When did people start wearing wristwatches?

When did people start wearing wristwatches?

, by Benjamin Davis, 3 min reading time

The wristwatch as we know it today traces its origins back to the 16th century when portable timepieces first began to be worn on the body. However, wristwatches did not become widely popular until the early 20th century.

The first portable timepieces were clock-watches, first invented in the late 15th century in Germany. These were basically small desk clocks designed to be worn, often hung from a chain around the neck. They were bulky and cumbersome to carry around but allowed people to keep track of time as they travelled.

In the 16th century, innovations in clockmaking allowed for the development of much smaller watches that could be more easily worn on the body. This led to pocket watches, which became popular among wealthy men by the 17th century. A pocket watch was still too large and impractical to wear on the wrist, so they were carried in pockets or pouches.

Some examples of early wristlets, or bracelets with timekeeping functions, began to appear in the 18th and 19th centuries. These were essentially pocket watches with a leather strap, allowing them to be worn on the wrist. However, they were only commonly used by women of the time as fashion accessories. The small size of the watches allowed for wearing on the wrist without too much bulk or weight.

It was not until the late 19th century that wristwatches designed specifically for men emerged. With the development of better watches and watch movements, along with the needs of aviators, soldiers, and explorers for easily accessible timepieces, wristwatches became more accepted and popular among men. Brands like Girard-Perregaux and Louis Cartier produced some of the first men's wristwatches, often commissioned by early aviators.

World War I served as a catalyst for the widespread adoption of men's wristwatches. Soldiers on the front lines needed to easily check the time while keeping their hands free. Pocket watches were clumsy and difficult to use in battle. By this time, improvements in water resistance and more rugged watch cases allowed wristwatches to withstand the conditions of war. After witnessing the utility of wristwatches, soldiers continued wearing them after returning home.

The 1920s saw wristwatches become a status symbol among society men. Advances in mechanics allowed for smaller, more accurate wristwatches. Brands like Rolex and Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced iconic men's wristwatch models during this decade. By the 1930s, advances in waterproofing and automatic winding mechanisms made the wristwatch even more practical and popular.

Many early wristwatches were considered jewellery due to their precious metals and ornamentation. But by the 1920s, utilitarian design without excessive decoration became preferred, introducing the classic wristwatch look we know today. With a masculine, functional design, wristwatches became acceptable male fashion accessories.

Women also began adopting wristwatches which were designed just for them. Smaller wristwatch cases and novel bracelet designs meant that wristwatches could work for women's fashion. Brands like Omega specifically marketed to women with their petite, Art Deco-inspired timepieces.

By the 1940s, wristwatches eclipsed pocket watches in popularity for both men and women. Improvements in production allowed prices to drop, making wristwatches affordable to the masses. Standardization in size and design made wristwatches more utilitarian and practical.

The wristwatch continued evolving through the 20th century, with innovations including waterproof cases, digital displays, and built-in calculators. By the late 20th century, the wristwatch became ubiquitous as an affordable, mass-produced personal timepiece. Now an enduring fashion accessory, the origins of today's wristwatch can be traced back to those early timekeeping innovations that allowed a watch to be conveniently worn on the wrist.


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