Wristwatches: A Brief History

Wristwatches have been undergoing some sort of renaissance. Several recent articles also point at this resurgence in interest in wristwatches, both smart and traditional analog pieces. Perhaps we could blame Apple, which in 2017 outsold the entire Swiss industry (!). This renaissance has also sparked the creation of several watch microbrands. Now, more than ever, you can choose from several unique watch designs, at many different price points, and even from several different materials such as wood, steel, carbon fiber and, of course, bronze and brass. Here, Pontvs brings you a brief history of how wristwatches became popular, and the most important changes in recent years.

How and when were wristwatches born?

wristwatches brief history

Wristwatches are a relatively modern creation. While timekeeping devices have existed since Ancient Egypt (think of sundials) or even earlier, wristwatches became only popular during the early XXth century, with World War I.

Centuries before the Great War, most coordinations within the battlefield happened through signaling, mostly by waving flags or banners. While this was undoubtedly effective, it had the drawback of being easily read or anticipated by an enemy with deep understanding of the code. By the XXth century, with dedicated spies gaining intelligence, this was rather possible; so coordination without visual signaling was needed.

 wristwatches a brief history

"England expects that every man will do his duty" was the famous message coded in flags sent by Admiral Nelson during the battle of Trafalgar.

 

New military tactics also called for more precise coordination between units. For example, in order for infantry to advance under the cover of artillery, both forces needed to be aware of the time the bombardment would begin, as to avoid friendly fire. All of this required that soldiers could reliably read and assess the passage of time in their own positions.

But pocket watches, the most common at the time, were ill-suited for this task. First, they were rather fragile and would easily fail or break when exposed to the elements, hence the need to be protected in a pocket. Second, it was rather cumbersome to have to reach out for your pocket, bring out the watch and then open it to read the time. This military challenge led first to the creation of the trench watch (a sort of pocket and wristwatch hybrid), and then to the mass adoption of the wristwatch, which was an smart alternative to the pocket watch, and gave the soldiers easy access to the time.

wristwatches a brief history

The need for a Field Watch

Wristwatches also posed a new challenge from a watchmaking perspective: no longer would this watches be an exquisite craft meant for the elite: they had to serve as tools, and be rugged enough to survive the hazards of the trenches and war.

Several of the most renowned watch companies of the world were commissioned by their own governments to produce wristwatches for the troops.

Most of these sported some form of unbreakable glass, water resistance, as well as basic lume in order to be read at night, and were manual-winded as it was the most common technology at the time.

Even today these war watches remain highly sought after by collectors, and are common at vintage watch auctions.

When the war was over, combatants kept their own wristwatches, and soon became a fashion item. Civilians and veterans alike began sporting more casual and dress pieces, and watchmaking companies began developing different styles for a more broader audience.

wristwatches brief history

When World War II came along, countries again began commissioning watches for the troops. New, more advanced and accurate timepieces were created for the field. Most notably, England issued twelve companies to create a standard-issue field watch for the war. This created the famous “Dirty Dozen” W.W.W., which stands for Wrist. Watch. Waterproof.

Also worth noting: during the war, Swiss neutrality actually protected the swiss watchmaking industry. They continued to produce civilian timekeeping devices while the rest of the major european countries (as well as the United States and Japan) were invested in creating military devices. In many cases, however, other countries involved in the war commissioned swiss brands to make watches for their own armies. Some companies actually had their factories destroyed, as was the case of the German watchmaking industry, based off Glashütte, which set them back further.

wristwatches brief history

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The Quartz Crisis

The next important chapter in the history of the wristwatch is the so called “Quartz Crisis”. See, up until the 1980’s, the movement inside most watches was entirely mechanical, made by several components put together by a master watchmaker.

However, in 1969 world renowned watch company Seiko unveiled the first quartz watch. This was a watch that relied on a quartz crystal, oscillating by small electric pulses (once per second), in order to push the hands forward. This new watch was way more accurate in timekeeping than a great deal of mechanical watches, and also cheaper to be produced. By the 80’s, when technology that could mass electronic equipment was implemented, quartz watches became immensely popular, completely eclipsing their mechanical counterparts.

This, however, also spelled like doomsday for mechanical watchmakers. Think for a moment all the amount of research and development that is needed to continuously push mechanical watchmaking forward. All of that was rather quickly rendered “obsolete” in the face of a new, breakthrough technology. This soon threw the prestigious swiss industry into chaos, and many companies ended up disappearing or being bought by bigger ones.

The Swatch Group (a conglomerate of several swiss brands) was eventually created, with the objective of “saving” swiss watchmaking. Swatch is an amalgamation of “second” and “watch”, and their watches were meant to be rather disposable (in the idea that consumers would still rather carry a main, more expensive/iconic timepiece). Most of them are plastic and have quartz movement; but their launch, coupled with a new marketing approach and interesting design, revitalized the industry. In all, quartz ended up becoming synonym with the lower end watches, and historical swiss brands became the heart of the “high-end” of the wristwatch market. Several prestigious brands are now part of the Swatch Group (Omega, Longiness, Blancpain and Breguet, amongst many others), and currently it is the largest watchmaking conglomerate in the world.

Crisis vs Revolution

wristwatches brief history

Timex developed its famous Indiglo backlighting technology

 

To be fair though, the “crisis” part in this chapter mainly affected the swiss industry. The proud swiss watchmakers were slow (and some even refused) to adapt to the new technology, while at the same time Japanese and American companies (think for example Seiko and Timex), managed to thrive and expand. This also led to several new electronics companies to take a dip into watchmaking (take Casio, for example), something that was frowned upon by mechanical purists.

Mechanical watches did not disappear from that point onwards, as you may imagine. Current companies - such as Pontvs - still continue to produce quality mechanical timepieces, and are sought out by consumers as being portable works of craftmanship and art.

Epilogue: The Smartwatch Era & The Rise of the Microbrands

 The last major disruption in the wristwatch industry came from Apple of all places. New smartwatches entered the market with full strength a couple of years ago. Several companies are now making smartwatches, and in all it generated interest in the art and history of wristwatches.

However, the smartwatch also had an opposite effect. Since it is basically just another screen, like the one on your phone, new generations started to do more research, and took interest in analog designs. This also called for more variety in watch design, which led to the appearance of more “microbrands”, offering unique designs.

The number of watch kickstarter campaigns are now on the rise, as people want to grab a lovely timepiece at an affordable price.