SAVOIR FAIRE A Wristed Development: What stopped the pocket watch?

Part One

5 minutes

A look back at the fascinating moment (alright, it took a few years...) when the world made the shift from the stopwatch to the wrist-watch. From the hotly-debated ‘first’ wrist-mounted timepiece, all the way to the first Heuer watch – join us for a rambling review of time-keeping through time.

Foppish or Fobish?

Before the 17th century, men commonly wore their ‘watches’ as pendants – hanging around the neck on a specially-made chain. But when, in 1675, Charles II of England introduced a new fashion known as the waistcoat, many gentlemen began to wear a ‘pocket watch’. Rather than any sort of fashion statement, this was an extremely practical measure – watches at the time were prone to damage from exposure to the elements, and could only reliably be kept safe if carried securely in a pocket. 

As the ‘pocket watch’ became a necessity to men of a certain class, the shape evolved into a rounded and flattened circle without sharp edges that might catch on clothing, and glass was introduced to cover the watch face. Watch ‘fobs’ also came into use – from the German word ‘fuppe’, meaning a small pocket.  And in the early 19th century, Prince Albert, Royal Consort to Queen Victoria, introduced the ‘Albert Chain’ – designed to secure the pocket watch to the waistcoat or jacket buttonhole with a T-bar. 

A two register chronograph pocket watch with hunter case hand painted with two birds

The inner workings of the pocket watch, the chronograph components clearly on display

Portrait of a Lady

It’s said that the very first wristwatch was created in 1812, by watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, for Caroline Murat (aka the Queen of Naples). Other sources record examples of ‘arm watches’ as early as the 1570, when Queen Elizabeth I herself received one as a gift.  But it’s uncontested that after the Queen of Naples was seen wearing her watch on her wrist, the style caught on; more and more women began to wear their watches on a bracelet, rather than a pendant. And by the mid nineteenth century, most watchmakers produced a range of wristwatches (often marketed as bracelets) for fashionable women.  

These delicate versions of early watchmaking were often richly detailed, painted with tiny scenes or decorated with gemstones – making them as much of a statement as any other piece of fashionable jewellery. Some even contained ingenious hidden ‘alarms’ that prodded the skin beneath the dial at a certain hour, to alert clever libertines to the return of their husbands! Up until the early 20th century, this unlikely divide remained – with wristwatches worn almost exclusively by women, and men favouring the protection of a pocket. 

The DNA of the wristwatch from the pocket watch is on clear display here

Military Movements

Beginning in the late 19th century, however, military maneuvers in war – from the Anglo-Burma to Boer, and many campaigns in between – made pocket watches increasingly impractical, if not downright useless.  Imagine having to drag a heavy stopwatch or a tangled chain from a pocket in the heat of battle, on horseback, while carrying an unwieldy weapon! 

Meanwhile, the particulars of new, highly-synchronized operations – which depended heavily on a lack of signalling that might be intercepted by the enemy – meant that well-coordinated timekeeping had become essential. Officers in the British Army began to strap their pocket-watches to their wrists in the 1880s. The Garstin Company of London would patent a ‘Watch Wristlet’ design in 1893, and Mappin & Webb began production of a ‘campaign watch’ for soldiers in 1898; a market for men’s wristwatches was born.

Join us in A Wristed Development: Part Two for further 20th century developments in the popularity of wristwatches – from soldiers to aviators and beyond – and to hear Heuer’s history in the innovation of wrist-based timekeeping.