A brief account of this obsolete piece of machinery that refuses to fade away.
Picture above: Roger Dubois, Huracán edition.
At the beginning of the 1969 movie Easy Rider, right before the start of his journey across the USA, the character Wyatt (Peter Fonda) gives one last glance at his wristwatch, removes it from his arm and throws the watch on the ground, symbolizing he was finally free, no longer chained to time.
But unfortunately, the rest of us have no other option but to keep time as the master of our lives. The clocks are everywhere, just to remind us about it: on your coffee maker, on your stove, on your computer’s screen, and especially on your cell phone. Even if we are surrounded by clocks, some of us still insist on wearing a wristwatch, but since they became an obsolete way to keep time, we wear them more like a fashion accessory, and that is precisely how the wristwatch was born.
The idea of a portable clock, that could be strapped around the wrist or at least that could fit inside a pocket it is as old as the creation of the mechanical watch itself, in the 16th century. In the beginning, wristwatches were meant to be some kind of jewelry, designed for the affluent ladies of society. Possibly the most notorious example of this trend is when, in 1571, the Queen of England, Elizabeth I received a wristwatch as a gift from Mr. Robert Dudley.
For the men, the fashion was the pocket watch, but that was about to change.
Towards the end of the 19th century, military officers discovered the benefits of synchronizing, by time, the maneuvers among different platoons on the field and the necessity of having a reliable and sturdy timekeeper. Since a soldier has both hands constantly employed holding his rifle, the pocket watch would just be impractical. As we all know, Necessity is the mother of invention, and soon officers and soldiers alike began adapting straps around their pocket watches to use them as wristwatches.
In the late 1800s, the United Kingdom was the leading country in the still young watchmaker industry. It didn’t take long for a British company to offer a model specially designed for the Royal Army, the Garstin Company of London, presented the “Watch Wristlet”, which was, basically, a pocket watch encased in a leather strap (pictured above).
From 1898 to 1902, the Mappin & Webb company produced the successful “campaign watch” series, widely popular among British officers serving in the colonies around the world. This new product helped to spread the idea that wristwatches could also be worn by a man.
In continental Europe, Girard-Perregaux and other Swiss watchmakers began supplying German naval officers with wristwatches in about 1880.
Conquering the skies
At the beginning of the 20th century, the use of wristwatches among the male population was still strongly linked with the military. In 1904, the Franco-Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont asked his friend, Louis Cartier, to make him a wristwatch that would help him during his flights. Keeping time was of the utmost importance when flying those early steerable hot air balloons, and since Dumont needed to keep both hands on the controls all the time, a pocket watch wasn’t the right choice for the task.
Cartier created a beautiful, square-shaped watch that served the aviator perfectly, it was compact, light, and gorgeous. The Santos Dumont’s Cartier can be considered the first chapter of the love affair between wristwatches and aviation.
Considering that Dumont was, at the time, a public figure in Paris, he helped to make the wristwatch popular among the male Parisians.
To honour the Brazilian aviator, Cartier has a series of watches called “Santos de Cartier”, based on the original watch.
From the trenches to the streets
During WWI, as the tactics between the artillery and the infantry grew in complexity, the use of the wristwatch became paramount, not only for the officers but for common private as well. The companies began producing watches specially designed for the hardships of war, with luminous dials and impact-resistant glass. From now on, the wristwatch became an integral part of the soldier’s uniform.
For those fortunate enough to survive the war, the wristwatch became part of their civilian lifestyle.
At this point, the watchmaker industry was well established and innovations just kept coming. All the features that make a military watch so sturdy were transferred to the civilian ones.
In 1923, John Harwood created the first successful self-winding system.
After WWII, the wristwatch was so popular among the returning combatants that the field watch and aviator watch became separate categories in the horology universe, readily available to civilian customers.
In the 1950s the American watchmakers Elgin and Hamilton developed the first electric-powered wristwatch, in an attempt to solve the most annoying aspect of a mechanical watch, which is the necessity of daily winding. The watches were not very reliable and therefore not a commercial success but it was the first step towards the quartz movement.
Beyond the blue sky
During the space race, between the 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviets were always one step ahead of the Americans. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first man to fly into space when, on April 12, 1961, he completed one orbit around the Earth, travelling onboard the Vostok 1 capsule. Gagarin insisted to wear a wristwatch during his journey, and the Sturmankie company prepared him a specially built model, designed to withstand the brutal acceleration of the rocket and also the weightless environment he was about to experience. According to him, his watch worked flawlessly during the mission.
One year after the launch of the Apollo program, NASA started looking for a wristwatch to be official timekeeping for the astronauts that would eventually go to the moon. After a series of evaluations, the Omega Speedmaster chronograph was the winner, outperforming brands like Rolex, Longines, and Hamilton.
In 1969, Neil Armstrong had the honour to be the very first man to set foot on the moon, but he was not wearing his watch, it was Buzz Aldrin, who left the lunar module right after, who gave the Speedmaster the privilege to be the first watch to visit the moon.
Perhaps no other human activity has embraced watches more passionately than motorsports, after all, a race driver must beat the clock before facing the other competitors on the track.
In the 1910s -20s, the Swiss watchmaker Heuer was already the leading company in the production of sports stopwatches. In 1933, Heuer released the dashboard chronograph series Autavia (AUTos + AVIAation), and this equipment quickly became the standard chronograph for all the major rally and race teams.
