Wristlets or bracelets were reserved for women, even wristwatches used to be a female accessories. People used to make fun of the gentlemen found wearing wristwatch.
Neither of the well-established watchmaking companies ever think to experiment with any kind of wristwatch for the man nor they think to withstand the basic rigors of human activity. Very few companies produced them in quantity, majority of those making small ladies’ models like delicate fixed wire or chain-link bracelets.
Today, a wristwatch is considered as a status symbol to tell time. The mechanical wristwatch has slowly become a piece of modern culture when cell phones and digital pagers display tiny quartz clocks.
There are dozens of prestigious wristwatches available in the market such as Rolex, Vacheron Constantin, Frank Müller, Jaeger-LeCoultre and even Patek Phillipe. But how people adopted the use of wristwatch by everyone. There must be some story behind this. Let us see how this happened.
Pocket watches used to be clumsy to carry and hence difficult to operate while in difficult situations. In the nineteenth century, soldiers discovered the usefulness of wristwatches during wartime situations. The soldiers fitted them into primitive cupped leather straps to 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 wore on their wrists in 1880 for synchronizing naval attacks, and firing artillery.
The British troops were superiorly trained and equipped. They used wristwatches to coordinate simultaneous troop movements, and synchronize flanking attacks against the Boer’s formations while attacking the Boer’s heavily entrenched positions.
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 helped in their adaptation for military use and thus was a turning point in the development of wristwatches for men.
Another issue was the use of the delicate glass crystal that could broke out during combat so “pierced metal covers”, frequently called shrapnel guards were used. These were basically metal grills (often made of silver), placed over the dial of the watch hence protecting the glass from damage allowing the time to be easily read. Leather covers were often used to place over the watch for protection from damage but 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 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). German troops were still using the primitive “pocket watch” designs while Allied troops had a wide range of new models like small silver pocket watch cases fitted with leather straps and displayed radium-illuminated porcelain dials protected by the aforementioned shrapnel guards.
Wristwatches were now became a wartime necessity, and companies were scrambling to keep up with the demand. One company that earned a big profit during this time was Wilsdorf & Davis, 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. He continued to experiment with their accuracy and reliability. In fact, he was even credited for 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.
After the Great War, many soldiers returned home with souvenir trench watches. When these war heroes were seen wearing wristwatches, the public’s perception quickly changed, and wristwatches were no longer teated as feminine accessory. In the final years of the war, wristwatches began to see numerous improvements. Case makers like Francis Baumgartner, Borgel and Dennison introduced water resistant and dust resistant designs. Rolex introduced its first truly waterproof wristwatch, the Oyster, in 1926.
New models were introduced with fixed horns which gave them a more finished appearance. New metal dials superceded porcelain quite susceptible to cracking and chipping and the fragile glass crystals were replaced with a newly invented synthetic plastic for more durability. By 1931, they were accurate, waterproof and self-winding.
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 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.