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Know Your Watch: A Short History of Wristwatches

July 16, 2014.

The Britannic Bracelet Watch

While we've touched on the history of watch movementsdigital watches and how watch crystals have changed over the years, but we've not actually tackled the history of wristwatches themselves and how they came to be the most popular way to wear a watch. So that's what today's post is all about.

As we referred to in this short history of watch straps, watches first became mass produced as wrist-mounted timepieces because the pocket watches that preceded them were impractical during the First World War. They weren't however, the first wristwatches ever made.

As far back as the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth is recorded to have been presented with a bracelet watch as a gift and so-called jewellery watches - bracelets with miniaturised clocks in them - were very popular among those who could afford them in the 1800s. But before we head further into modern history, let's stay back in the middle of the last millenium to understand how clock movements became small enough that they were portable.

Portable watches... before they were watches or clocks.


The earliest portable watches were ones that you will still recognise and maybe even use today; hourglasses. These, and water clocks and sundials, date back to pre-historic times  and were still used to tell time by the Romans and long into medieval times.

In the early 1400s, the first spring-driven clocks were created though mastering how to keep the movement ticking at a constant speed continued to be a challenge for clockmakers throughout the following centuries until the pendulum clock was designed in the 1600s.

However, already noting the need for portability, the spring clock design was adopted and miniaturised to make smaller "clock-watches" that were attached to clothing or worn around the neck on a chain, like a necklace. Due to the shape of these watches and because many of them were made by German clock manufacturers, they became known as "Nuremberg Eggs" and most would need winding at least twice a day in order to keep ticking.Close up of watch movement

Why are watches called watches?

There are a number of theories aiming to explain why these portable clocks became known as "watches".

One theory is that throughout history those responsible for watching over the city worked in shifts and therefore had to be aware of the passing hours and so would use a variety of historic time-telling methods (water clocks, sundials etc.). They were often referred to as "Watchmen" and so it is suggested the name stuck around.

Another theory is that the term "a watch" was also used to describe the hours spent on deck by the shipmates on boats and that this was a time period measured using a chronometer, a special kind of maritime portable clock that sailors used for navigation. There could even be more reasons, but certainly the terms "watchmaker", "watch-work" and "watchchain" were used regularly in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The rise and fall (and rise again!) of pocket watches

Pocket watches became popular in the late 1600s though they were very much a man's way of telling time; women continued to have then hanging on pendants. Thought to have been encouraged by the latest fashion of wearing waistcoats, pocketwatches continued to be the de facto way to tell time among men until the early 20th century (and of course, it's still just as stylish to wear a pocketwatch today!).


History of watches and mass production

It wasn't until the late 19th century that watches were mass produced. The most famous example of this is the "Dollar Watch". Produced by a number of different US watchmakers (including Ingersoll and TIMEX, or Waterbury Clock Company as it was then known), these pocket- and later wristwatches were priced at $1 and this made carrying a watch no longer the exclusive privilege of the rich, though the watches' basic designs and movements reflect that and they were very much considered "the poor man's watch". Ironically they are now collectors' items and can fetch lots of money at auction.

Following both of the World Wars and the introduction of the NATO strap, it didn't take long for wrist-mounted watches to take off in popularity. Mass production techniques improved and the increasing availability of synthetic materials made watches cheaper, quicker and easier to enter the market selling in department stores and eventually online, like Twisted Time. Then came the digital watch in the 1970s and these days watches are worn in all colours, styles, shapes and sizes. In fact, it's very easy to forget how rare, unusual and expensive they were just over a hundred years ago.

A short history of wristwatches

Image sources: One, Two, Three, Four

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