Emancipation on the wrist

It’s a man’s world, they say, but not when it comes to wristwatches. Ultimately, it is women we have to thank for what now seems the obvious way to wear a watch. Up until the 1930s most men would not have dreamt of wearing their personal timepiece on their wrist. Even in 1938, when wristwatches already accounted for two-thirds of the rapidly growing market for wearable chronometers, Junghans was rather provocatively asking: “Are wristwatches really manly?” Germany’s largest watch manufacturer was ready with its own answer: “Some men reject wristwatches because they seem to regard them more as pieces of jewelry than timekeepers.”

This was not an isolated view. It reflected a long-held prejudice against the wristwatch that had been fed by many different sources. For example, in 1916 a specialist dealer loudly complained that wristwatches were deficient in many ways, but that they were more and more in demand and that the taste of the primarily female public must be respected. The dealer nevertheless saw this preference as an aberrant quirk of feminine taste, since the wrist was evidently the most inappropriate place on which to affix a timepiece. Dr. Hermann Bock echoed this view in 1917: “The foolish fashion of wearing a watch on the part of the body most in movement and most exposed to temperature fluctuations will hopefully disappear soon. Rhythmical exercise such as walking and riding are particularly disturbing because the disturbances they create are cumulative.”

No friend to the watchmaker

The Hamburg professor’s remarks were made in sympathy with the craftsmen who were increasingly having to repair and maintain a “very particular breed of watch that is as difficult to handle on the workbench as it is to write about.” Bruno Hillmann dedicated his 1925 book “Die Armbanduhr – ihr Wesen und ihre Behandlung bei der Reparatur” (“Wristwatches – their nature and how to repair them”) to these same craftsmen.

In the foreword to his slim volume, the watchmaker expressed the fervent hope that the “growing masculinization of the female sex”, which had even seen “the man’s waistcoat gaining favor with the ladies…”, would “ultimately bring redemption from the tyranny of the wristwatch”. It finishes with the rather resigned insight that his optimism may well be premature, because: “The goddess ‘Fashion’ is as capricious as any other deity, and fashion designers are too good at business. Only too soon will we discover that the woman’s desire to be more and more like the man can only be satisfied at the cost of important toiletry industries, threatening not only large capital losses, but also a loss of livelihood for thousands of people who earn their daily bread in this sector. To prevent this and protect these people, we need to ‘leave the manly to the men’; thankfully we have finally rediscovered that a woman’s most beautiful adornment is her womanhood! Recognizing this, we can now once again get used to the idea that the woman’s/man’s watch may last a while longer, that ultimately it will fall by the wayside and that the woman’s wristwatch will continue to command the field for a long time to come.”

Oysters for Amazons

Hillmann was not wrong, though his judgment may have been less aggressive if he had written it just two years later. In November 1927 the wristwatch had a spectacular baptism on the arm of Mercedes Gleitze. On the 7th of that month at exactly 2.55 a.m., the London stenographer entered the cold sea at Cap Griz-Nez in northern France in order to swim across the English Channel. A tortuous 15 hours and 15 minutes later, the exhausted Amazon arrived on British shores at 6.10 p.m. Doubt was cast on her record, so two weeks later, in even colder water, she tried again. This “vindication attempt” failed a couple of kilometers short of the finish, but Mercedes Gleitze attracted great sympathy. In contrast to the utterly spent swimmer, the watch she had been wearing was still ticking along as though nothing had happened.

Rolex Gleitze

A few weeks later, on November 24, 1927, the London Daily Mail carried this headline: “The Wonder Watch that Defies the Elements.” It was part of a full front-page advertisement taken out by Hans Wilsdorf. Born in Bavaria in 1881, Wilsdorf set up his own business in London in 1905, registered the Rolex trademark in 1908 and in 1926 presented his “Oyster” to the world as the first enduringly waterproof watch – designed mainly for women. It cost the then enormous sum of 1,600 pounds sterling to advertise this innovation to more than two million Mail readers. In retrospect, it was worth every penny. The creative entrepreneur said the following: “When Rolex launched the Rolex Oyster, the world’s first waterproof watch, created on my initiative, the Rolex name was finally established; we were then in a position to announce that in future not one of our watches would ever again leave our works without our name on the dial, inside the case and on the movement.”

