This is a guest post by good folks at Menlish
Back in July 1916, The New York Times reported a new fashion trend that Europeans had adopted.
They had started wearing bracelets with clocks on them. It was something that had previously been looked at as a joke, or a fad.
However, little did they know at the time that the wristwatch, not a fad but it was to become one of the most popular accessories in modern times.
The story of the wristwatch dates back to the spread of “portable clocks,” or large pocket watches, in the 1700s, when people wanted to start carrying the time around with them; they weren’t content just to look at the public clocks in whatever village or town they might end up in.
Over time, these watches were made progressively smaller and better-secured with features like chains or straps, and were often seen primarily not as a timepiece but as a reliable vehicle for investing personal savings which is apparent if you look at pawn records from the 19th century in the U.S. where about 40 to 50 percent of all pawned items were pocket watches.
Innovations in the mid- to late-19th century—including the machine manufacturing of watches, the making of the railroad, factories, and electricity, and the standardization of time zones in Europe and the United States— increased demand around the world for watches and the imperatives to own and control time.
Wearing a bracelet with a watch on it had come in and out of female fashion in the 18th and 19th centuries, but during the Boer War, it was apparent that men could follow suit.
Watchmakers operating in an increasingly competitive marketplace took note of the subtle shift in social conventions. One vendor in England advertised that the “wristlet watch” had been used at the legendary
Battle of Omdurman in Sudan in 1898 and again during the Boer War, pointing out that “desert-experience is the severest test a watch can have.” The implicit message was a notable one in a period of more precise time:
A wristwatch’s reliability, rather than its aesthetics, was what mattered most.
The wristwatch nevertheless remained predominantly a woman’s accessory. “The wristwatch ... is now the fashion of the hour,” The New York Times reported from Paris in 1912. “It is worn over here by women who have to work as well as those who play.” Not only that, but it became the most useful piece of jewelry that had been invented for many decades. … The watch hidden away in the belt, or turned face down on the bust, or swinging loosely from a chatelaine pin, was an ornament but not always useful. As it was usually under one’s furs or coat in winter, it was better to guess the time than to try to prove it.”
All this changed with World War I, when aviators and soldiers in the trenches strapped on wristwatches en masse.
During World War I, the telephone and signal service, which played an important part in warfare, made the wearing of watches by soldiers obligatory.
It was the only practical way in which soldiers could tell the time readily, a previous impossibility with the pocket watch.
Improvements in communications technologies had enabled militaries to more precisely coordinate their manoeuvres, and coordination required soldiers to tell the time at a glance.
Rifling through your pocket for a watch was not advisable in the chaos of the trenches.
European soldiers were outfitting the device with unbreakable glass to survive the trenches and radium to illuminate the display at night. And civilians, seeing the wristwatch’s practical benefits over the pocket watch, were parroting the behaviour.
As an example, Cartier’s iconic Tank watch, created in 1917 was inspired by the Renault tanks that he saw on the western front as a soldier.
After multiple reinterpretations in the intervening decades, the Tank today, is now available in 41 variations, with combinations of yellow gold, white gold, pink gold and steel.
Legend has it that the design at first had no name, but when Cartier said that he had modelled it on a bird’s eye view of the tank’s square cockpit and lateral tracks, the moniker stuck.
Around the time that Cartier made his pilot’s watch, the military market was picking up momentum. In 1902, an Omega advertisement showed a wristwatch being worn by a British artillery officer, describing it as “an indispensable item of military equipment.” Every company was officially jumping on the bandwagon.
By the end of the war, watch manufacturers were designing wristwatches for men with the promise that the watch could make a man more soldier-like, more martial and more masculine.
In 2013, it was reported that with the introduction of smartwatches, the “pocket-to-wrist cycle may repeat itself,” and it seems it has.
With the adoption of smartphones making watches less popular particularly for young people who use their smartphones as, among other things, modern-day pocket watches.
However, to date, the sales of wristwatches, especially luxury wristwatches have remained strong and men and women all over the world still consider this wrist piece something of importance if not only as a fashion accessory.
From chronographs to more sleek styles, to the more technical capabilities of Apple, there’s something to suit everyone’s style and the wristwatch, while making an impression…is here to stay.