Early Wristwatches and Coming of an Age in World War I

By Michael Friedberg


Wristwatches developed primarily as an extension of pocket watches at the turn of the last century. Many models were ladies’ watches, but they ultimately evolved into popular and functional objects during  World War I. The acceptance of "wristlets" during "the war to end all wars" marked a major turning point in the evolution of watches as we know them today.

There are many stories about the first wristwatch. Breguet has recorded in its ledgers a pocket watch sold to the Queen of Naples in 1810, that basically was a ladies’ small pocket watch on a metal chain. There also are anecdotal reports of individuals in the mid-19th century wearing pocket watches other than in their pockets: on canes, rings or even attached to a bracelet.

Girard-Perregaux by 1880 supplied wristwatches to the German Imperial Navy. Reportedly, an artillery officer complained that it was inconvenient for him to be operating a pocket watch –an act requiring two hands— while timing a bombardment. He strapped a pocket watch to his wrist and reported his solution to his superiors. They liked the idea so much that watchmakers in La Chaux-de-Fonds were asked to travel to Berlin to discuss series production of small gold watches attached to wrist bracelets. Drawings of the early Girard-Perregaux wristlets are shown at left.

In 1902, Omega published an advertisement for a wristwatch, being worn by a British artillery officer and claimed that the watch was "an indispensable item of military equipment". A similar ad appeared in a German newspaper in 1904, which contained the testimony of a British Lieutenant Colonel who used wristlets during the Boer War from 1899-1902. He reported that he bought a dozen Omegas and said that "the intensive use during so many months of active service in the cavalry section of the army certainly is a hard test, especially if you consider heat and frost, rain and sand-storms…".

Despite the advertising of watch companies attempting to appeal to the military market, in the early 1900s the wristwatch was slow to be accepted and often was considered a woman’s article. In 1906, Omega published a catalog of 48 pages. On only one of the pages, shown at left, three wristwatches were shown, which all used ladies’ small pocket watch movements (and, interestingly, the crowns are at 9 o’clock, apparently as a protective measure).  

During this same period, the Parisian jeweler, Louis Cartier considered wristwatches as functional jewelry and commenced a design revolution. In 1904, the Cartier developed the "Santos" wristwatch for his friend, the Brazilian aviation pioneer, Alberto-Santos Dumont. This men’s watch was groundbreaking at the time: a rectangular and elegant men’s watch, designed with a purpose and more than jewelry. Noteworthy beyond the rectangular design –a far cry from pocket watches- was a bracelet that stylistically integrated with the watch head.  

Numerous watch trading firms also developed during this period, including  Wilsdorf & DavisImage courtesy James Dowling in London in 1905. Hans Wilsdorf, who ultimately adopted the trade name "Rolex", later said: "First of all, I created a small number of silver models for ladies and gentlemen with leather watch bands. I had an enormous success; it was necessary to prepare a larger number of watches, and soon there were added gold models too. Now flexible metal watch bands –invented in 1906-- were produced for the first time and very soon they were favoured by the British customers."  The watch depicted at right is a Rolex in a gun metal case, circa 1915. Clearly intended for military use, it is one of the earliest examples of a wristwatch with a black dial.

By 1912, many American watch companies sold ladies’ pendant watches, again using small pocket watch movements, with supplementary bracelets. Pictured here is a page from a 1912 catalog from Hamilton Watch Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 

There were basically three ways of attaching these watches to the wrist. As depicted in the Hamilton catalog, metal bracelets, usually thin linked chains, were used. In addition, some leather straps were made, as well as leather devices that "cupped" a pocket watch on a strap, as shown in this page from a  catalog, circa 1913, of a German store. The latter technique required no lugs, while the other two techniques involved lugs on the watchcase. In some cases, this involved little bows (like on the Hamilton) and in most cases it involved relatively flimsy wires attached to the case of a fob watch.

While wristwatches were growing in popularity, World War I arguably legitimatised them forever. Initially, conservative military procurement officers considered the wristlet as too fragile for military use. The cases were not sturdy and the glass was easily breakable. Pocket watches had worked well for decades and there seemed to be no reason to change. However, soldiers began wearing the new wristlets as a matter of convenience and this ultimately forced an evolution to more useable watches.

