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By John E. Brozek
© InfoQuest Publishing, Inc., 2004
International Watch Magazine, January 2004
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Today, a wristwatch is considered as much of a status symbol as a device to tell time. In an age when cell phones and digital pagers display tiny quartz clocks, the mechanical wristwatch has slowly become less of an object of function and more a piece of modern culture.
Walk into the boardroom of any Fortune 500 company and you’re likely to see dozens of prestigious wristwatches, including such names as Rolex, Vacheron Constantin, Frank Müller, Jaeger-LeCoultre and even Patek Phillipe. However, this was not always the case. Less than 100 years ago, no self-respecting gentleman would be caught dead wearing a wristwatch. In those days of yore, real men carried pocket watches, with a gold half-hunter being the preferred status symbol of the time—no pun intended.
Wristlets, as they were called, were reserved for women, and considered more of a passing fad than a serious timepiece. In fact, they were held in such disdain that many a gentlemen were actually quoted to say they “would sooner wear a skirt as wear a wristwatch”.
The established watchmaking community looked down on them as well. Because of their size, few believed wristlets could be made to achieve any level of accuracy, nor could they withstand the basic rigors of human activity. Therefore, very few companies produced them in quantity, with the vast majority of those being small ladies’ models, with delicate fixed wire or chain-link bracelets.
This all started to change in the nineteenth century, when soldiers discovered their usefulness during wartime situations. Pocket watches were clumsy to carry and thus difficult to operate while in combat. Therefore, soldiers fitted them into primitive “cupped” leather straps so they could be worn on the wrist, thereby freeing up their hands during battle. It is believed that Girard-Perregaux equipped the German Imperial Naval with similar pieces as early as the 1880s, which they wore on their wrists while synchronizing naval attacks, and firing artillery.
Decades later, several technological advents were credited with the British victory in the Anglo-Boer War (South Africa 1899-1902), including smokeless gunpowder, the magazine-fed rifle and even the automatic or machine gun. However, some would argue that it was a not-so-lethal device that helped turn the tide into Britain’s favor: the wristwatch.
While the British troops were superiorly trained and equipped, they were slightly outnumbered, and at a disadvantage while attacking the Boer’s heavily entrenched positions. Thanks to these recently designed weapons, a new age of war had emerged, which, now more than ever, required tactical precision. British officers achieved success by using these makeshift wristwatches to coordinate simultaneous troop movements, and synchronize flanking attacks against the Boer’s formations.
In fact, an “Unsolicited Testimonial” dated June 7, 1900, appeared in the 1901, Goldsmith’s Company Watch and Clock Catalog as follows:
“… I wore it continually in South Africa on my wrist for 3 ½ months. It kept most excellent time, and never failed me.—Faithfully yours, Capt. North Staffs. Regt.”
This testimonial appeared below an advertisement for a military pocket watch listed as The Company’s “Service” Watch, and was further described as: “The most reliable timekeeper in the World for Gentlemen going on Active Service or for rough wear.”
In 1906, the evolution of wristlets took an even bigger step with the invention of the expandable flexible bracelet, as well as the introduction of wire loops (or lugs) soldered onto small, open-faced pocket watch cases, allowing leather straps to be more easily attached. This aided their adaptation for military use and thus marked a turning point in the development of wristwatches for men.
Another timely issue was the vulnerability of the glass crystal when worn during combat. This was addressed by utilizing “pierced metal covers”, frequently called shrapnel guards. These were basically metal grills (often made of silver), placed over the dial of the watch—thereby protecting the glass from damage while still allowing the time to be easily read.
A less common solution was the use of leather covers, snapped into place over the watch. While they did offer protection from damage, they were cumbersome to use, and thus were primarily seen in the extreme climates of Australia and Africa.
Even with their success in combat, the popularity of the wristwatch was still limited to ladies’ models. They didn’t reach the mainstream market until some two decades later, when soldiers from around the world converged on Europe to help defeat the German Empire in WWI (1914-1919). Due to the strategic lessons learned in the Boer War, the demand for reliable, accurate wristwatches was now at its peak.
While German troops at this time were largely issued the more primitive “pocket watch” designs, Allied troops had a wide range of new models to choose from. Many examples featured small silver pocket watch cases fitted with leather straps and displayed radium-illuminated porcelain dials protected by the aforementioned shrapnel guards.
Wristwatches were no longer considered a novelty but were now a wartime necessity, and companies were scrambling to keep up with the demand. One company that enjoyed success during this time was Wilsdorf & Turdling, Ltd., founded in 1905, and later renamed The Rolex Watch Company, Ltd., in 1915.
Hans Wilsdorf, the founder and director of Rolex, was a strong proponent of wristwatches since the turn of the century. While others scoffed at them, Wilsdorf continued to experiment with their accuracy and reliability. Thus, some would argue that he did more for their advancement than anyone in history. In fact, he is even credited with sending the first wristwatches to the Neuchatel Observatory (Switzerland), for accuracy testing. They all passed the rigorous battery of tests, which encouraged Wilsdorf to push them even further.
Rolex subsequently received the very first wristwatch Chronometer awards from the School of Horology in Bienne (1910), and the Class “A” Certificate of Precision from the Kew Observatory in England (1914). To this day, Rolex watches consistently receive more Chronometer Certificates from the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC), than every other watch company in the world, combined.
After the Great War, many soldiers returned home with souvenir trench watches—so named for the trench warfare in which they were used. When these war heroes were seen wearing them, the public’s perception quickly changed, and wristwatches were no longer deemed as feminine. After all, no one would dare consider these brave men as being anything but.
In the final years of the war, wristwatches began to see numerous improvements. Case makers like Francis Baumgartner, Borgel and Dennison introduced revolutionary designs, which aided in making them more resistant to water and dust. These designs were later improved on when Rolex introduced the first truly waterproof wristwatch, the Oyster, in 1926.
Also around this time, new models were first introduced with fixed lugs (often called “horns”), which gave them a more finished appearance. And to aid in their durability, new metal dials superceded porcelain, which had been quite susceptible to cracking and chipping and the fragile glass crystals were replaced with a newly invented synthetic plastic.
Over the next decade, watch companies slowly added additional models to their catalogs, and finally, by the mid-1930s, they accounted for 65 percent of all watches exported by Switzerland. It was an uphill battle, but the wristwatch had finally arrived. They were now accurate, waterproof and, by 1931, perpetually self-winding, when Rolex introduced the Auto Rotor, a revolutionary design, which is used to this day by watch companies around the world.
The success of the wristwatch was born out of necessity, and Rolex continued this tradition by introducing a series of Professional, or “tool watches” in the early 1950s. These models, including the Submariner, Explorer, GMT-Master, Turn-O-Graph, and Milgauss were also designed out of necessity, as they included features and attributes that were essential for a specific task or profession.
Because of its rugged design, variations of the Submariner have subsequently been issued to numerous militaries, including the British Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and British Royal Marines, as well as the U.S. Navy Seals. Over the years, dozens of companies like Omega, Benrus and Panerai have also supplied specialty watch models for military duty.
Thus, the role of the wristwatch seems to have come full circle. With the general public now leaning toward high-tech, digital gadgets, the classic mechanical wristwatch has once again found its home on the wrists of those brave soldiers who welcomed it some 100 years ago.
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