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The Evolution of the Wristwatch

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

Although many watch manufacturers claim to have invented the wristwatch, such a simple thing as strapping a watch to one's wrist didn't actually need to be "invented" - it is obvious. That is why there is no patent for the wristwatch; something obvious cannot be patented. However, the story of how the watch came to be worn on the wrist, or at least on a man's wrist, is interesting.

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The "Invention" of the Wristwatch

In their monumental "Technique and History of the Swiss Watch" (ISBN 0 600 03633 2, and weighing in at nearly 2.5 kg, truly monumental) the authors, Eugène Jaquet and Alfred Chapuis, relate the following story about the invention of the wristwatch: "Much has been written about this subject, and we ourselves have heard the following story from an old engraver: A good woman, seated on a bench in a public park, was suckling her child. In order to observe the time, she had attached her watch around her arm. A passer-by was struck by this naive ingenuity. On his return home, he soldered two lugs on to a lady's watch, and added a strap."

Professor Jaquet and Doctor Chapuis were two very eminent horologists. Professor Eugène Jaquet was Principal of the Geneva School of Horology, and Alfred Chapuis was Doctor Honoris Causa of the of the University of Neuchâtel. Are Jaquet and Chapuis really expecting us to believe that the combined brains of the watch industry, which had produced such mechanical complications as the chronograph, minute repeater, perpetual calendar, and the tourbillon, were unable to come up with the idea of soldering two bits of wire on to a watch case before they saw the "naive ingenuity" of this good woman? Emphatically No, of course they are not!

Nearly every watch manufacturer claims to have been the first to make a wristwatch, and the story is Jaquet and Chapuis poking fun at these claims. Notice how they say "... and we ourselves have heard the following story ...", pretending to throw another (obviously ridiculous) version into the mix, whilst at the same time pointing out that strapping a watch to a wrist is merely "naive ingenuity" and not some astonishing invention or massive technical breakthrough.

So if wristwatches were obvious, as Jaquet and Chapuis point out, and women had been wearing them for centuries, why did it take so long for men to catch on to the idea of the wristwatch? There are two aspects to this question, technical and social, which were;

  1. Could a watch small enough to be worn on the wrist keep accurate time?
  2. Would men wear something that looked like a bracelet?

Rather than a massive technical breakthrough where some genius had a flash of inspiration, the true story of the man's wristwatch is of how it overcame these technical and social barriers.

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The Earliest Wristwatches

Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth receiving a "wristwatch" in 1571. From 1926 Gruen Guild advert

One of the earliest references to what we would perhaps now call a wristwatch, or at least an "arm watch" was the new year gift received by Queen Elizabeth from Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, in 1571. It was a richly jewelled armlet, having "in the closing thearof a clocke, and in the forepart of the same a faire lozengie djamond without a foyle, hanging thearat a rounde juell fully garnished with dyamondes and a perle pendaunt." What exactly this item was is not known because it no longer exists, but it clearly contained a spring driven clock or watch, and was intended to be worn on the arm, presumably somewhere where the watch would be easily visible, which would mean the forearm or wrist. The imaginative illustration shown here is taken from a 1926 Gruen Guild advert and shows Robert Dudley presenting the queen with her wristwatch.

In fact, as David Landes pointed out, as soon as the spring driven clock became small enough to be carried about and worn as an ornament, it was inevitable that someone would do so, someone to whom cost was no object; and they would then be emulated, and so the trend would spread.

In addition to the watch referred to above, it is known that Elizabeth had a watch set in a ring. And it was not only a timekeeper, it also served as an alarm; a small prong gently scratched Her Majesty's finger at the set time. Needless to say it was probably not a precision timekeeper, but it was certainly a tour de force of miniaturisation for the sixteenth century.

1868 Patek-Philippe Bracelet Watch
1868 Patek Philippe Bracelet Watch
©Patek Philippe SA Genève

The first wristwatches we have details of were small watches on bracelets (bracelet-watches or montres-bracelets) intended for ladies. An account book of Jaquet-Droz and Leschot of Geneva mentions in 1790, "a watch to be fixed to a bracelet." When Eugène de Beauharnais married Princess Auguste-Amélie of Leuchtenbergin 1809, the Empress Josephine presented her daughter-in-law with two bracelets, one containing a watch, the other a calendar. These were made in 1806 by the Parisian jeweller Nitot.

In 1810 the famous French watch maker BréguetPronounced "Bre-gay" was commissioned by the Queen of Naples to make a wristwatch, which was completed in 1812. Patek Philippe made the key-winding bracelet watch shown on the left in 1868 for the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary.

