This month, the month of June, continues to be all about men! I wanted to use the post today to talk about watches, and how it came about that we wear them on our wrists. Perhaps you think that wristwatches are a thing of the past. Maybe you’re right. After all, I don’t wear a watch like I used to. Because, now, I have my phone. And it does SO MUCH MORE than tell time. I tell people I would rather lose my wallet than my phone and I’m not even kidding!
So maybe the watch isn’t super practical, and maybe it is dying….. But then, I see that Apple continues to make their watch, and lots of luxury retailers are churning out timepiece like never before. So I don’t think the watch is going away just yet. Time will tell, I guess.
Like I said, I’m intrigued by the idea of wearing a timepiece on your wrist. How did that come to be? You know, before wristwatches, we had pocket watches. Men in what I will call “the olden days” had pocket watches that they were very proud of.
The reason men kept watches in their pocket was because they actually depended on them to tell time, and watches back then were rather fragile. Heat, cold, moisture, and dust could all mess with the gears and springs and make them less accurate, so men fished them out of their pocket only when necessary.
Pockets watches actually go back much farther than I thought. To the early 1500’s. The watches were typically egg-shaped, mounted on a ribbon, and worn around the neck. They were poorly designed, though, and didn’t have nice glass protecting the face. Or covers that closed.
Charles II of England changed all this when he introduced the waistcoat for men. You may not think is a big deal, but this wardrobe change was critical. The watches became flatter, and didn’t have any sharp edges. That way, they fit nicely inside your waistcoat and didn’t accidentally cut the fabric.
The Countess and the wristlet
While men (wealthy men) were busy and content with their pocket watches, women were excited about something new called a wristlet. In the mid to late 1800’s, aristocratic women wanted timepieces as well. A woman named Countess Koscowicz of Hungary had the distinction of being the first to commission her own. She went to renowned Swiss watch manufacturer Patek Philippe in 1868, and asked for something luxurious, with gold and jewels, and a tiny, functioning timepiece. She was not disappointed.
The Countess’ circle of friends went wild about the little bejeweled bracelet, and that was the beginning of a fad. These wristlets become common along women of nobility and royalty, and were frequently decorated with gemstones or enamel. Apparently, they weren’t very functional as actual watches, but that was hardly the point. These women didn’t really need to keep time.
Watches become practical
For both men and women, the watches were really considered a novelty item, something you used to show off to your friends. They remained expensive and out of bounds for most people. Because really, they were considered jewelry, a sort of decorative item. However, the technology with watches kept getting better and with their improving timekeeping came real practicality. Suddenly, you could use your watch to tell time! With accuracy!
It turns out that this is very important when fighting a war.
Men and their wars
The British fought in Burma and Africa in the late 1800’s and they immediately started strapping a small watch face to their wrist. Fumbling in your pocket for your watch when you’re also trying to shoot your gun is not a situation you want to be in! These watches were called “wristlets,” just like women’s watches at the time.
Returning war veterans wore their wristlets, but there was still a huge portion of the population who saw this whole exercise as a silly fad. One they hoped would go away, citing “the idiotic fashion of carrying one’s clock on the most restless part of the body.”
And so it was that women were the main wearers of wristwatches for a little while longer…..
Change is hard
World War I was a game changer for wristwatches. For one thing, the watches themselves got better with bigger faces, and numbers that glowed in the dark. It become easy to tell time! Soldiers commonly synchronized their watches before battle, and got used to wearing them constantly. Precise timing for missions and attacks was imperative, and men saw the real value in knowing the time, and being able to tell what time it was with a quick glance.
This time, when the soldiers came home wearing their watches, it was different. It was cool, and masculine.
World War I ended in November 1918. In 1920, wristwatches made up 15% of all watches sold in America. But by 1935, that number jumped to 85%. If you were a manly man, a guy’s guy, you owned a watch. It was the same across the sea. In England, by 1930, more wristwatches than pocket watches were sold.
Cartier’s Tank Watch
Just last year, Cartier celebrated 100 years of its iconic Tank Watch. Designed in 1917, it came on the market in 1919, just as World War I had ended. Cartier was inspired by the military tank, which he saw as a symbol of safety and power. He was also inspired by the cubist art movement.
This famous and recognizable watch became incredibly popular with the public. And it become a status symbol for the rich and famous, as well. These are just some of the people I found who owned their very own Cartier Tank Watch: Princess Diana, Jackie O, Michelle Obama, Angelina Jolie, Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, Rex Harrison, Clark Gable, Rudolph Valentino, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, William Randolph Hearst, and Tom Ford.
Jackie O’s Tank Watch sold at auction last year for $379,500. It was engraved on the back with a note from her brother-in-law, who had given it to her.
Did you know you can buy your own tank watch from Amazon? It will only set you back about $2000……
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It turns out watch sales have been increasing every year since 2009. Perhaps this trend is on the way back in. All because a Hungarian countess wanted to impress her friends. What do you think?