The First Men's WristwatchesCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 all rights reserved.
By the start of the twentieth century, watch manufacturers had noted some demand for men's wristwatches and started producing purpose made designs. These usually used existing movements that had originally been designed for fob or small pocket watches, placed into cases that had loops of wire called "wire lugs" soldered onto the sides of the case to take a leather strap. These were purpose made wristwatches for men; the often told story that the first men's wristwatches were converted ladies' fob watches is wrong, as I explain in the last section on this page. Before the Great War civilian men did not usually wear wristwatches, but a number of manufacturers were making them; I have men's wristwatches made by IWC from 1906 and Longines from 1909. It seems most likely that these were purchased by military officers, even before the war that brought officer's watches to wider attention.
1915 Wristwatch with Fixed Wire Lugs
The picture here shows one of these early wire lug wristwatches, and you can see how simple the fixed wire lugs that take the strap are. No wonder Jaquet and Chapuis poked fun at the watch manufacturers who claim to have "invented" the wristwatch. However, in 1903 Dimier Brothers did stake a claim to have invented this design, and many early wristwatches carry a stamp Déposé No. 9846 which proves that this claim was taken seriously at the time.
A wristwatch like this was not made by simply soldering wire lugs onto an existing pocket watch. The basic reason for the creation of the wristwatch was to make it easy and quick to read using only one hand. That meant that it should be open faced, but an open face Lépine pocket watch normally has the seconds sub-dial at 6 o'clock and the crown at 12 o'clock, which is where the strap needs to be attached. A Lépine movement can't simply be rotated to place the crown at 3 o'clock because that would put the seconds indication at 9 o'clock.
Girard-Perregaux German Navy watches
There is a story that in 1879 the German Emperor Wilhelm I visited the Berlin Trade Fair and saw some experimental wristwatches made by Girard-Perregaux, and ordered 1,000 of these for the German Imperial Navy. Because of this story Girard-Perregaux are sometimes said to be the first manufacturers of men's wristwatches in significant volume.
The picture that usually accompanies this story can't be one of these German Navy watches because it has mesh guard and the dial has luminous paint on the hands and numbers. The first luminous paints used on watch dials were based on radium, which was discovered in 1898 by the Curies. Mesh guards and luminous dials first came into use during the Great War.
Unfortunately, nothing is known about these wristwatches apart from the story. The archives of Girard-Perregaux were partially lost, there are no records of such wristwatches being exhibited at the Berlin Trade Fair, or being used by the German Navy, and there are no pictures of anyone wearing one. Over the years there have been many attempts to locate one of these watches or other evidence for their existence, but none has been forthcoming. This is surprising if there really were thousands produced and, in the absence of any evidence, most researchers now believe that the story isn't factual.
To create a true wristwatch like the one shown here, a savonnette movement, which would normally be used in a savonnette (hunter) case with a lid over the glass, has been put into a Lépine (open faced) case. This correctly places the winding crown at 3 o'clock and seconds sub-dial at 6 o'clock.
The case has been made slightly differently too, there is no long pendant tube for the bow and securing Albert chain. These were not complicated modifications for a manufacturer to bring together, but certainly not as simple as just soldering wire lugs onto an existing pocket watch. I touch on this further below, and explain it in more detail on my page about watch cases.
Although these early wristwatches were taken up in small numbers by automobilists and aviators in addition to military men, 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. In fact, even when purpose made wristwatches were available, the leather wristlets that allowed a pocket watch to be worn on the wrist continued to sell in large numbers.
This all changed during the Great War (the First World War, WW1, of 1914 – 1918) when large numbers of men entered the armed forces and, in the trenches of the battlefields, they saw experienced and battle hardened officers wearing and using wristwatches. This changed the perception of wristwatches being effeminate, and many men wanted to own one themselves. As a result this early style of wristwatch with wire lugs became known as an "officer's watch", or more commonly a "trench watch".
Reactions in Switzerland, England and America
The Swiss watch industry benefited most from the new demand for wristwatches. English manufacturers had largely left the market for small watches to the Swiss and were not prepared with suitable size movements that could be produced in the large numbers required. American watchmakers were better prepared with small size movements. Waltham sold a lot of wristwatches in Britain during the war, as did Elgin did to a smaller extent. Back home in America though things were different. The US stayed out of the war until 1917 and the number of men who served in the war in Europe was a much smaller proportion of the American population than those from the European countries. Consequently the returning soldiers did not have the same impact on social norms in American and the wristwatch remained an unfashionable item in America into the 1920s.
