Even though it seems like watches have been around forever — at least judging by the ongoing heat of the pre-owned and vintage market and its influence on modern design — they are actually a relatively modern addition to human civilization, and have only been widely worn on the wrist for a little over 100 years. The history of the watch, however, has roots that run far deeper, to the very beginnings of timekeeping by humans. Here we briefly explore the watch’s origins and its development into a modern-day accessory and tool.
Modern timekeeping devices can all be traced back to the sundials and water clocks developed by the ancient Egyptians and used by the early Babylonians, Greeks, and Chinese. These relatively primitive devices eventually gave rise to inventions like the hourglass in Medieval Europe, the first mechanical clocks powered by mainsprings in the 15th Century, and the pendulum clock, invented by Christian Huygens (depicted below) in 1656 from a design by Galileo Galilei. These large, stationary clocks, in turn, were the forerunners of portable timepieces that one could carry on his or her person, or what we today refer to as watches.
Often regarded as the “inventor of the watch” is the 15th-Century German clockmaker and locksmith Peter Henlein (1485 - 1542), a name probably unfamiliar to many modern watch enthusiasts. The “clock-watches” that Henlein made in his shop in Nuremberg in the 1500s were the first timekeepers to be worn on the body. They consisted of iron or steel movements inside drum-shaped, ornamental brass boxes several inches in diameter, with hinged grillwork covers, that were suspended by chains and worn around the neck. Bearing only an hour hand, and not particularly dependable in their accuracy, these devices (below) were designed more as ornamental jewelry for the noble classes than as reliable timekeeping tools. (Henlein, by the way, was a fascinating historical figure: he was married three times and at one point was involved in a brawl in which a fellow locksmith was killed. Seeking asylum for his part in the incident, he fled to a Fransiscan monastery known for its scientific and astronomical research, where he very likely learned the skills that enabled him to develop his “clock-watch.”)
How did these personal, miniature clocks come to be called “watches” in the first place, you might ask? A handful of theories exist, including that the name is a shortened form of the Old English wacce, for “watchman,” referring to the guards that used such timekeepers to keep track of their shifts. Another possibility is that the term refers to the mechanisms used by 17th-Century sailors to time the length of their shipboard “watches.”
The evolution of personal style, and personal timekeeping, reached another milestone point in 1675, when King Charles II of England (above) introduced the waistcoat. Gentlemen of the era were now inclined to wear their watches inside a waistcoat pocket rather than as a pendant (though ladies would continue to wear them around their necks for hundreds of years more). The introduction of the pocket watch, and its subsequent widespread usage, was attributed to both fashion and practicality: its flatter, more rounded profile made it easier to carry around than the drum-shaped clock-watches or the oval-shaped “Nuremberg egg” pieces that followed them, and tucking it into a pocket until you needed to look at it kept the timepiece safer from the elements, especially after a glass (or crystal) to cover the dial was added around 1610. Pocket watches were mounted on short chains or leather fobs (the word derived from the German “fuppe,” for “pocket”) and its movement was wound and set via a key that accessed an arbor in the back.
Pocket watches were regarded as luxury objects for well-heeled patrons until sometime in the late 18th Century, when industrialization of parts began to take hold and more of the masses could afford to own one. The heyday of the pocket watch was also a rich era of technical innovation, as the 14th-Century verge escapement that drove the earliest pieces gave way first to the cylinder escapement developed by France’s Abbé de Hautefeuille and Britain’s George Graham, and eventually to the lever escapement invented by another pioneering British horologist, Thomas Mudge, and put into production by legendary Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet and a handful of other contemporaries. It was an American company, Waltham, that produced the first pocket watch with interchangeable parts in 1857, an innovation that made the manufacturing of watches less costly and more efficient. In 1842, Jean-Adrien Philippe, the French co-founder of Patek Philippe, helped bring watches further into the modern era by inventing the stem-wind/stem-set movement, which dispensed with the earlier, more unwieldy key-setting and winding system.
The migration of watches from the waistcoat to the wrist also resulted from a combination of practicality and changing styles. It was the aforementioned Abraham-Louis Breguet (above) who is recognized as the inventor of the first timepiece made to be worn on the wrist. The watch he made for Queen Caroline Murat of Naples in 1810 (she was the sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, another of Breguet’s historically impressive roster of royal clients) was oval-shaped, contained a movement with complications, and was attached to a wristlet made of hairs and gold thread. It was a trendsetting piece, the first of many wrist watches that Breguet and others would produce for society ladies throughout the century, but gentlemen still held firm to their pocket watches for many years, mostly regarding the wrist-worn devices as ornamental baubles rather than useful timekeepers.
Men’s attitudes toward wearing their watches on the wrist began to shift in the early 20th Century. The forerunner of this societal evolution was a watch made in 1904 by Louis Cartier, third-generation leader of the eponymous Parisian watch and jewelry maison, for his friend Alberto Santos-Dumont, an aviation pioneer and bon vivant from Brazil who famously flew steerable balloons over his adopted city of Paris. The wrist-borne watch that Cartier made, which inspired today’s Santos collection, addressed Santos-Dumont’s most pressing issue with the pocket watches he’d been wearing on his flights, namely that it was too difficult to keep both hands on the controls while keeping track of time simultaneously. It was the first wristwatch made specifically for a male wearer as well as the first watch purpose-built for aviation, and Santos-Dumont’s fashionable reputation moved Cartier to make more of the square-cased watches for sale to the public.
Wristwatches for men really became mainstream around the time of the First World War. Servicemen from the Allied countries of Britain, France, the United States and Russia required reliable timepieces in the trenches and battlefields of Europe, and pocket watches proved to be too impractical for a soldier on the move, most of whom appreciated the ease of strapping a watch to one wrist. An infantryman, for example, needed to load his weapon with one hand while checking a watch on the other to determine the distance of incoming artillery fire. Wristwatches, the earliest of which were jerry-rigged by soldering strips of metal wire onto existing pocket watch cases to attach them to straps, thus became a useful and practical military accessory that World War I veterans brought back with them to civilian life, and which subsequently gained in mainstream popularity. Eventually, the large, repurposed pocket watches that comprised the first wristwatch generation gave way to watches actually designed for wrist wear, with smaller cases and movements, integrated lugs, and a variety of straps and bracelets to fasten them.
For more than a century, the wristwatch has been the dominant style of timepiece for both men and women, though pocket watches and jewelry-style watches integrated into bangles, bracelets, and necklaces continue to occupy small, niche realms within the larger horological world. Even as technology marches on, and reading the time on personal electronic devices becomes even more ubiquitous, wearing a watch remains a subtle yet powerful statement, one that connects all of us wearers to our ancestors and the very origins of reading time, and to the many centuries’ worth of work by inventive minds that brought timekeeping down from the clock towers all the way to our wrists.