Wristlets and ConvertersCopyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved.
Women had been wearing bracelet watches around their wrists for centuries before men adopted the same habit. Before purpose made men's wristwatches were created, men had recognised that it was sometimes useful to strap a watch to their wrist, but before the nineteenth century the market was thought to be too small for watch manufacturers to make wristwatches for men.
In the 1880s, British officers conducting military missions in the far reaches of the Empire, in mountainous territory or tropical jungles, found that it was often not possible to use visual signals to coordinate manoeuvres and realised that agreed times could be used instead. All officers had pocket watches that facilitated this, but they soon realised that it would be more convenient if the watch was strapped to their wrist so that the time could be read at a glance while still holding the reins of a horse in one hand and a sword or revolver in the other. Probably an inventive officer asked the regimental saddler to make a leather holder for the watch with a wrist strap, and the idea quickly caught on amongst his fellow officers.
These wristlet watches were not "required" as kit by army regulations, but an officer was expected to wear one as part of his outfit in order to fulfil his duties efficiently. There was a good deal of individual choice in an officer's outfit in the nineteenth century, but he had to conform to the expectations of contemporaries and higher ranks.
The design of a leather cup on a strap became known as a “wristlet”. Leather goods manufacturers soon noticed this demand and started producing wristlets commercially, which alerted watch manufacturers to the need for purpose made men's wristwatches. In the meantime, other designs followed the wristlet that were similar in function but different in detail, one of which is shown on this page described as a watch converter.
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Wristlets: From Pocket to Wrist
Wristlet, or Wrist Strap for Pocket Watch
Want one? See Why I can't supply wristlets
During the nineteenth century, watches changed from being expensive items that only a few could afford into everyday items that many people needed. This was partly due to improvements in production reducing their cost, and partly due to the increasing importance of accurate time keeping. The railway boom of the 1840 saw transport in Britain revolutionised from slow horse and canal boat to rapid trains. Catching a train meant obeying the time table, which required a watch, and so the use and carrying of watches spread. But men usually carried pocket watches, and only slowly came to wear watches of any sort on their wrists.
The first widely recorded instances of men wearing watches on their wrists were pocket watches adapted for wrist wear by being placed in leather cups with wrist straps, like the one shown in the picture. These leather holders were 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 a wristlet 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 of watch wristlet which Mr Baldock thought he could improve on.
I have not found any earlier patents for watch wristlets, but there were certainly a number of much earlier Registered Designs.
Military men in mountainous territory or tropical jungles 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. This was especially in northern India when British forces sought to control the mountain passes from Afghanistan leading into India and the invasion of Afghanistan, a very mountainous country, beginning in 1878, and the jungle-clad mountain ranges of Burma.
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. There is evidence, discussed further down this page, that British soldiers stationed in northern India were routinely wearing watches in leather wristlets at the time of the Third Burma War of 1885-7.
Black Mountain Expedition 1888 North West Frontier India: Click to Enlarge.
Image courtesy of BritishBattles.com.
Long time watch collector Richard Edwards searched thousands of photographs in the National Army Museum and Royal Artillery Firepower Museum and concluded that wristlet watches came into widespread use by British Empire forces in India on the Northwest Frontier or in Burma between 1885 and 1887. This makes sense because in most theatres of war, troops on relatively flat battlefields could see each other and coordinate manoeuvres by visual signals, but in the mountainous country of the Northwest Frontier or jungles of Burma, visual signals would often be impossible and using agreed times was the only way to coordinate manoeuvres.
Although there might have been isolated instances of men wearing watches on their wrists before 1885, there is no evidence that this was widespread. When considering the history of the wristwatch, of how it evolved from being an item of expensive jewellery for aristocratic ladies to something that every man would wear, isolated instances are of little importance. What is needed is evidence of a general trend that was affecting attitudes across society. Richard's evidence shows that the trend for men to wear watches on their wrists most likely began in India before 1885, and that by 1887 wristlets were in widespread use in the army.
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 the regiment saddle maker to make a custom wrist holder for them in the form that became called a wristlet. Army regiments used a lot of leather, from officer's Sam Browne belts to horses saddles and bridles, holsters and straps for guns and numerous other purposes, each of which was stitched together and could need field repairs, so a saddle maker or leather worker was essential to an army in the field.
The idea caught on and commercial leather manufacturers in London soon started to produce large numbers of wristlets.
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Registered Designs No. 70068 and 94749
The design of wristlet shown in the photograph here was registered in London in 18 March 1887 and assigned Registered Design No. 70068. This fits in with the timescale of initially a small number of wristlets being locally manufactured in the field, and then larger numbers being manufactured by leather goods manufacturers.