English watchmakers were well behind the curve when it came to making small movements suitable for wristwatches. The hand craft methods used in England were not easily capable of producing the smaller size movements needed for ladies' pocket/fob watches, which were the ideal size for wristwatches. The English makers largely left the production of smaller sized movements and hence that part of the market to the Swiss, who had invested in machinery and modernised their watch production after a scare in 1876 when they found out at the Philadelphia International Exposition what the Americans were capable of doing with mechanised production, although only a few Swiss companies brought production completely into one integrated operation, Longines being one.
Machinery was better adapted than hand craft methods to making the smaller components needed for wristwatch sized movements, but it required a big financial investment in special purpose machines. The English watch industry was fragmented into many small companies and had been declining for many years and, with a few notable exceptions, English watch manufacturers simply did not have the organisation or capital to invest in integrated and highly mechanised factories. The Swiss however were better organised and adopted some aspects of the American methods of manufacture and successfully fought back and retained a large share of the market.
Consequently when the demand for wristwatches suddenly took off in the Great War, English manufacturers were unable to fulfil it and the Swiss and Americans swept the board. The one relatively large English manufacturer that could perhaps have competed with the Swiss and Americans for a slice of this market, Rotherhams of Coventry who had mechanised in the 1880s, were out of the watch trade during the war, instead manufacturing fuses for shells and other war material.
The very first watch that I serviced on a training course at the BHI was a pocket watch; not a particularly large one, but when I worked on my first wristwatch I was amazed at how much harder it was due to the difference in size and scale, and this helped me to understand what the English craft manufacturers came up against. Only Rotherhams were capable of producing wristwatch sized movements at a price that could come anywhere near the price of Swiss watches, although still considerably more expensive. English manufactured men's wristwatches from before WW2 were expensive when new and are RARE.
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Déposé No. 9846: Watches with Handles
Curved lugs or "handles"
In 1903 the Anglo-Swiss company Dimier Brothers registered a design of a wristwatch with fixed wire lugs and a leather strap. This is the earliest documented evidence I have seen of watches with wire lugs and one piece leather strap; the first purposely designed man's wristwatch, which during the Great War became known as the "trench" or "officers" watch.
Dimier Frères & Cie had offices in la Chaux-de-Fonds and London. As Dimier Brothers & Co., from 1868 were an important watch importing company in London, You can read more about the London company of Dimier Brothers on my Sponsors Marks page at Dimier Brothers & Co. .
DÉPOSÉ No. 9846 stamp in wristwatch case back
Evidence for the involvement of the Dimier Brothers company in the early development of the wristwatch is the legend "Déposé No. 9846" (sometimes "DEPOSE 9846", or even DÉPOSÉ 9846) which is often seen on the back of very early wristwatches as shown here, sometimes with the Swiss Federal Cross symbol, sometimes without. Déposé is shorthand for Modèle Déposé, which is Swiss/French for "Registered Design".
An author's or designer's legal copyright exists for designs whether they are registered or not, but it can be difficult to prove without evidence of the date the design was created; hence, an entry in a register is a useful official record. NB: a "Registered Design" is not the same as a "Patent", which is something quite different.
Swiss Modèle Déposé (Registered Design) No. 9846, July 1903
The picture to the right here shows the official Swiss register entry for Modèle Déposé No. 9846. It is dated 29 July 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 with bracelet-belt" and shows a picture of the design. That's it; that is the full entry.
The exact translation of Montre à bracelet-courroie is important. A "montre" is a watch, "à" means with and "bracelet" is a bracelet, but 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 watch case to the leather strap.
An interesting feature of the strap design is the flared centre section. This approximately covers the same area as the watch case. Since there is no description its purpose can only be guessed at. It could have been to prevent any part of the watch case from touching the wrist for some reason, perhaps concerns about allergies, or about perspiration tarnishing silver watch cases. Or, which I think more likely, it would not have been possible to register a design that was just a straight leather strap, because that would be too simple and obvious, so this more elaborate design was conceived just so that it could be registered. Once a registered design number had been secured, that fact could be used in advertising and to gain a hold over wristwatch manufacturers.
