No element of men’s style combines fashion and function quite like the wristwatch. Nor does any other male accessory inspire such devotion and interest.
Nevertheless, 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 sartorial anachronisms like 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, and why a man might consider wearing a watch in the 21st century.
History of Wristwatches
While the wristwatch has become a men’s style staple around the world, up until the late 19th century it was considered a piece of jewelry exclusively for women. Men preferred the pocket watch.
Before the 20th century, watches were extremely susceptible to the elements. Moisture, cold, heat, and dust could easily bungle the intricate gears and springs within a watch, causing it to lose its accuracy. As men were more likely to face these elements, and held positions in the military, business, and government that made accurate timekeeping more of a paramount concern for them than for women, 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 Function superseded fashion, so into the pocket men’s watches went, only to be taken out when needed.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 patterns to change and for the watch to leave a man’s pocket and be placed on his wrist.Pocket watches required a free hand to use — you had to reach into your pocket and hold it while you checked the time. 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.
The first instances of the use of these improvised wristwatches are said to have occurred among 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.
Just as GIs returning from WWII continued to wear their government issued tees and khakis as civilians, veterans of the Burma and Boer Wars likely continued using their leather wristlets when they returned home. Male civilians, seeing these rough and tumble war vets sporting what was once considered a lady’s accouterment, began following suit.
Seeing that men — particularly soldiers — were wearing their pocket watches on their wrists, several companies in the late 19th century began creating watches specifically designed for that purpose. Girard-Perregaux was the first company to mass-produce wristwatches specifically for men — particularly for sailors in the German Imperial Navy. The Waterbury Clock Company — now known as Timex — also began selling a men’s wristwatch at around the same time. In 1907, jeweler Louis Cartier designed a wristwatch for his Brazilian aviator friend, Alberto Santos-Dumont, which he called the Santos.
While these manufactures were pioneering a new segment of timepieces, sales weren’t that great. The majority of men still preferred the pocket watch, or the leather pocket watch wristlet. It would take another war for the watches to find a permanent place on men’s wrists.
World War I ushered in modern, mechanistic warfare, and the wristwatch played a vital role in this process. Before WWI, the coordination and execution of orders relied primarily on visual cues — soldiers would often use semaphore signals to communicate with one another. But because battlefronts were so large during WWI and because soldiers fought in trenches, this visual mode of coordination became increasingly unviable. So clocks began to be used to coordinate attacks: officers would sync watches together at a meeting, return to their respective troops, and initiate the offensive at the agreed upon time.
To do this, many British officers continued to use the improvised wristwatch — their pocket watch tethered to a leather strap. But some began wearing a bona fide wristwatch designed to withstand the rigors of warfare, while maintaining a classy, aristocratic look. Watch companies in England immediately began capitalizing on this new need by making and marketing wristwatches specifically for officers serving in the trenches. They called it, unsurprisingly, the “trench watch.”
The trench watch wasn’t a government-issued piece of equipment (the pocket watch was still the officially sanctioned timepiece), so if an officer wanted one, he was expected to supply his own. Because there wasn’t a single watch company providing watches to the military, this opened up a vibrant and robust market with several competing companies making trench watches for officers. Consequently, you can still find a wide variety of trench watches from this era on eBay and various other auction sites as well as antique stores.
This wartime competition spurred innovation in the men’s wristwatch. Watch hands and numerals donned luminous paint to make time reading easier in darkened conditions, and unbreakable crystal glass replaced the glass covering the watch’s face. Lugs for attaching the leather strap to the watch started to be built right into the watch, which gave it a more finished look. Porcelain dials to set the time, which were common on pocket watches, were replaced with metal. Finally, the watch casings were made much tighter to keep water and dust out of the watch’s sensitive mechanisms.
Like the veterans of the Burma and Boer wars who returned home to civilian life burnishing their leather wristlets, British vets of WWI came back home wearing their trench watches, thus setting a standard for civilian men to follow. By 1930, more wristwatches than pocket watches were being sold in the U.K.
The adoption of male wristwatches took hold a little more slowly in the U.S., though. Many American doughboys wore the wristwatch while in the trenches, but went back to the pocket watch after returning home because of the wristwatch’s lingering reputation as a “lady’s timepiece.” The only way an American man could get away with wearing a wristwatch as a civilian was if he was taking part in rugged activity that required chronological precision like flying or racing. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s that wristwatch sales among men began to gain ground, and much later than that that they finally overtook pocket watches.
After WWI solidified the masculine bona fides of the wristwatch, manufacturers began creating timepieces to be worn on all sorts of occasions. Yes, there were fancy dress watches, but most wristwatch innovation was driven by specific needs of men serving in the military and taking part in risky and dangerous activities like car racing and aerial barnstorming.