Wristlets of the Registered Design 70068 were manufactured by Arthur Garstin of Queen Square, London, a large leather goods manufacturer.
The advertisement by A. Garstin from 1893 reproduced here shows two registered designs of wristlet, numbers 70068 and 94749. The first is the same design and has the same number, 70068, as the wristlet shown in the photograph. The number of the second design given in the advert is 94794, but that is an error, the last two digits have been transposed, the correct Registered Design number is 94749.
The design of wristlet with the Registered Design number 94749 was registered by Arthur Garstin in February 1888.
Registered Design number 94749 appears to be a slightly simplified version of Registered Design number 70068. In the advertisement it is shown holding an open face pocket watch with the bow still attached to the pendant. The lower end of the cup, where the watch is slipped in, appears to be secured by a post and split ring.
In later advertisements by Garstin, the design number 70068 is called “The Indiana - As worn by Her majesty's Officers in India.”
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Arthur Garstin and RD 217622
Registered Design RD 217622 wristlet strap
Ledger entry for RD 217622
Wristlets like the ones described in the previous section turn up from time to time, but most of the ones seen today have inside them the legend “RD 217622”. This was the first type that I saw and I recognised this as a reference to a Registered Design, so I went digging and found the registration shown in the picture on the right. The entry in the ledger shows that the registrant was Arthur Garstin. The date of registration of this design is 2 September 1893.
Arthur Garstin established his business as a manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of leather goods in 1870. A sponsor's mark "AG" was entered at the London Assay Office on 20 August 1888, details recorded as A. Garstin & Co, of 53 and 54 Jewin Street London.
In 1897 Garstin & Co. were listed as manufacturers of braces, belts, straps, bags, portmanteaus and watch wristlets, A1 dog muzzles, dog collars and purses at 1, 2, 3, 4 & 9, 10 & 11 Queen Square, and 159A Aldersgate Street, London. Arthur Garstin remained sole partner until the firm was converted into a limited liability company in 1909 as A. Garstin & Co Ltd.
The registration of the RD 217622 wristwatch or wristlet strap design in 1893 shows that by then Arthur Garstin had realised that by 1893 there was sufficient demand for wrist straps for pocket watches to make it worth while going to the trouble and expense of producing an original design that could be registered, and putting it into 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.
In fact, Garstin made wristlets in several different designs, the earliest one of which was registered in March 1887.
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Mappin Brothers Skirmisher
In 1893, Mappin Brothers introduced a complete wristlet and watch combination that they called the “Skirmisher”, which they described as a Wrist Watch. This meant that an officer could buy a complete watch ready to wear instead of trying to find a wristlet and pocket watch that were the right size for each other.
The Skirmisher watch was said to be Specially made to meet the requirements of Officers in timing the movements of troops. This supports the idea that the origins of watches like this were in the mountainous country of the North-Wwest frontier where visual signals were often impossible.
Mappin Brothers took pains to point out that they were the original Mappin company, established in Sheffield in 1810 by four brothers. One of the Mappin brothers left the original business and with his brother in law George Webb started the company Mappin & Webb.
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Origins in India
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 seen a photographs of soldiers wearing watches in leather wristlets on the Northwest Frontier and during the Third Burma War of 1885-7. Searching thousands of photographs in the National Army Museum and Royal Artillery Firepower Museum, Richard found no photographs earlier than 1885 but observed increasing numbers of wristlet watches in photographs taken between 1885 and 1887, and plenty in photographs taken in India/Burma after 1887.
Richard concluded that wristlet watches probably came into widespread use by British Empire forces in India during campaigns in Burma or on the Northwest Frontier between 1885 and 1887.
9th Bengal Lancers c1897 - Colonel George Garstin seated centre. Image courtesy of britishempire.co.uk - click image to enlarge it
The earliest and most prolific manufacturer of leather wristlets was Arthur Garstin. Where did Garstin get the idea from? Perhaps 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.
George Garstin served in the 9th Bengal Lancers (Hodson's Horse) in India from 1877, taking over command of the regiment in December 1894. See britishempire.co.uk [Accessed 30/6/14] for an abbreviated biography of George Lindsay Garstin. Thanks are due to Stephen Luscombe for making this information available.
George Garstin was born in India to a chaplain serving with the army, but I wonder if there was any family connection to Arthur Garstin who ran the London leather goods business? The biography linked to above says that he "missed out on the early part of the Tirah campaign as he was on his way back from England". The Tirah campaign was mounted in response to the loss of British control of the Khyber Pass on August 25th 1897 and began in October 1897. This reference shows that Garstin visited England, and as he was 46 in 1897 it may may well not have been his first trip to England.
I wonder if on one of his visits to England George Garstin popped in to see a relative, Arthur Garstin the leather goods manufacturer in London, and discussed design of leather wristlet watch with him?
