Watches for the Wrist

April 1999

From the Vault

Watches for the Wrist

The dawn of the 20th century yielded a more practical way to tell time

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.

Continuing Innovation
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, anything goes!

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.


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