The history of the wristwatch: 200 years of development
The beginning: From the pocket watch to the wristwatch
Nothing has shaped our present understanding of time as much as the invention of the wristwatch. In everyday life, people wear it out of normality. In reality, wristwatches are two centuries old and have made a lot of development since its introduction.
The need to measure time has existed for several millennia: 5,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians invented the sundial. Its circular design and time periods have helped shape the appearance of modern watches. Reading the time was dependant on sunlight and therefore only possible during the day. The first watch that was not dependant on sunlight was the water clock. It was followed by the hourglass and the the wheel clock in the 14th century. The latter already contained the first basic elements that can currently be found in mechanical watches, but was very inaccurate. It was equipped with a so called “Unrast” – a less accurate predecessor of the balance wheel.
Watches were back then relatively large and where therefore often kept on a chain in the back pocket. Chain watches, however, were far from their arrival to the general population. Watches were adorned and expensive luxury items. Since the 13th century, large clocks were visible to the ordinary population in church towers and marketplaces, providing acoustic information on the full hour or the beginning of a fair. Clocks were initially made by locksmiths, but the watchmaking profession was beginning to evolve due to an increasing need.
In the 15th century, balance and, above all, the spiral spring were created, which made the construction of precise watches possible. The coil spring replaced the long pendulum that was used in the past and thus created the foundations for a miniaturisation of the watches. In 1673 Christiaan Huygens created a watch with spiral spring and balance, which was already relatively small and portable.
The way was paved for the development of smaller watches: Only a few decades later in 1812, Abraham-Louis Breguet made the first known wristwatch for Queen Caroline Murat, Napoleon’s sister. It was attached to the wrist with a strap. By then, men carried their timepieces on a chain attached to their back pocket. Women wore it around their necks, a trend that lasted for almost a century. The wristwatch slowly found its way into social life, and at the end of the 19th century, it had a firm place in women’s wardrobes. Such watches were attached to ribbons or chains, giving them a feminine touch and making them look like jewels.
The development of the wristwatch in the 20th century
Men still preferred pocket watches, which had also become smaller over the years and their accuracy had improved dramatically.
But it soon became apparent that the elegant gesture of taking a watch out of the pocket was not practical in every situation. Flying legend Alberto Santos Dumont already expressed his wish to be able to use both hands while flying and to be able to keep an eye on his watch at the same time. His friend Louis Cartier therefore designed the Cartier Santos for him in 1904, which is still a central series of the collection of the company today. The first mens wristwatch was born and with it, the first pilot watch. Even if it doesn’t have much in common with today’s aviation watches with a distinctive bezel, it laid the foundation for one of the most successful watch categories of all time. Today almost every watch manufacturer has at least one aviation series in its repertoire. Thanks to their enormous recognition value, they are still very popular.
With the outbreak of the First World War their use was extended to many areas in which free hands were vital. Even today you can see that many series derive their origin from professional and military circumstances. Series like the Breitling Navitimer are equipped with additional navigation features that assist pilots: The rotating slide rule bezel for example, enabled precise aviation calculations directly from the watch and without having to employ additional tools. Today, on-board computers have replaced this function. The traditional history is still reflected in the design of the watch, the slide rule bezel gives it a striking look. Other series like the Rolex Air-King are based on minimalist design and readability in low light conditions.
Although many series were designed for professional use, they did not remain reserved for military use and quickly became admired amongst the civilian population. But the era of the pocket watch was not over yet: for a long time there was a coexistence of pocket watch and wristwatch. But the rapid development of the wristwatch caused a growing popularity. It was initially worn mainly by soldiers and pilots who used the timepieces in the First World War. At the beginning, pocket watches were used, and were equipped with a chain. As time progressed, the market for wrist watches formed rapidly. The requirements of the war affected their features: Luminous hands for better readability, shockproof housings and scratch-resistant glasses are still important features today.
In the 1920s, the first automatic, self-winding watch was developed. In 1926, Rolex made headlines when they introduced their waterproof Oyster case, which significantly contributed to their advertising campaign thanks to the success of wristwatches. To prove the waterproofness of the Oyster case, founder Hans Wilsdorf equipped swimmer Mercedes Gleitze with a Rolex as she tried to cross the English Channel. The record attempt failed because of unfavourable weather conditions. The watch survived its time in icy water without any damage. The success of the wristwatch was unstoppable. In 1931 Rolex launched the first self-winding movement, the Oyster Perpetual, replaced the hand-wound movement.
The quartz crisis and its consequences for the watch industry
In the 1930s, the first electric powered watches with quartz technology had been developed. They were expensive, bulky and only produced in small numbers for scientific use. The initial models relied either on a constant electric power supply or their batteries were so large that they were not suitable for transport.
The breakthrough came with the semiconductor technology, which allowed manufacturers to produce watch movements in miniaturised form. Seiko, Patek Philippe and Junghans introduced their first battery-powered table clocks. They were still more expensive than mechanical watches and therefore did not represent any serious competition. The development of integrated circuits for divider stages was changing this progressively. In the 1970s, the watch market expanded by a variety of electric powered wristwatches, especially from Japan. They significantly exceeded their mechanical counterparts in terms of accuracy and affordability. The Seiko Astron was the first electric wristwatch in 1969 that was for sale in stores. They were still very expensive, but prices fell rapidly. The movements of the quartz watches consisted of fewer parts, were therefore less expensive in production and could be produced in large quantities. A variety of models of inexpensive wristwatches flooded the market and plunged old-established producers of mechanical watches into a crisis. Watchmakers worldwide struggled with the consequences. Smaller manufacturers disappeared completely from the industry, but also medium and large companies had to file for bankruptcy. Only some of them could be saved. In Switzerland, in 1970 only 600 of the 1600 companies remained in business. Even traditional brands like Rolex struggled because of the quartz boom, so the Rolex Oyster Quartz was introduced. The first and only Rolex watch with a quartz movement to date. The merger of ASUAG (General Swiss Watch Industry AG) and SSIH (Société Suisse de l’Industrie Horlogère) helped to revive the watchmaking nation. The newly created Swatch company invented a competitive electric wristwatch that, thanks to fewer components, was cheap to produce and helped the local watch industry back into stability.
The market recovered in the late 1980s. Mechanical watches became popular again, especially in the upper price segment, thanks to their easier-to-understand functionality and the craftsmanship required for their production. „Swiss made“ regained relevance as a quality criteria and dominated the watch market. Although the crisis has driven some companies into bankruptcy, it has also caused some positive results: New manufacturing processes developed and companies restructured, focusing on their particularly strong series. The watch industry changed direction, with the Swiss watch industry no longer only covering the upper price segment, but focusing equally on cheaper timepieces with quartz technology, which were able to keep up with the Asian competition.
At the same time, mechanical watches are more popular than ever. Made in Swiss stands for accuracy, craftsmanship and high-quality production. One is not forced to spend half a fortune on a high-quality wristwatch. Nevertheless, luxury watches are still a promising investment. They also have a different emotional value compared to short-lived, cheap electronic counterparts. Thanks to the use of exclusive materials and high-quality workmanship, some luxury watches endure several generations and with appropriate treatment, steadily increase in value.
Nowadays, there is an impressive variety of wristwatches in every price segment. If you want to treat yourself with high quality at a lower price, you can rely on certified, used luxury watches bought from Watchmaster. From cheap digital watches to the still very popular and technically complex mechanical watch and the state-of-the-art smartwatch, there is something for every taste.