From the Vault
Watches for the Wrist
The dawn of the 20th century yielded a more practical way to tell
Wrist watches are so commonplace today we take them for granted. Most
of us have a wardrobe of wrist watches we can pick and choose from to match
an outfit or suit an occasion. By contrast, pocket watches are seen as a
quaint novelty, worn by a few as a fashion statement. It's hard to imagine
that 100 years ago, the exact opposite was true: pocket watches were the
norm and wearing a watch on the wrist was seen as eccentric if not absurd.
From their appearance in the 16th century through 1900, watches were
most often carried in a pocket. For security, these cherished and expensive
objects often were suspended from a chain or attached to clothing. Men wore
them on a chain anchored to one side of their vest, with the watch in a
pocket on the other side. Depending on the prevailing fashion, women wore
their watches on a chatelaine (a fancy metal clasp) at the waist, on a brooch
pinned to their bodice or hanging from a long necklace or sautoir (light
ribbon or chain) around their neck.
Although bracelet watches for women were introduced in the late 1700s,
the custom of wearing watches on the wrist didn't catch on for another century.
When it did, it's interesting to note, men were the trendsetters and women
capitulated some years later.
The innovative jeweler credited with reintroducing the wrist watch was Louis
Cartier. In 1904, he custom-designed one for his close friend Alberto Santos-Dumont,
a wealthy Brazilian inventor of flying machines. He devised a simple streamlined
wrist watch so Santos-Dumont could see what time it was while he had both
hands firmly on the controls of his airborne vehicle. Named the Santos,
this wrist watch is still in production and was recently updated
In World War I, men found the practicality of wrist watches even more
obvious. Looking at one's wrist for the time was far more convenient than
fumbling in a pocket when crawling through mud carrying a rifle! In the
post-war 1920s, people put the past behind them and strove to be as modern
and free-spirited as possible. The wrist watch symbolized these ideals and
quickly became the most popular accessory for men and women.
Watches as Fashion
While men's watches generally maintained their sleek understated appearance,
wrist watches for women varied quite a bit depending on the occasion. For
daywear, women's watches were simple and practical with leather or ribbon
bands. For dressy evenings, however, they became jeweled bracelets: the
watch movements miniaturized and the bands made of gold or platinum embellished
with gems. Especially fashionable during the late 1920s, these tiny watches
were called baguette watches because their shape resembled a baguette or
emerald-cut gem. Sometimes the watch crystal was a faceted natural gem transparent,
of course, to reveal the time.
Wrist watches have continued to evolve through the years, following
the trends and fashions of each new age. Contemporary interest in everything
antique has refocused attention on older wrist watches, prompting many jewelers
to reissue their early models or develop Retro styles that imitate period
pieces. As we move into the new millennium, technology will doubtless produce
some new way to wear time. But until then, in the words of Cole Porter,
This baguette watch has a movement by Vacheron-Constantin in a platinum
case set with carved emeralds. It's attached to a carved emerald and diamond-set
platinum bracelet. The winder is set with a rose-cut diamond. Made by Verger
circa 1928. Courtesy of a private collection.
By Elise B. Misiorowski
Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.