British Registered Design 405488, February 1903
There is a second number in the picture of the Swiss Registered Design. This is No 405488, underneath the main block of text with the registration number 9846. I discovered that this is the number of a British Registered Design, a design that was formally registered by the British Board of Trade for the purposes of copyright protection, in much the same way as the Swiss/French Modèle Déposé discussed above. The picture here shows the entry in the register. This is the full entry, there is no text description. The watch shown mounted on the strap in the picture is crossed out to show that it is not part of the actual Registered Design.
This design was registered by the British Board of Trade in February 1903, six months before the Swiss register entry for Modèle Déposé No. 9846 in July 1903.
The period of copyright protection afforded by the British registration was initially five years. This was twice extended under the provisions of the Patents and Designs Act 1907 for two further periods of five years each, taking the period of protection up to February 1918.
RD 499803 buckle design
Watch straps with the same flared centre shape as the British and Swiss Registered Designs are sometimes seen with the British Registered Design number "No. 405488" stamped onto the leather strap, and with another British Registered Design number, "No. 499803", stamped on the buckle. Buckles stamped with this number are an unusual design with two centre bars instead of the more usual single bar.
British Registered Design 499803, April 1907
Underside showing how the strap fits
The British Board of Trade records show that this unusual design of buckle was first registered in April 1907, but they don't show who the registrant was. However, the juxtaposition of the numbers 405488 on the leather strap and 499803 on the buckle, and then the number 405488 on the Swiss register entry for Modèle Déposé No. 9846, indicates that they were all the products of Dimier Brothers.
The Registered Design No. 499803 buckle is an unusual design with two centre bars and it fits onto the strap without being stitched into it. The Registered Design No. 405488 / No. 9846 shows a strap with a circular section the same size as the watch case in the centre, and there are only two ways such a strap could be fitted to a watch with fixed wire lugs, either the buckle would have to stitched to the strap after the strap had been fitted to the watch, or the buckle would have to be designed to fit to the strap without stitching, which is exactly what the Registered Design No. 499803 buckle does. The photograph here shows how it fits to the strap.
Why there was a four year gap between registering the design of the lugs and strap to registering the design of the buckle is a bit of a mystery. These straps and buckles do turn up occasionally, but I suspect that it was linked with the announcement shown below. My feeling is that when Dimier Brothers first registered the design of the watch strap in 1903 there were very few men's wristwatches being produced and so the documents lay on the shelf. But in 1907 the market for men's wristwatches with wire lugs was starting to accelerate and they realised that they could gain some control over it by reinterpreting what exactly it was that they had registered. The announcement shown in the next figure was published in La Fédération Horlogère Suisse in October 1907. It translates as
La Fédération Horlogère Suisse, October 1907
La Fédération Horlogère Suisse, October 1907
To avoid trouble and misunderstandings, we inform Gentlemen makers of watch cases of gold, silver and metal, and Gentlemen watch manufacturers of Switzerland, the curved handles for wristwatches are our registered design No. 9846 dated July 29, 1903.
We will pursue anyone who manufacture watches with these handles, without having previously made arrangements for a royalty to be paid to us, and that does not send his watch cases to our factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds to have our registered mark stamped in the case back.
Dimier Frères & Cie.
This announcement gives more details than appear to be recorded with the registered design. It is clear that the wire lugs ("anses" or handles) are designed to be curved (recourbées) or bent downwards, so that the lugs can be soldered to the middle part of the case and not interfere with the hinged opening back whilst making the path of the strap around the back of the watch case follow a natural curve. It's not rocket science, but someone had to think about it.
Judging from the very large number of early wristwatches that are stamped in their case backs with the legend "Déposé No. 9846", the claim that Dimier Brothers originated the design and the threat of action against anyone who didn't pay them royalties for making wristwatches with fixed wire must have been taken seriously by Swiss watch manufacturers at the time.
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E. J. Pearson and Sons
The company of E. J. Pearson and Sons, harness makers and saddlers at 275 and 277 St. John Street, London, had a long history, tracing their roots back to 1804. The company was taken over by Edward John Pearson in the 1880s. His sons Edward John junior and Alfred Edward also worked for the business.
Mr. Tucker, managing director of the firm of H. Williamson Ltd., had an interesting claim about the origin of the wrist watch. He told an interviewer: ‘During the Boer War we received a 12 size watch belonging to an officer in South Africa. He said he wanted to wear it on his wrist. I suggested putting loops on the case and sewing straps on to them. This was done, and we were struck with the idea and had it registered. It was some time before the idea took on, but eventually it became extremely popular.’ Pearsons made the wrist strap to Mr. Tucker's order.
