No element of men’s style inspires such fascination and devotion as the wristwatch. Up until the late 19th century the wristwatch was considered a piece of jewelry exclusively for women. Men preferred the pocket watch for some very practical reasons. At the time, watches were extremely susceptible to the elements. Moisture, cold, heat, and dust could easily ruin the intricate gears and springs within a watch, causing it to lose its accuracy. Men were more likely to face these elements as they held positions in the military, business, and government that made accurate timekeeping a paramount concern. Care had to be taken to protect their timepieces and keep themselves on schedule. Function superseded fashion, so into the pocket men’s watches went, only to be taken out when needed.
As with most things in men’s style, it would take a war for things to change and for the watch to leave a man’s pocket and be placed on his wrist. In the tumult of battle, a man needed all the hands he could get. So soldiers began improvising wristwatches by strapping their pocket watches on their arm with leather.
In 1880 Kaiser Wilhelm I commissioned watchmaker Girard-Perregaux to produce a wristwatch for his German Naval officers.
Two thousand watches were manufactured with its characteristic protective grille. This is probably the first large series of wristwatches ever made. But the product did not become popular with the general male public and was discontinued.
Soon after this wristwatches showed up with British soldiers fighting in the Burma and Boer Wars in the late 19th century. Called “wristlets,” these leather straps had a cup to hold their pocket watch. By the 1890s, a few companies started manufacturing leather wristlets for soldiers and even made improvements to them, like adding a compass on the strap for navigation. They were often marketed as “Campaign” or “Service” watches. Soon watchmakers took note of the subtle shift in social conventions. One vendor in England advertised that the “wristlet watch” had been used at the legendary Battle of Omdurman in Sudan in 1898 and again during the Boer War, pointing out that “desert-experience is the severest test a watch can have.” The implicit message was a notable one in a period of more precise time: A wristwatch’s reliability, rather than its aesthetics, was what mattered most.
Then in 1906 pioneer aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch while flying. He needed to keep his hands on the plane’s controls, but instead kept having to fumble for the pocket watch. Louis Cartier made a wristwatch for his friend affixed by a comfortable leather strap and secured with a small buckle. Santos-Dumont who wore it every time he flew. Alberto was a celebrity throughout Europe, and with his flamboyant personality, his Cartier watch became equally famous.
All these trends cascaded to warfare as World War I soldiers and aviators strapped on wristwatches en masse. The development conjured scenes like the one described by the English war correspondent Philip Gibbs in Belgium:
The watch hands [on the officers’ wrists] pointed to the second which had been given for the assault to begin, and instantly, to the tick, the guns lifted and made a curtain of fire round the Chateau of Hooge, beyond the Menin road, six hundred yards away. “Time!” The company officers blew their whistles, and there was a sudden clatter from trench-spades slung to rifle-barrels, and from men girdled with hand-grenades, as the advancing companies deployed and made their first rush forward.
By the end of the war, watch manufacturers were designing wristwatches “for men with the promise that this watch could make a man more soldier like, more martial, more masculine,” Alexis McCrossen, a history professor at Southern Methodist University said. “And they don’t just have some random soldiers out in Africa, they now have the most modern of all heroes of World War I—the aviator—[wearing wristwatches]. … By the 1920s, you have aviation, you have automobiles. The pocket watch was really intimately associated with the railroad. And so it seems very antiquated, it’s like something your dad wore. A modern man’s going to wear a wristwatch.” By the Great Depression, wristwatch production had eclipsed pocket-watch production; by World War II, the pocket watch was obsolete. The Great War, as one U.S. paper put it in 1919, had “made the world safe for men who wear wrist-watches.”
In recent times there have been those who believed the watch had finally met its demise in the smartphone, and would fade away with other male fashions such as monocles and sock garters. And yet the popularity of the wristwatch persists. To understand why, we need to understand the history of this timepiece, how its past continues to inform its present.
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