Converted WristwatchesCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2022 all rights reserved.
Sometimes it is written that the first men's wristwatches were converted pocket watches, sometimes called “transitional” wristwatches. This is not correct. Although it may seem logical to assume that the wristwatch started in this way, and then purpose made wristwatches came along as a later development, this is an assumption that is not based on any evidence and it is wrong.
There was nothing difficult about designing or making wristwatches. Ladies had been wearing watches on bracelets and as wristwatches for centuries, but before WW1 (1914-1918) only military men wore wristwatches. If a man wanted to have a wristwatch, he could just go into a shop and buy one, but very few did, due to fashion and prejudices. When men's wristwatches suddenly came into high demand during the war, there were not enough new wristwatches to fulfil the demand so sometimes ladies' fob watches were converted into men's wristwatches by attaching strap lugs. Ladies' fob watches were used for this because they were the perfect size; men's pocket watches were too large to make comfortable wristwatches.
Le Roy Advert for Bracelet Watches 1887
Converted wristwatches were not transitional in any way because they did not precede purpose made wristwatches. It was a very simple idea to attach two wire lugs to a case to take a strap or a bracelet. Ladies' wristwatches with bracelets had been specially made for centuries, and had been available in high street shops since the late 1880s. The advertisement reproduced here by Le Roy et Fils, the Parisian jeweller with shops in London, dates from 1887 and shows a small fob watch mounted on a registered design of bangle. Notice that although this is an open face fob watch, the dial has been rotated so that the 12 o'clock is where it should be on a wristwatch and the crown is next to the three.
Although this is not exactly what we think of today as a ladies' wristwatch, Le Roy also had a large selection of bracelet watches from 10 to 100 guineas, many of which were shown in later advertisements and which were true wristwatches. It did not require an enormous leap of imagination, or a twenty or thirty year “transitional phase”, for someone to come up with the idea of attaching a leather strap instead of a bracelet.
Purpose made men's wristwatches also appeared much earlier than many people think, around 1900. After all, what is the difference between ladies' watches and men's watches? A man's watch is usually larger and plainer, more masculine, in appearance; hardly rocket science. The wearing of a wristwatch was a matter of taste and fashion. Even though every army office wore a wristwatch, there was no demand for wristwatches from civilian men, who generally didn't wear things around their wrists. Because of this there was no mass market for men's wristwatches until the Great War, when large numbers of men joined the armies of Europe. They saw officers routinely wearing wristwatches; a practice which the new recruits quickly took up.
So before the Great War there was also simply no need to convert pocket watches into unsatisfactory wristwatches. If a man wanted a wristwatch, he could just go out and buy one. And in fact, military officers did just that. Advertisements from the period mention that wristwatches were sold to automobilists, balloonists, horse riders, and to military men, who were the largest group of customers for them. The vast majority of civilian men didn't wear a wristwatch, because it simply wasn't seen as necessary or fashionable.
My earliest wristwatch with a verified date is an IWC Wristwatch that was made in 1906. A Calibre 64 savonnette (hunter) movement was put into a purpose made Lépine (open face) wristwatch case with fixed wire lugs, ordered from Borgel in Geneva in September that year. This IWC wristwatch, and many other wristwatches from the pre-war period that were clearly made for men, show that purpose made men's wristwatch cases were readily available in the early 1900s.
Converted Wristwatches Exist
There undoubtedly were conversions of pocket watches into wristwatches. These are often easy to spot because they were not done by a watch manufacturer, and were often done pretty badly. Conversion of a pocket or fob watch into a wristwatch by the simple method of attaching two wire lugs, as mockingly described by Jaquet and Chapuis in The “Invention” of the Wristwatch, does not make a satisfactory wristwatch and is not nearly as common, or as early in the history of the wristwatch, as people sometimes think.
When and why were fob watches converted into wristwatches? Before the Great War there was no need for such conversions, because ready made wristwatches were available to buy in the shops. If a man wanted a wristwatch, he could just go out and buy one, but civilian men didn't so there was very little demand. But during the Great War, the sudden demand from thousands of newly commissioned officers for wristwatches quickly bought up the existing stocks and exceeded watch manufacturer's production capability to make new ones. This is when and why fob watches were converted into wristwatches.
Because the watches converted into wristwatches that can be positively dated, e.g. from hallmarks, are from the period before the Great War, sometimes long before, the mistaken assumption has been made that they were converted before the war. But I have evidence that proves that this is not the case. The original pocket watches were, of course, made before the war, but their conversion to wristwatches was done during the war, because the supply of new men's wristwatches could not satisfy the sudden increase in demand brought about by the war.
The reality is that converted wristwatches did not precede purpose made wristwatches and there is no such thing as a “transitional” wristwatch. Fob watches were converted into wristwatches during the Great War when the supply of new wristwatches could not keep up with the sudden surge in demand for wristwatches from newly commissioned officers desperate to get to the front before the war was over.