In August 1908 E. J. Pearson and Sons registered two designs of watch straps with the British Board of Trade. The purpose of registering a design was to provide protection for the "intellectual property" of the originator of the decorative or artistic elements of a design, preventing these from being copied or manufactured without permission. A registered design was given a unique number and this was usually marked on the articles and in adverts, often abbreviated as "Reg. Des." or just "RD".
Pearson Sponsor's Marks
The sponsor's mark P&Ss for Pearson & Sons was first entered at the London Assay Office by Alfred Edward Pearson on 3 November 1908 with two registered punches. The coincidence of this registration at the assay office and the design being registered at the Board of Trade is interesting. It seems likely that watch straps were the first items that Pearsons had produced that needed gold or silver buckles and that this was the reason for creating the Pearson sponsor's mark. Two more punches were registered on 8 February 1909, a further two punches on 18 June 1910, and a final pair of punches on 26 February 1914.
The coincidence of Pearson registering two designs of watch straps in August 1908 and entering a sponsor's mark at the London Assay Office in November 1908 makes me think that these events marked the start of E J Pearson and Son making wristwatch straps on a commercial scale. They became the largest manufacturer of wristwatch straps in Britain.
Pearson and Dimier Brothers
1908: E J Pearson Registered Design 529337
On 27 August 1908 Pearsons registered with the British Board of Trade a design for a leather wristwatch strap. The Registered Design number was 529337. These straps are sometimes seen with ‘Reg No’ stamped in the middle of the back of the flared section, with ‘SIMPLEX’ in a curve above and the number 529337 below.
The design of the Pearson 529337 strap was identical in plan view to the design registered in Switzerland in 1903 by Dimier Brothers as Modèle Déposé 9846. Both designs had the centre section beneath the watch case flaring out into a circle the same size as the watch.
The benefit of the Pearson design was that the flared section was a separate piece of leather, underneath a separate strap that passed through the wire lugs of the watch. This meant that, unlike the Dimier Brothers design, the Pearson strap did not need to have the buckle stitched in after the strap was fitted to the watch.
The Pearson strap could be easily put on to and taken off a watch by anyone without needing any special tools or a sewing kit. Even a modern strap attached to the watch by spring bars is nothing like as easy to put on or take off.
In the Pearson design the flared section was stitched to the strap at the buckle end. The opposite end of the flared section had a loop attached to it that the fixed width strap was passed through to hold the two pieces together. This is quite clearly seen in the image reproduced here from the Board of Trade archives, the flared section is labelled "a". The parallel sided strap "b" passes through the loop stitched to the lower end of part "a".
English Straps for Swiss Wristwatches
Dimier Brothers Swiss advert for English leather watch straps
The Pearson design looks so much like an improved version of the Dimier Brothers registered design that it seems most likely that there was collaboration between the two companies. Beginning in 1912 adverts like the one here started appearing in the Swiss watch trade paper La Fédération Horlogère suisse. The advert was placed by the Dimier Brothers company and is for leather bracelets (bracelets cuir) of English manufacture (fabrication anglaise) for wrist watches (montre-bracelet).
Although the manufacturer of the straps is not mentioned, it seems most likely that Dimier Brothers approached Pearson to make straps for them in Britain, and that when Pearson saw the Dimier design with the flared centre they soon came up with the alternative design that could be fitted to a watch with the buckle already attached to the strap. It also seems very likely that it was straps made by Pearson that Dimier Brothers were selling through their office in Switzerland.
The Origin of the Military G10 Strap
Pearson were known in the 1920s as the largest maker of wristwatch straps in England . Some of their trade mark names for watch straps were "Victor", "Simplex", "Climax" and "Premier", and the brand name "Pearmak" was widely used.
Pearson "Victor" Strap RD 529336
Pearson Victor straps usually carry a Registered Design number 529336. This shows that the design was registered with the British Board of Trade on 27 August 1908, the same date as the RD 529337 design with the flared centre section. I have obtained a copy of the Victor strap Registered Design specification, but it is not reproduced here for copyright reasons.
The Victor strap is identical to the RD 529337 and Dimier designs, except that the under strap is not flared, it is straight sided and the same width as the main top strap.