The group photo of the 9th Bengal lancers c1897 shown here appeared in the Navy & Army Illustrated. The man seated in the middle is Colonel George Garstin, and the chap on the left in the front row is clearly wearing a wristlet watch. I think the coincidence of the name Garstin and the presence of the wristlet watch in the picture is interesting.
In an article in the BHI Horological Journal of August 1998, "The Early Wristwatch in Times of War 1899 - 1920", Dennis Harris remarks that reference to ladies wearing watches in leather bracelets when horse 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, it seems more likely that the soldiers adopted wristlets before the ladies, apart from anything else 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 horse riding ladies had seen wristlet watches worn by officers returning from active service and emulated them. The anonymous correspondent writing in the horological journal would almost certainly never have encountered men wearing wristlets on active service overseas who, when they returned home, would mostly wear their watches as pocket watches, but he probably saw the ladies wearing their versions at a hunt ball. The fashion for ladies at home to wear military style items in times of conflict has a long history, and was very noticeable during World War One, and more recently following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
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The Bicycle Craze
In 1885 John Kemp Starley invented the first successful modern bicycle, replacing the "penny farthing" with a bicycle that had equal sized front and rear wheels, a steerable front wheel that was self aligning due to caster, and chain drive to the rear wheel. This bicycle was much easier to ride than the "penny farthing" and was taken up by both men and women in great numbers, resulting in a cycling craze in the 1890s.
Advert in Amateur Cyclist 1893 courtesy of and © Robert Butler
Since women could not cycle easily in long dresses, the bicycle craze resulted in a significant change of fashion as women began wearing "bicycle suits" with bloomers; short skirts over trousers that were tucked into long socks. In 1851 Elizabeth Smith Miller of New York wore what was called the "Turkish dress" to home of Amelia Bloomer, but it was her host who popularised the style of dress in her journal "The Lily". The style was opposed by society until Annie Cohen Kopchovsky wore bloomers during a bicycle trip around the world and the fashion caught on for cycling.
The wristlet watch became popular amongst cyclists as a practical way to carry a watch so that it was easily visible without removing hands from the handlebars, as shown by in the period advert here by Woods from a book on bicycling called The Amateur Cyclist, published in 1893.
In the earlier Victorian period, gold bracelet watches were fashionable for women, who were as afraid of being labelled "butch" as men were of being considered "effeminate", but the bicycling craze and the adoption of the more masculine bicycling suit broke the mould, and more women started wearing watches in leather wristlets. Men's attire of course did not undergo anything like this change, which at the time was shocking and sensational, which must be why there exist many more pictures of women in bicycle suits and wearing wristlet watches. Either because they were noteworthy whereas similar pictures of men were not, or because the men returned their watches to their waistcoat pockets when they were not cycling.
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The Boer War
In his article "The Early Wristwatch in Times of War 1899 - 1920", Dennis Harris records the following statement by Frank Thirkell, a past employee of Mappin & Webb: "I started my career in horology in 1933 with Mappin & 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 & 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."
This statement may be the source of the often told story that wristlets were first worn during the Boer War. But there is evidence that they were in use in India long before the Boer War. In advertisements, Mappin & Webb said their “Campaign” wristwatch was first used in great numbers at the battle of 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.
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 & 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.
Pictured right is an advertisement which appeared in the 1901 Goldsmiths Company Watch and Clock Catalogue for a military pocket watch, "The Company's "Service" Watch," 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.".
The captain's watch was cased in the oxidised steel case shown in the middle picture. The oxidised finish was intended to prevent rust, but this was not very successful in damp conditions. At two pounds 10 shillings it was considerably cheaper than a silver case, which increased the price of the same watch to three pounds 10 shillings, or the ultimate 18 carat gold case at 12 pounds. The process of oxidising the steel is described at Black steel watch cases.
Although this is clearly a pocket watch, the captain's statement 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 the "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. The watch in the centre towards the top shows this arrangement. The two watches below are illustrated with hinges at the bottom of the case, but this is an error on the part of the illustrator. Patented by François Borgel in 1891, this screw design was an early attempt at making watch impermeable to water and dust. These watches would have been imported by Goldsmiths from Switzerland complete and already cased. You can read more about 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 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 Bré guet in 1795, the overcoil form allows the spring 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 horological excellence! (and not many have since, come to that!)
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Baldock's Improved Watch Wristlet: 1900
On 7 March 1900, George Richard Baldock of 5, High Street, High Barnet, Hertfordshire, Salesman, applied for a British patent for “An Improved Watch Wristlet”.