Practicality of Conversion
Before getting into the evidence of what actually happened, let's look at how easy it is to convert a pocket or fob watch into a satisfactory wristwatch. I say a “satisfactory wristwatch” because I mean a wristwatch that customers would actually want to buy from a shop, to wear and show off to their friends, not something that looks like it has been hurriedly cobbled together out of whatever was available under trying circumstances and doesn't do the job very well.
Would adding wire lugs to a fob watch make a wristwatch?
Wristwatches don't usually have a lid as a hunter watch does, because that would defeat the point of strapping the watch to a wrist – which was to make it easy to access and read the time without using both hands. If a wristwatch has a hunter lid, both hands are needed to read the time, the left to bring the watch into view, the right to open the lid. For this reason the vast majority of wristwatches are open face.
Hunter wristwatches, and demi or half hunter wristwatches with a small window in the lid, are seen from the time of the Great War, obviously with the idea that the glass would be protected from knocks in the trenches, bullets and shrapnel. But these are few and far between, because they are awkward to read and quickly annoyed their users. Sometimes they are missing the hunter lid; I wonder how many were torn off by frustrated wearers?
If a pocket watch was to be converted into a wristwatch, then it would usually be an open face pocket watch. How easy was it to make one of these into a wristwatch?
Here is a picture of a small open face 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 with this as a wristwatch are immediately apparent.
- The number 12 is next to the pendant and crown, which makes it difficult to read the time.
- The small seconds dial is opposite the crown, not the customary place for a wristwatch.
- The long pendant carries a bow to which a safety chain is usually attached.
- There is usually an engraved pattern on the back of the case (not shown).
Pocket watches converted to wristwatches usually show signs of all these problems. The 12 is often in the wrong place, or the dial feet have been cut off so that the dial can be rotated. The bow has been removed and the pendant and winding stem cut down, usually quite obviously. The position on the sub seconds display cannot be moved and would still appear at 9 o'clock, so often watches were chosen that have no seconds display. Nothing is done about the engraving on the back of the case, which is not a problem in itself but is a dead give away that the watch left the factory as a pocket watch.
It is in fact much more difficult to convert a pocket watch into a satisfactory wristwatch than it is to simply make a wristwatch in the first place.
The reason that it is difficult to make a satisfactory wristwatch from a pocket watch, and the key to the successful wristwatch, was the paradoxical use of savonnette (hunter) movements in Lépine (open face) cases, which at the time was very unusual.
Savonnette (hunter) watch cases, such as the one on the right in the image, have a hinged metal lid (ringed red) to protect the crystal. Savonnette (hunter) movements and dials are laid out so that the crown is at three o'clock and the small seconds at 6 o'clock. The hinge for the hunter lid is at 9 o'clock.It is easy to see how adding lugs to the case would have the basic layout of a satisfactory wristwatch.
Lépine (open face or crystal) watches, such as the one on the left in the image, have no lid. Their movements and dials are laid out so that the crown is at 12 o'clock and the small seconds is at 6 o'clock. This design was created in the eighteenth century by Jean Antoine Lépine to make watches slimmer, but is also has the advantage that it is easy to see the dial and hands; there is no need to open a lid to read the time.
The principal reason for wearing a wristwatch was to make it easy to read the time. If the wristwatch had an open face, this could be done with minimum effort just by looking at the wrist, which could be done while holding things in both hands e.g. the reins of a horse in one hand and a revolver in the other. However, if the wristwatch was fitted with a hunter lid, both hands were needed to read the time; the wrist with the watch and the opposite hand have to be brought together to open the lid. If a demi hunter lid with a small window in the middle was fitted, the accuracy of reading was severely reduced. These practical considerations meant that an open face Lépine case was needed.
However, if a Lépine movement was used and the lugs were soldered onto the case so that the crown was on the side, where it was most convenient, the 12 would also be on the side, next to the crown, and the small seconds would be on the opposite side of the dial. This made it very awkward to read the time, and is the principal problem that most conversions suffer from. It was obvious that the 12 o'clock should really be at the top of the dial when viewed on the wrist, where the upper part of the strap would be attached. A movement that had exactly this layout, with the crown at the 3 o'clock position and the small seconds at 6 o'clock, already existed; a savonnette movement.
The key to the successful wristwatch was therefore to fit a savonnette movement into an open face Lépine case.
IWC Fournitures 1917: Cal. 63 Lépine (open face) versus Cal. 64 savonnette (hunter) et (and) Montres Bracelet (open face wristwatches) movements.
For more details about the difference between Lépine and savonnette movements and cases, see Savonnette vs. Lépine.
Instead of going to the unnecessary trouble of converting pocket watches, a manufacturer wishing to make wristwatches would take small savonnette movements that they were already making and put them into purpose made open face cases with short pendants and lugs for a strap and, hey presto, wristwatches! Was putting a savonnette movement into an open face case that had been purpose made with lugs to take a wrist strap and without a pendant and bow really a form of conversion? No, of course it wasn't.