Similar developments were taking place in Switzerland. In February 1889, Albert Bertholet of Bienne registered a claim, which was granted Swiss patent number CH 576 in April 1889, for a "Montre bracelet simplifiée" or simplified wristwatch, which implies that there must have previously been a more complicated wristwatch. Bertholet's simplification was to do away with the winding and setting by crown and stem. The watch was wound by turning the bezel, which was geared directly to the mainspring barrel; to set the hands a gear, which engaged directly with the cannon pinion, was brought to a small slot in the side of the case so that it could be turned with a finger.

M. Bertholet does not specify whether his montre bracelet was intended for men or for women but, given the name "bracelet watch" and the prevailing fashion at the time, we must suspect that if this invention was used - and I have never seen even a mention of a watch with this type of winding - it would have been in ladies watches. In the 1890s, in Switzerland as everywhere else, unless it was being used to tell the time, a man's watch was firmly ensconced in his pocket.

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Fashion and Technical Challenges

By the middle of the nineteenth century many, if not most, watch makers were producing bracelet watches, often with elaborate enamelling and jewelling of saphires, rubies, or diamonds. These early pretty, jewellery like, bracelet watches were worn by ladies. Men considered that wristwatches were too small to be properly engineered in order to keep time accurately; and too prone to damage by shock, or contamination with dust and moisture due to their exposed location; and, perhaps most damning of all, effeminate: because wristwatches were only worn by ladies.

A gentleman who wanted to keep track of time carried a pocket watch, usually tucked into a pocket of a waistcoat, a garment introduced by King Charles II in the 17th century, on the end of a long "Albert chain," a chain introduced by Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, which had a clip at one end to attach to the bow of the pocket watch and a bar at the other to fasten it to a button hole to prevent the watch being dropped. This was a long standing fashion of how a true gentleman dressed to present himself to the world.

Apart from fashion, there was another challenge for makers of wristwatches to overcome. Portable watches had developed from miniaturised spring driven clocks in the 15th or 16th century, and had been gradually made smaller and slimmer. But there was a general perception, which had an element of truth about it, that an accurate watch needed to be of a certain size, and that to make it small enough to be worn on the wrist would be to sacrifice accurate timekeeping.

The final challenge that a wristwatch had to deal with was what safety engineers call "hazards". The environment within a waist coat pocket is relatively benign; warm, dry and relatively protected from shocks. But strapped to the end of an arm, the wristwatch is exposed to all manner of hazards and rough treatment, it is prone to getting knocked, exposed to dust and splashed with water. All of these hazards presented problems to watch movements of the time, which did not live in hermetic cases, and therefore would get gummed up if dust mixed with the oil, rusty if moisture got in, and were prone to shocks breaking the delicate pivots of the balance staff, only a few 10ths of a millimetre in diameter.

The true story of the wristwatch, or at least of the man's wristwatch (because as we know ladies wristwatches had been available for centuries) is of how it overcame these technical and social barriers to become an essential part of every man's wardrobe - just as the finest and most complicated wristwatches still are today, despite the fact that, with every gadget from phones to computers having a clock built in, they are no longer needed to tell the time!

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Wristlets: From Pocket Watch to Wristwatch

Pocket Watch Wrist Strap
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, partly due to improvements in production reducing their cost, and partly due to the increasing importance of accurate time keeping. Military men soon realised that strategic manoeuvres could be coordinated by time instead of visual or audible signals, thereby increasing the element of surprise. It became possible to arrange for attacks on defended positions to occur simultaneously from all sides without any signal that could alert the enemy.

Strapping a watch to ones wrist so that it could regularly be checked quickly and easily whilst on horseback, rather than having to fumble about with a pocket watch, was an obvious thing to do. There is evidence, which I discuss further down this page, that British soldiers stationed in northern India were wearing watches in leather wristlets at the time of the Third Burma War of 1885-7.

Pocket watches were adapted for wrist wear by being placed in leather cups with wrist straps like the one shown in the picture. These 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 one of these wristlets by G. R. Baldock has the priority date of 7 March 1900 and is entitled "An Improved Watch Wristlet", which of course begs the question, improved compared to what? Clearly there was an existing, pre-1900, design which Mr Baldock thought he could improve on. I have not found an earlier patent, but there was an earlier Registered Design.