While co-drivers and crew members loved their dashboard-mounted stopwatches, the drivers always preferred to have theirs integrated with the wristwatch. Through the last years of the 1960s, Heuer, in association with Breitling and Hamilton, developed an engineering marvel, a self-winding watch-chronograph movement, called Chrono Matic. Together, they seized the moment and created iconic models that became the timekeepers of the golden age of motorsports.
Other brands like Rolex, Omega, and Longines followed the trend, making race-inspired watches one of the most important segments in the horology world.
Conquering the oceans
In the underwater activities, the role played by the watch is similar to the role it played in the early stages of aviation. It is more than just keeping time, it is keeping its user alive.
The necessity of a reliable timekeeper for diving came as early as the 17th century. The hard hat divers used to attach common pocketwatches inside the helmet to keep time spent underwater, but obviously, this wasn’t the most practical solution. In the early 20th century, dust/water resistant watches could be custom made for some special customers, usually called Explorer watches, but they were far from being waterproof.
In 1926, the Swiss watchmaker Rolex presented the Oyster, with a hermetically sealed case, considered to be the first waterproof wristwatch.
On October 7, 1927, the new Rolex was put to a test, the English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze crossed the English Channel with an Oyster hanging around her neck. After 10 hours in the water, the Rolex came out perfectly sealed.
The Oyster became the “father” of all other dive watches that came after since they all share similar concepts, but Omega had the honour to create the first commercially successful dive watch, the Marine, released in 1932 (picture above).
In many cases, the diver’s life depends on the accuracy and reliability of the chosen watch. Since it holds such a responsibility, a dive watch must go under a series of trials before being certified for specific depths.
It is impossible to talk about diving and not talk about one of my childhood heroes, Jacques Cousteau. In 1943, the French oceanographer created the scuba diving suit, opening the doors of underwater exploration to the average adventurer.
During the 1960s and 70s, his TV shows, picturing his incredible adventures around the world, onboard the ship “Calypso”, helped to propel the popularity of scuba diving.
It is fair to say that Cousteau also helped to make dive watches popular. His favourite brand was the Swiss watchmaker Doxa, he loved the watches so much that he even became an “authorized dealer”, selling them through his company, U.S. Divers.
Cousteau started his career as an officer in the French Navy and later he became an inventor, scientist, explorer, and filmmaker. He spent his life showing us the magnificent beauty of the oceans but more importantly, he showed us the fragility of the underwater ecosystems. He died at the age of 87, in 1997, but his legacy lives on through the Cousteau Foundation, a non-profit organization involved in the conservation of marine life and preservation of tropical coral reefs.
The quartz revolution
By the end of the 1950s, the world was experiencing the beginning of the digital revolution, also known as The Third Industrial Revolution. Engineers were creating a whole new array of electronic components that would deeply change the future of the industry in general.
In 1969, Seiko released the Astron, the first quartz watch in the world (picture above). The main difference is: while a mechanical watch relies on a balance wheel, which oscillated at, perhaps, 5 or 6 beats per second, this new Seiko uses a quartz crystal resonator that vibrates 8,192 Hz, which means the new Astron was much more accurate than any mechanical watch.
The advantages of the quartz watch go beyond the accuracy, it is lighter and more resistant to impacts, and since it is simpler to build, it is cheaper to buy.
By 1980, the watch market was flooded with hundreds of new electronic models, driving the once-powerful Swiss watchmakers to the brink of extinction. To survive, they had to join forces, adopt the new technology, and rely on something the Japanese quartz watchmakers could never provide: tradition and status.
Cell phone, the fiercest competitor
The affordable “quartz watch” throve in the 1980s and 1990s, but as soon as the cell phone services became more affordable and reliable in early 2000, the necessity of having a timekeeping device strapped around the wrist became redundant, since that little phone people now have in their pockets also shows the time.
With the advent of smartphones, the situation of the wristwatch became pretty dire. The phone has more accurate time, and automatically switches time zones, it has a built-in stopwatch and alarm clock (besides everything else, of course). For the younger generations, it is much more important owning the latest smartphone on the market than an expensive wristwatch.
Surviving the hard times
The watchmakers are constantly learning how to adapt to survive, if the traditional wristwatch lost its relevance as a timekeeper, the industry has been marketing it as a desirable man’s jewellery. The watch shifted its status from an useful tool to an accessory, something like the final touch of a well-dressed man.
Celebrities are always happy not only to show their watch collections but also to become “brand ambassadors”.
Benedict Cumberbatch is the perfect example, the British actor became involved with the Swiss watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre during the recording of the 2016 movie Dr. Strange. Cumberbatch, who is a scuba diver and watch aficionado, gladly accepted the role of the brand ambassador.
The long-established connection between watchmakers and motorsports remains strong. Most of the Formula One teams have partnerships with either traditional or independent watch brands.
In 2021, Ferrari signed a multi-year agreement with Richard Mille, a fairly new Swiss watchmaker, founded in 2001.
Richard Mille is becoming a powerhouse in motorsports, the company has its own racing team, competing in the LMP2 class at the World Endurance Championship.
A whole lot of things that we, the old timers, used to hold dear are losing their importance, not only watches. As I am writing the last lines of this post, on my cell phone, while waiting for for my bus, I totally understand how much the world has changed. The younger generations have different priorities.
The wristwatch represents something nostalgic, a throwback to a simpler time, but for some of us, it is more than that, a good quality mechanical watch is a machine in its purest form, a multitude of gears, pins, and springs, working harmoniously without any help of electronics. Usually encapsulated by a beautifully designed case.
For those with deep pockets, wearing a good watch instead a “smartwatch” is like driving a 1968 Miura instead a Tesla. It not about practicality, it is about style.