The History of the Wrist Watch

The modern wrist watch today is a feat of impeccable engineering and creativity. It is the result of a rich and detailed history. Read on and learn about the evolution of these prized and widely collected timepieces.

Patek Philippe Oversized Gondolo Wrist Watch, circa 1923

Though the concept of a wrist watch dates back to the sixteenth century, wrist watches did not become mainstream until the late 1800s. The first wrist watches were worn by women, the most known being the wrist watch worn by Queen Elizabeth I, given as a gift in 1571. However, pocket watches continued to be the most common form of portable timekeeper until the late 19th century.

Rare Longines Military Chronograph Wrist Watch

Rare Patek Philippe Art Deco Wrist Watch

The wrist watch was re-introduced in the late 1800s. Before then, watchmakers were creating "bracelet watches" for women to wear. With the advent of the Boer War in the late 1800s, military officers used wrist watches to coordinate attacks. The earliest wrist watches for men were often nothing more than a pocket watch attached to a strap. The modern wrist watch was yet to be created.

Mens Patek Philippe Wrist Watch

Rolex Datejust 18K Gold Wrist Watch

In 1908, watchmaker Hans Wilsdorf created the Rolex company in London. Rolex was one of the earliest watchmakers to start creating wrist watches. Also around this time, Cartier started developing early models of wrist watches. Soon after, World War I began, and soldiers started wearing wrist watches to synchronize their movements and attacks. The widespread use of wrist watches during the war changed the public's perception of the wrist watch, and there was increased demand for men's wrist watches after the war.

Rolex Datejust Ovattone Wrist Watch

Rolex Bombe Style Wrist Watch

By the end of the first World War, almost every man wore a wrist watch. Watchmakers like Patek Philippe, Rolex, Cartier, and Hamilton were all making almost exclusively wrist watches. Watchmakers continued to improve the style and functionality of their wrist watches over the years. In 1926, Rolex created their now-famous Oyster watch, the first true waterproof wrist watch. The first perpetual-calendar wrist watch, the first self-winding wrist watch, and the first minute-repeating wrist watch were all created in this decade.

18K Gold Mens Patek Philippe Wrist Watch

Mens Rolex Cellini Wrist Watch

By the 1930s, wrist watches were worn by both genders, though men's wrist watches rose in popularity. Women's wrist watches of this era often followed the current fashion trends, and incorporated gemstones like diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires. These watches were thinner and more feminine than men's wrist watches of the time. Many of the top watchmakers made women's watches, including Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and Cartier.

Diamond and Sapphire Wrist Watch by Breguet

18K Gold Ladies Patek Philippe Wrist Watch

Starting in the 1950s, Rolex started creating wrist watches for many different professions. The Submariner, the GMT-master, the Milgauss, and the Cosmograph models were designed with deep-sea divers, pilots, scientists, and race car drivers in mind. Soon, other watchmakers made improvements to compete with Rolex. In 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon wearing a Seiko Omega Speedmaster wrist watch. Technological discoveries continued to be made through the 1960s.

Rolex Rare Black Dial Datejust Wrist Watch

Rolex GMT-Master Stainless Steel Wrist Watch

Today, wrist watches continue to be worn by both men and women. High end wrist watches by makers like Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe are widely collected. Vintage wrist watches are extremely prized by watch enthusiasts worldwide. A vintage wrist watch makes a great gift for a loved one or friend, and will be cherished for decades.

Rare Mens Linen Dial Patek Philippe Wrist Watch

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The New York Times


Posted in Antique Features.