For many of us, a wristwatch is part of our daily wardrobe. Waking up and strapping on our watches has become second nature, yet this fascinating piece of tech should never be taken for granted.
Wristwatches have an intriguing beginning and have undergone a range of practical and stylish evolutions over the years. To understand its origin is to appreciate the beauty of the wristwatch even more.
When were watches invented?
The concept of measuring time stretches way back to the Egyptians, over 5,000 years ago. The civilisation relied on the sun for these early clocks, using sundials to determine the time.
While today’s time tellers are much more advanced, the circular design of the Egyptian sundials has helped shape the appearance of modern watches.
The first watches to work without the help of the sun were known as water clocks. Later came the hourglass and the wheel clock, in the 14th century.
While large clocks were visible to the ordinary population on church towers and in marketplaces, it wasn’t until the 15th century that the watchmaking profession really started ticking along thanks to the introduction of the spiral spring.
Balance, and the discovery of the spiral spring, made the construction of more precise watches possible. The coil spring replaced the large pendulum used in the past, paving the way for smaller, more compact watches.
In 1673, Christiaan Huygens created a watch that utilised the spiral spring and balance, which was both small in size and portable.
When were wristwatches invented?
The first wristwatch is thought to have been invented in 1812 by Abraham-Louis Breguet, who produced a wristwatch for Napoleon’s sister, Queen Caroline Murat. A small timepiece was attached to the wrist with a strap.
Prior to this, most men carried their watches on a chain attached to their back pocket, while women often wore it around their necks.
After Breguet’s creation – and thanks to the Queen’s popularisation – wristwatches slowly became a part of everyday society. By the end of the 19th century, wristwatches were a part of many women’s accessories collections.
To feminise them further, some had taken to attaching them to chains or ribbons, making them look like jewels.
When did wristwatches become popular?
It wasn’t until the 20th century that both men and women began wearing wristwatches.
Up until this point, most men still preferred pocket watches – they had dramatically advanced over the years and had improved in accuracy.
The practicality of the pocket watch came into question alongside the advancement of other technologies. In 1904, Louis Cartier developed the first men’s wristwatch. His friend, flying legend Alberto Santos Dumont, had expressed a desire to continue flying his plane with both hands while also keeping an eye on the time, something he was unable to do with a pocket watch. Cartier created the Cartier Santos for him, still a central part of the series today.
Shortly after, the outbreak of the First World War further highlighted instances where hands-free tasks and timekeeping were vital. Even today, many watch series is clearly derived from a military perspective, equipped with things like navigation tools, readability in low light conditions, or scratch-resistance glass.
However, wristwatches were by no means reserved for military use, and quickly became admired by and popular among the civilian population.
In the 1920s, the first automatic, self-winding watch was developed. The success of the wristwatch was catapulted further by Rolex in 1926 when it released its waterproof Oyster case. To prove its waterproof capabilities, Rolex equipped swimmer Mercedes Gleitze with a Rolex as she tried to cross the English Channel. While the record attempt failed, the watch survived without damage.
The rise of quartz watches
Shortly after in the 1930s, the first electric-powered watches using quartz technology were developed.
However, they were expensive, bulky, and often only produced for scientific use. That all changed with the breakthrough of semiconductor technology.
Manufacturers including Seiko, Patek Philippe, and Junghans introduced their battery-powered table clocks. Later, the development of integrated circuits for divider stages allowed this to propel further – Japan especially developed a range of electric-powered watches that were much more accessible for the masses.
These electric powered wristwatches also excelled mechanical watches in terms of accuracy and affordability. In 1969, the Seiko Astron was the first electric-powered wristwatch that was available for sale in stores.
Quartz watches meant fewer parts, which meant they were less expensive for both manufacturers and buyers and could be produced in larger quantities.
Traditional mechanical companies, including Rolex, suffered greatly against the quartz boom, with many filing for bankruptcy.
The comeback of the mechanical watch
Thankfully, the mechanical watch market recovered in the 1980s.
Mechanical watches were easier to understand and actually appealed to certain clientele by sitting at the higher price segment.
‘Swiss made’ regained its relevance as quality assurance, and largely dominated the watch market. When it came to mechanical watches, craftmanship became respected once again.
Nowadays, the best wristwatches are seen across multiple price segments and contain varying functionalities.
Luxury watches, renowned for their quality craftsmanship and use of exclusive materials, often withstand several generations and are a great investment. They also come with a distinct emotional value and, with appropriate treatment, only increase in value.
Saying this, there are also exceptional wristwatches in the lower price segments that offer practical functions and durability. Many people often collect an array of watches from multiple brands, diversifying their collection depending on personal needs and style.
Excellence and quality are the two major attributes when it comes to wristwatches at Robert Gatward Jewellers. Our impressive collection of men’s and women’s watches brings together some of the best-known watch brands in the world, combined with famed design houses.