This use of savonnette movements in open face cases, which for centuries had been called Lépine cases, gave rise to a new terminology. This is shown in the image here taken from an IWC catalogue of spares (fournitures) published in 1917. The calibre 63 on the left is described as a Lépine,naturally enough, but note that the calibre 64 on the right is described as a “savonnette et montres bracelet”, a “savonnette movement for hunter cases and for open face wristwatches.
The paradoxical combination of a savonnette (hunter) movements in Lépine (open face) cases is why early wristwatches have the number 12 picked out in colour. Because they were open face they looked at first glance like a Lépine watch adopted for wrist wear, but the savonnette movement meant that the 12 was in a different place to where it could be found on a normal Lépine watch and a red or blue 12 was used draw attention to this.
Evidence from the Great War
So when were the conversions of pocket watches into the converted wristwatches that one sees today actually carried out?
Available evidence indicates that these conversions were done during the early years of the Great War. Since the late nineteenth century an officer in the British Army had been expected to wear a wristwatch. During the Great War, as the army expanded, many new officers were commissioned, and each one used his “kit allowance” to purchase his kit for the front; uniform, sword, revolver, etc. - and a wristwatch.
At the start of the war there was such a demand from newly commissioned officers for wristwatches that the supply of new wristwatches couldn't keep up. At this time, fob watches were converted into wristwatches for officers determined to kit up and get to the front before the fighting was over, which in 1914 it was expected to be by Christmas.
I have the Longines trench watch shown in the image here. It's a nice size for a man's wristwatch, 35 millimetres across the silver Borgel screw case, not including the wire lugs or the crown, and the dial has the skeleton numerals and hands with radium luminous paint that were so necessary in a trench watch. The movement is a Longines calibre 13.67 Lépine with 18 jewels.
The Longines serial number of the watch is 2,241,923, which shows that the movement was made in 1909. The Borgel case has London Assay Office import hallmarks for sterling silver with the date letter “n” of 1908 to 1909 – remember that date letter punches were used over two calendar years. So the watch was made and cased in 1909.
However, it doesn't look like a Longines wristwatch that was made in 1909. For one thing, it has simple fixed wire lugs instead of the characteristic hinged “swinging” lugs that were usual for Longines wristwatches made at the time. Secondly, the dial has skeletonised numerals and hands with radium luminous paint. Luminous dials were not used when this watch was made in 1909. There is no seconds indication on the dial; Longines wristwatches made at the time usually had small seconds indications at 6 o'clock, so this is also odd.
The secret is revealed by Longines records, which record that this wristwatch was invoiced and sent to Baume & Co. in London on 12 March 1915. Why did this watch, which had been made in 1909, remain in Longines inventory at the factory in St. Imier until 1915, some six years later?
The answer lies in the sudden overwhelming demand for wristwatches from newly commissioned officers getting kitted out for the front in the Great War. The features that are unusual for a Longines wristwatch made in 1909; the fixed wire lugs, the luminous dial and the lack of seconds indication, show that this watch started life in 1909 as a small open face pendant or fob watch that was converted into a wristwatch, a trench watch with a luminous dial, at the Longines factory in 1915.
The Great War created a huge demand for wristwatches. Initially Longines was able to fill orders with purpose made wristwatches, but by 1915 demand was outstripping supply. Thirteen ligne open face fob watches were a suitable size for wristwatches, so fob watches like number 2,241,923 were drawn from stock and converted to wristwatches by removing the bow and cutting down the pendant, soldering wire lugs to the case and fitting a new luminous dial and hands.
Because the movement is a Lépine, the small seconds on the new dial would have been at 9 o’clock, so instead of putting a samll seconds dial at this unusual position, which would have looked a bit amateur, the arbor of the fourth wheel was shortened and the seconds indication omitted from the dial. This was not ideal, a small seconds indication was useful to reassure an officer that his trench watch was working when it could not be heard ticking due to the noise of gunfire, but needs must and the demand for wristwatches was great.
This watch is clear evidence that conversions of pocket watches into wristwatches took place during the Great War due to the sudden overwhelming demand by new officer's for trench watches, which demand was soon followed by newly enlisted men of other ranks. Many conversions were performed by jewellers and are easily spotted. This conversion was more competently done at the Longines factory and is not so easy to spot, but Longines archives are an invaluable record and show without doubt what actually happened.
Further proof of this is that many converted pocket watches bear British import hallmarks. Whatever the hallmark date, import hallmarks show that the watch was imported after 1 June 1907 when import hallmarking of watch cases began. But my 1906 IWC wristwatch, which has no hallmarks because it was imported in January 1907, shows that purpose made men's wristwatches were being made before these later imports were converted into wristwatches. Since purpose made wristwatches were available, why would anyone go to the trouble before the war of making an unsatisfactory wristwatch by adding strap lugs to a fob watch? Especially at a time when there was very little demand for men's wristwatches at all.
The evidence shows that wristwatches made from converted pocket watches did not precede purpose made wristwatches. Conversions of pocket watches into wristwatches were done during the Great War, when the supply of wristwatches could not keep up with the demands of newly commissioned officers urgently getting kitted out for the front.
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Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2022 all rights reserved. This page updated January 1970. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.