The image here shows a very old and battered leather watch strap that is stamped on the back ‘VICTOR 529336’ and ‘Made in England’. It is immediately apparent that the design, with its under part and loop, is the same as the British military G10 strap.
In 1908 when the Victor design was registered, the British War Department did not issue wristwatches so there was no official demand for wristwatches, although the utility of wristwatches when on military manoeuvres had long been recognised. British officers were expected to purchase their own wristwatches.
The first trials of official issue wristwatches were conducted by the British Army in 1917. For many years Pearsons had been the largest manufacturer of watch straps in Britain and would have been the supplier of choice for the British military when wristwatches were officially issued. Pearson would have supplied their own special design of strap, the Victor, and been delighted to see it adopted as a military standard.
I have no doubt that this is how the G10 design came about, a development of the earlier Dimier Brother's design. Until I realised this I always wondered why the "under" part of the G10 was there.
Ladies' size versions of the Victor strap were stamped ‘Dainty’ with the same Registered Design number.
The Times, May 1966
The company of E. J. Pearson was named after Edward John Pearson, who was followed into the trade by his son Alfred Edward. When Alfred died in 1966 at the age of 92, the notice shown here was published in the "Latest Wills" section of The Times. It says that Alfred "invented the watch strap as it is known and used now".
When I first heard of this I thought that the claim was that Alfred invented the watch strap per se, but the qualification as it is known and used now must be significant. Watch straps as worn in 1966 were very different from the first watch straps used on wire lug wristwatches, so Pearson, who became a large manufacturer of wristwatch straps under the Pearmak brand amongst others, must have introduced some feature that was regarded as significant.
The only strap design that was still in use in 1960 and could trace its unique design and history right back to the beginnings of the man's wristwatch is the Pearson Registered Design 529336, the strap that became the G10. The G10 was still being worn in 1966, as it is today, and it seems likely that this is what "the watch strap known and used now" refers to, the strap we now call the G10 or NATO.
Pearson Patent Number 368861
I have a watch strap stamped Pearmak with a silver coloured buckle that has the P&Ss sponsor's mark stamped on it, although it is not hallmarked so is not actually silver. It is also stamped Patent number 368861, which was granted to Alfred Edward Pearson of E J Pearson and Sons Ltd on 17 March 1932 with a priority date of 21 August 1931 for an "Improved means for attaching straps to wristlet watches". The address on the patent was Richbell Works, Emerald Street, Theobald's Road, London. The design described in the patent was an open ended watch strap that incorporated a thin metal plate in the open ends of the strap. The metal plate was curved to fit around the watch lugs or bars and thus made the fastening stronger.
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The Struggle for Men's Acceptance
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
The advert shown here 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 1901 Goldsmiths catalogue discussed on the previous page. But there is also a new twist: unlike the pocket watch in the Goldsmiths advert which was strapped to the wrist in 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 for certain activities men, and military men in particular, were starting to wear wristwatches.
The earliest known Borgel wristwatch like the one in the advert has been dated by IWC factory records to manufacture in late 1906 and delivery to Stauffer & Co. in London in January 1907. It was sent as a single watch rather than in a batch of six or twelve as IWC watches were usually sent to Stauffer, perhaps indicating that it was a prototype or sample. Even by 1912 and the time of this advert, men's 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 and Rolex
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.
The Great War
In the summer of 1914 a series of political errors and blunders plunged the continent of Europe, and indeed the whole world, into a conflict that became known as the Great War. Millions of young men enlisted or were called up for military service, many of them leaving their provincial towns and rural villages for the first time. Amongst many new things and ideas that they encountered was the wristwatch. Although wristwatches had been worn by military men for may years, this was the first time that a large section of the civilian population had seen men wearing watches on their wrists. And not just any men, but professional soldiers and battle hardened veterans from the Western front and other theatres of war.
It also helped that most of the watches worn by officers had dials that could be read in the dark thanks to radium based luminous paint applied to the hands and dials. This glowed all the time with a bright unearthly light, much brighter and more constant than modern luminous paints, which in an era before the widespread availability of electric light impressed everyone that saw it.
The idea that wearing a wristwatch might be a bit girly or effeminate evaporated and every man wanted one of these new leading edge gadgets. Read on for the next chapter in the story on my page about trench watches.
Sometimes it is written that “early wristwatches were converted pocket watches”. 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 reasoning is an assumption that is not based on evidence, and it is wrong.
