Despite their popularity today, the history of the wristwatch only stretches back about 100 years. Designing a portable means of telling the time has always been sought after though and the story of watches is a social history from aristocratic and scientific beginnings to a 20th century people’s timepiece.
How Watches Work
Clocks are appreciated for their notoriously complicated mechanisms which, in miniature form in a watch are all the more impressive. Heavy, clumsy, and featuring only an hour hand, the earliest ‘watches’ designed to be worn (or at least kept on your person) originated in 16th century northern Europe and were scaled-down versions of ‘verge’ clocks. A ‘verge’ was a type of escapement (the part of the clock that transfers energy from the spring to the mechanism, or ‘movement’) used in all clocks before the first use of the pendulum for timekeeping in the 1650s. This type of escapement continued to be used right up until the 19th century when other escapements known as ‘cylinder’ and ‘lever’ escapements were developed. The movements, the actual train of gears used to move the hands, of clocks and watches are the key trademark of a maker and are the most important technical aspect for most serious collectors.
Britain was the leading maker of pocket watches by the early 18th century but production was not uncommon in continental Europe, either. These pocket watches were true luxury items used only by the very wealthy: usually the most successful merchants and members of the gentry. Until the First World War the monopoly on pocket watches would move away from the upper classes and their use in industry, transport and other aspects of society at large would increase. Changes in mechanism design and manufacture made watches more reliable and more widely available; verge escapements were gradually replaced by ‘lever’ escapements. The 19th century in particular saw the most dramatic change as demand emerged for a wider array of designs including novelty pocket watches in the shape of wildlife, musical instruments and other popular motifs. The 19th century also saw the introduction of different types of case known as ‘open-face’, ‘half-hunter’ and ‘hunter’ cases as well as many of the additional features found on watches such as chronographs, calendars and moon-phases.
Although most wristwatches may look quite similar in design, they have a rich design tradition despite their comparatively short history. The design of wristwatches was influenced by artistic and architectural movements such as mid-century modern architecture and abstract art in the inter-war years as well as by the practical demands of war and by professions such as diving; the Rolex Oyster accompanied Mercedes Gleitze on the first female cross-channel swim in 1927. The success of the wrist watch came about very quickly: it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that strapping a pocket watch to the wrist was attempted with any significant results. The idea of a wrist watch was conceived in the age of discovery associated with pioneering aviation; the first purpose-built wristwatch is attributed to Cartier in 1904 for Alberto Santos-Dumont, considered by many to be the first true pilot of a powered, heavier-than-air flight. This pioneering spirit endured in the design of wristwatches through the futuristic designs of the post-war period and the continuing demand for watch features.