Many early wristwatches came with covers to protect the glass. Often these were metal screens, sometimes as accessory items, as shown by the Mesh-Guard depicted here. Watches with such grids are commonly called "trench watches" for obvious reasons. Other wristwatches during this period had full metal front lids like the hunting-cased pocket watches used in the 19th century. A few had half-hunter or demi-savonette covers, with a circular opening in the lid, which reputedly is attributed to Napoleon being frustrated by having to open his pocket watch in battle and cutting off the lid with his sword.

Stronger cases and easily readable dials also emerged. The depicted advertisement for the "Military Luminous Watch" emphasizes that the watch has luminous numerals and a solid screw case that allegedly made the watch "dust and damp proof". These cases, called Borgel cases, had no back opening; instead, the winder had to be disconnected and then the bezel had to be unscrewed to access the movement. Note that this watch also had a full "hunter" hinged cover to protect the glass and dial.

While military watches in subsequent decades were ordered by the militaries and issued to officers and enlisted men, during World War I soldiers usually purchased their own watches. One report states that International Watch Company’s first wristwatch was produced in 1914.  IWC’s early styles had a classic "military" wristlet-look, like the example depicted at right . This watch, typical of the era, had a silver case, an enamel dial with luminous numerals, and  used a movement originally designed in the 1890s for ladies’ pendant watches. Wristlets that were virtually identical in style were made by numerous companies, including Omega, Longines, and others.

Many of the wristlets made during this period were unsigned or, at least, the movement manufacturer cannot readily be identified. Depicted here is a "Field Service" watch from the "High Class Watch Company", which appears to have targeted the British Naval market since it has a Royal Navy Ensign on its dial. 

Sometimes the name of the store was on the dial, like on the Mappin "Campaign" model shown at right that was made for the English market. While this Mappin wristlet has an unsigned 15 jewel movement, the calibre number stampings show that it was made by Longines.

When the United States participated in World War I in 1917, its Signal Corps were issued wristlets built by Zenith, as shown here. Zenith, whose  name first appeared on watch dials in 1911, often engaged in contract sales to Government military buyers. These wire-lugged watches were signed "Zenith" above the seconds subdial and "Signal Corps" below the 12. The British military, however, was more conservative and did not buy wristwatches in bulk for Government issuance. 

Instead, in 1917, the British War Department procured a small quantity of wristlets for testing. Obtained from a variety of sources, all the models had unsigned 15 jewel movements. All of these models had black enamel dials and luminescent radium numerals. Some of these watches had pressure backs, which were rejected due to insufficient sealing, Some of the samples, however, had screwed casebacks and these were deemed to offer better protection. Yet there was a long-standing bias in favor of pocket watches with the British military. Even in the 1940s, it was typical for two watches to be issued to some personnel: a chronograph-only pocket watch and a regular service wristwatch, rather than one chronograph wristwatch.

Despite some militaries’ slow acceptance of the wristwatch, World War I allowed the wristwatch to move away from the crib and to take its first steps. The ultimate social effects were profound. What was considered a piece of jewelry or a novelty became a functional object. What previously was considered often as a feminine article became used by millions of young men. A delicately wrought instrument could be used and tested under severe conditions. The wristwatch had arrived.

The ensuing decades  witnessed further evolution of the wristwatch. In the 1920s, better sealed cases were developed, including ones that were considered as water and dust proof. Shock resistant balance mechanisms were developed. Ultimately fragile glass crystals were replaced with new acrylic-based plastic and later synthetic sapphire. Lug designs changed from thin wire lugs to the horn-designs that we know today. Enamel dials, which were subject to chipping and crazing, were changed to dials that were silvered or otherwise treated. Movement complications were added to wristwatch-size movements. And  many designers, beyond only Cartier in Paris, broke away from the classic round shape of pocket watches and used rectangular, square and other shapes.

It is not known when the name "wristlet" no longer was used. A catalog by a retailer in India showing Omega watches in the early 1930s used the then archaic term. But even if that name no longer is used, the legacy of  the wristlet survives. Perhaps justifying Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest,  that legacy was shaped by World War I.


Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved

Michael Friedberg/PastTime


Special thanks to Konrad Knirim, who provided the images of the WWI soldiers, the pocket watch on a strap, and the Girard Perregaux wristlets from his book, Militaeruhren, Die Uhren der deutschen Streitkrafefte 1870 bis 1990, and  to Ziggy Wesolowski who provided the images of the Mesh-Guard, the Military Luminous Watch advertisement, and  the Mappin and Zenith wristlets from his book A Concise Guide to Military Timepieces, 1880-1990.  The image of the early Rolex wristlet is courtesy of James Dowling.


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