There was nothing difficult about designing or making wristwatches; after all women had been wearing wristwatches for centuries. And when the demand arose for wristwatches for men, manufacturers simply made them. There was no “transitional phase” of converted pocket watches, as is sometimes said.
There undoubtedly were some conversions of pocket watches into wristwatches, these were often not done by a watch manufacturer but in the aftermarket, and often done pretty badly. Conversions of pocket watches into wristwatches by the simple method of soldering two wire lugs onto a pocket watch as mockingly described by Jaquet and Chapuis in The "Invention" of the Wristwatch are not nearly as common, or as early, as people sometimes think. 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 reality is that converted wristwatches did not precede purpose made wristwatches. The vast majority of such conversions were done during the Great War when the supply of wristwatches could not keep up with the demands of newly commissioned officers desperate to get to the front before the war was over.
The 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 watch that customers would actually want to buy from a shop, to wear and show off to their friends, not something that looks like it's been hurriedly cobbled together under trying circumstances.
Wrist watches 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 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 faced.
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?
Would Soldering on Wire Lugs Really Make a Satisfactory Wristwatch?
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 with this as a wristwatch are immediately apparent.
- The number 12 is next to the pendant, in the wrong place for a wrist watch.
- The sub seconds dial is next to the nine, again in the wrong place for a wrist watch.
- The long pendant carries the bow to which a safety chain is usually attached.
- There is usually an engraved pattern and a cartouche for the owner's initials 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 a dead give away that the watch left the factory as a pocket watch.
This sort of mucking about is just far too much trouble to be the way the first purpose made wristwatches were made. It was a very simple idea to attach two wire lugs to a case to take a strap or a bracelet, and ladies' wristwatches with bracelets had been made since the late 1880s. Purpose made men's wristwatches appeared much earlier than many people think, around 1900, but there was no demand for them from men. My earliest wristwatch with a verified date is an Early IWC Wristwatch made in 1906, with a Calibre 64 savonnette (hunter) movement put into a purpose made Lépine (open face) wristwatch case, the case ordered from Borgel in Geneva in September that year.
This IWC wristwatch, and 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. There was 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 military men. The vast majority of civilian men didn't wear a wristwatch, because it simply wasn't seen as necessary or fashionable. But if a man did want a wristwatch, there were purpose made wristwatches that he could buy, and manufacturers keen to sell them.
IWC Fournitures 1917: Lépine (open face) versus Savonnette (hunter) et (and) Montres Bracelet (open face wristwatches) movements.
Although there are undoubtedly some wristwatches that were made by soldering wire lugs onto a small pocket watch, these are usually pretty obvious and not very well adapted to their new role. From their appearance it seems they were usually done by a local jeweller who was not used to the work; some of them even look like they might have been done by the village blacksmith.
The key to the successful wristwatch that many people fail to grasp was the paradoxical use of savonnette (hunter) movements in Lépine (open face) cases. For more details about the difference between Lépine and savonnette movements, see Savonnette vs. Lépine.
Instead of messing about 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 small savonnette movement into an open face case that had been purpose made to take a wrist strap really a “pocket watch 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, a movement with the fourth wheel in line with the axis of the winding stem which is suitable for an open face or Lépine case. The calibre 64 on the right is described as a "savonnette et montres bracelet", a movement suitable for a hunter case with a lid, and for open face wristwatch.
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 wristwatch shown in the image here. It's a nice size for a man's wristwatch, 35 millimetres across the case, not including the wire lugs or the crown, and it has the skeleton numerals and poire squelette hands with radium luminous paint of a trench watch. It has a Longines calibre 13.67 Lépine movement with 18 jewels, and a silver Borgel screw case.
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 in circa 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 that were 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 had small seconds indications at 6 o'clock.
Longines records show that this wristwatch was sent to Baume & Co. in London on 12 March 1915. Why did this watch, which had been made in 1909, remain in Longines inventory 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 unusual features; fixed wire lugs, luminous dial, 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 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, the arbor of the fourth wheel was shortened and the seconds indication omitted. This was not ideal, a small seconds indication was useful to show that the 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 for wristwatches. 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 that show 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 wristwatches were being made before these later imports were converted into wristwatches. If purpose made wristwatches were available, why would anyone g to the trouble of making a bad 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 getting kitted out for the front.
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