Mr Baldock described his invention as follows “This invention relates to an improvement in leather wristlets for watches. It consists of a circular piece of transparent celluloid or other suitable transparent substance being placed or attached inside the upper portion of the wristlet that contains the watch and being held there by stitches or, other means so as to form a transparent covering to the entire face of the watch when the watch is placed in position in the wristlet, thereby protecting the glass and face of the watch which has hitherto been left unprotected in wristlets, and yet allowing the time to be plainly seen through the transparent protector.
The figure from the patent reproduced here shows the idea, not that it really needs a figure to illustrate it. A is a leather wristlet, B is the upper part that contains the watch, C is the transparent protector.
From the quality of the illustration, it appears that Mr Baldock did not employ an experienced artist but drew it himself. This was a wise decision, as it seems very unlikely that he made much, if any, money from his invention, examples of wristlets with transparent windows being unknown.
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Blacklock's Converter: 1909
In 1832 Robert Blacklock, a Tyneside shipwright, decided to change trade and open a jewellers and pawnbrokers on Bedford Street in Sunderland, County Durham. Early in the twentieth century the business moved to Bridge Street. The business still exists as Blacklock Jewellery although now there is no shop and the business is purely online.
In 1909 a Robert Blacklock, who must be Robert Hodgson Blacklock, a descendant of the founder, applied for two patents for converters that allowed a small pocket watch or fob watch to be strapped to a wrist. The first patent was granted as British patent GB 1,841 in August 1909, the second was granted as GB 25,404 in November 1910.
The idea was basically similar to the leather wristlet. Blacklock's design consisted principally of a celluloid ring that slipped over a watch, having two slots in it that a strap could be passed through, which ran underneath the watch to hold it in place. The first image here shows one of Blacklock's converters fitted to a watch, the second shows the empty converter and strap, the third shows a figure from the second patent GB 25,404. The date of 4 November 1909 is the priority date, the date when the application for the patent was first lodged.
Patent GB 25,404 incorporated several changes to the simple design of the converter in the photographs. These were metal plates that appear to have been intended to hold the watch in place even when the assembly was not strapped to a wrist.
The mottled celluloid imitation tortoiseshell converter in the photographs carries the number of the second patent, although it does not have the metal plate and is much closer in design to the 1909 patent. The last digit of the patent number in this example is unreadable so it looks like 2540x/09, where x is the unreadable number. This was not too bad, I just needed to potentially look at ten patents from 25,400 to 25,409 in order to discover the correct one, and in fact I only got through four before finding the correct one: 25404.
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The Wristlet Persisted
Lady with Wristlet circa 1915 / 1918
Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith 1901
Wren serving with Harbour Launch in Portsmouth, 1941; image credit Cecil Beaton / Imperial War Museum: Click image to enlarge
Military men first took to wearing fob watches in wristlets in the 1880s, and the idea was quickly taken up by civilian women although not by civilian men. The majority of early photographs and cartes de visit that show someone wearing a wristlet are of women. Wealthy women had been wearing bracelet watches for centuries, but these were individually made items of jewellery and very expensive; it seems that the wristlet watch was the first practical wristwatch that was affordable by large numbers of people.
Victorian and Edwardian men were in general too embarrassed to be seen wearing a wristlet watch or wristwatch unless the context justified it, such as being on military manoeuvres, riding a bicycle or flying a balloon. In an ordinary domestic situation a fashionably attired gentleman carried a pocket watch - usually in his waistcoat pocket!
It was not at all 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 or fob watch wrist adapter. In fact, ladies wristwatches with leather straps or metal bracelets had been available since the latter part of the nineteenth century. There was also certainly a demand for purpose made wristwatches from military officers. I have many wristwatches from earlier than 1912 that are clearly men's watches and were probably purchased by officers.
But the leather 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. This was long after many watchmaking companies were making true wristwatches not only for women but also for men.
The image here of a lady wearing a watch in a leather wristlet date from circa 1915 to 1918, and examples of similar wristlets have been seen from as late as WW2.
The well known photograph from 1941 by Cecil Beaton of a wren serving with the crew of a harbour launch in Portsmouth shows here wearing a wristlet watch. It is doubtful that this was new in 1941; it might have been handed down, or more likely be a photographer's prop - the image was not taken live but carefully staged, with ropes artistically draped across a backboard.
So were leather wristlets really still being made as a late as WW2? It seems likely that production stopped before 1912 and that Potter was advertising old stock still on hand. Wristlets have a long life and in an era before modern ideas of throwing away old things and buying new, they continued to be worn long after they were made.
The First Men's Wristwatches
By the turn of the nineteenth in to the twentieth century the wearing by a man of a wristwatch at certain times was becoming accepted. The creation of the first purpose designed men's wristwatches is discussed on my page Early wristwatches.
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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved. This page updated September 2023. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.