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Registered Design RD 217622 wristlet strap

Arthur Garstin and Registered Design 217622

I have a couple of wristlet watch straps like the one in the picture and they all have inside them the legend "RD 217622". I recognised this as a reference to a Registered Design, so I went digging and found a record in the Board of Trade ledgers as shown in the picture on the right. The entry in the Board of Trade ledger, written in beautiful copper plate handwriting, shows that the registrant is Arthur Garstin of Queen Square, London, a leather goods manufacturer. The date of registration of this design of wristlet watch or wristwatch strap RD 217622 is 2 September 1893.

The Garstin company was certainly making these leather wristwatch straps or wristlets before 1893. I have found evidence that they were making them as early as 1888 or even before. I will update here when I have more information.

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.

I am informed by a correspondent that the Garstin Queen square premises were in Bartholomew Close, East of Barts Hospital and near Aldersgate Street, not the well known Queen Square Bloomsbury that I previously thought was probably his home address.

Ledger entry for Arthur Garstin

The first wristlets or wrist straps for pocket watches were probably one-off affairs, commissioned by officers who, frustrated with repeatedly having to haul out their pocket watch, realised that it was a good idea and got their local saddle maker or some other leather worker to make a custom strap for them. The registration of 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.

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Origins in India?

Adverts by Mappin & Webb during the First World War (see below) state that their "Campaign" watch was first used in great numbers at Omdurman. The battle of Omdurman was fought on 2 September 1898 when a British army commanded by General Sir Herbert Kitchener defeated the army of Abdullah al-Taashi as part of British efforts to re-conquer the Sudan. This was a short time before the Boer war broke out, but no doubt the requirements of mounted cavalry for ready access to the correct time were much the same.

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 taken at Nimal in India during the Hazara Campaign on the Northwest Frontier that can be firmly dated to 9 November 1888 within +/- 48 hours either way, and another photograph showing watches in leather bracelets taken during the Third Burma War of 1885-7. Searching thousands of photographs in the National Army Museum and Royal Artillery Firepower Museum Richard observed no wristlet watches in photographs taken before 1885, but that there were plenty in photographs taken in India/Burma after 1887, so he concluded that wristlet watches came into widespread use by British Empire forces in India or on the Northwest Frontier between 1885 and 1887.

9th Bengal Lancers (Hodson's Horse)
9th Bengal Lancers c1897 - Colonel George Garstin seated centre. Image courtesy of - click image to enlarge it

In my write up about the design of leather wristlet registered by Arthur Garstin in 1893, I asked 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. There was a Garstin in the 9th Bengal Lancers (Hodson's Horse) from 1877, George Garstin, who took over command of the regiment in December 1894. See [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 leathergoods 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 leathergoods manufacturer in London, and discussed design of leather wristlet watch with him? Perhaps the wristlet watch strap Registered Design RD 217622 of 1893 resulted from one of these meetings - George Garstin would have been 42 when this design was registered and had been serving in the 9th Bengal Cavalry for six years by then.

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, I would suggest 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 the First World War, 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.

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.

1901 Goldsmiths Advert
1901 Goldsmiths Advert: click to enlarge.

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, which means it is stem wound and set and sounds the time on demand. It also had a chronograph registering minutes, seconds, and fifths of seconds, a perpetual calendar showing day, date and month, and a moon phase indicator, with fully jewelled movement, Bréguet overcoilSay: "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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Advert in Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith 1901
Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith 1901

Why The Wristlet Persisted

It would not have been difficult for watch manufacturers, or indeed retail jewellers, to produce watches with attachments for a strap that could hold the watch onto the wrist without the need for the rather bulky wristlet pocket watch adapter. But the pocket watch wristlet continued in production for many years and examples have been seen from as late as WW2.

An advert in the 1912 Wm. Potter catalogue shows a huge variety of these leather watch wristlets available from the company, in 7 different sizes and 10 different leathers ranging from cow hide to crocodile, and each leather is available in a range of colours - a huge range. It would seem that the fashion for strapping a watch to ones wrist was seen at the time as a purely utilitarian or functional answer to working needs of a military man, a bicyclist, an aviator etc., but in polite society a gentleman took his watch out of its wristlet holder and returned it to its proper and fashionable place, in his waistcoat pocket.

1915 Electa Watch
An early modern wristwatch with fixed wire lugs

This explains why the majority of early photographs and cartes de visit that show someone wearing a wristlet are of women. 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 wore a pocket watch - in his pocket!

The First Modern Wristwatches and Trench Watches

It was not technical difficulties that held back the adoption of the wristwatch by the male civilian population, it was fashion.

The creation of the purpose designed modern wristwatch, its struggle to achieve public acceptability, and its ultimate triumph over the pocket watch are discussed on my next page Trench Watches.

If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated June 2024. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.