheron Constantin to the wider Swiss watchmaking industry was their hiring of Georges-Auguste Leschot as production engineer in 1839.
If you have any corrections, questions, suggestions, or comments, then please drop me a line at Please don't give out my email address, refer anyone interested to this web site. I try to answer all emails I receive so if you don't get a reply in a few days please check your junk or spam folders.