In 1931, Evelyn Laye, a popular English actress, was seen theatrically dipping her Oyster in a goldfish bowl. These and many other stunts put on by the crafty marketeer, who in 1920 relocated his operations to set up Montres Rolex SA in Geneva, gradually turned the wristwatch into a must-have fashion item, even for men.

Rolex Newspaper
Rolex Evelyn Laye

Look back without anger

It’s probably time to look back at the surprisingly long history of the wristwatch. Strictly speaking, it starts in 1571 with Queen Elizabeth I of England. To mark the restitution of the Reformation, the Earl of Leicester presented his queen with a watch that could be worn on the wrist. We have no records – from chroniclers or court painters – of what it might have looked like. The same goes for the 18th century pendant watches that pragmatic mothers and nursemaids would fix to their lower arm to protect them from children’s grasping hands.

The documented and provable history of the first genuine wristwatch reads almost like a fairy tale. One of the cast of characters was First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, who at the start of the 19th century took a coach, along with his entourage, to the Théâtre Français in Paris. During the journey, the horses bolted and the carriage crashed just in front of a jeweler’s shop in the Rue Saint Honoré. Startled by the noise, Etienne Nitot and his workers rushed to help the bewildered party, who accepted the offer of a drink in Nitot’s studio as they waited for the carriage to be repaired. Just before continuing on his journey, Bonaparte whispered to his selfless host that his kindness would not be forgotten.

Nitot remembered the pledge when he heard about the coronation ceremony that would take place on December 2, 1804 in Notre Dame cathedral. Hoping to be commissioned to craft the crown jewels, he and the experienced gemstone merchant Salomon Halphen went to the Tuileries Palace. Uncertain at first about the suburban jeweler’s competence, the Emperor-to-be finally agreed. The pair confessed that they lacked the funds to buy the necessary materials, and their courageous honesty was rewarded with a loan of 2.5 million francs. The final bill for the crown jewels was 15 million francs, but Napoleon’s high expectations were wholly satisfied.

Nitot wristwatch calender

Marie-Etienne Nitot was made official court jeweler and so became the logical choice two years later when the luxury-obsessed Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais wanted an appropriate wedding gift for Princess Augusta of Bavaria. Initially against their will, the eldest daughter of King Maximilian I married Eugène de Beauharnais, the adoptive son of the French Emperor, on January 14, 1806 in Munich. Once again Nitot, founder of prestigious jewelry firm Chaumet, came up with the goods, creating a very special pair of decorative bracelets. One included a manually adjustable calendar that displayed the date and day of the week. The other contained a little watch movement that needed winding every day.

On the road to global success

Between 1831 and 1838 the successors of ingenious watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet made watches to be worn on the wrist for several of their wealthy clients. According to the firm’s meticulous archives, the watches housed small movements of around 18 millimeters in diameter. In 1868, prestigious Geneva manufacturer Patek Philippe & Co. created a fine gold bracelet with a baguette-shaped movement. It took five years before this exquisite piece was actually sold. Reading the time required an ostentatious gesture, as the proud wearer first had to lift a large diamond to see the dial and hands.

Patek Philippe

Twenty years later, trade journals were reporting that American tourists in Lucerne were going crazy for gold and silver watches with wrist straps. And in 1913 a major fashion magazine asked its readers to name their favorite piece of jewelry. It was no longer such a surprise that 70 percent of the women who answered chose the wristwatch.

The reason was quite clear: as women followed the latest fashions, changing their wardrobe to remain on trend, watches that hung on chains or that were worn on brooches caused problems. Sometimes they matched, sometimes not. And, what is more, it was regarded as indecorous to pull out one’s watch during a rendezvous. As the Belgian philosopher Phil Bosmans says: “If you have time for someone you do not check your watch!”

Despite all the misgivings, enterprising jewelry shops and their customers continued to demand ever more sophisticated watches. Manufacturers listened and responded by producing practical but delicate creations … and they were very successful. In 1924 Leopold Reverchon wrote the following in “The Watchmaker”: “Today we can say that they (wristwatches) have conquered the world: they’re worn by everyone from workers to fine ladies.” The aforementioned Hans Wilsdorf had already proved in 1910 that feminine models could be just as accurate as the much larger gentlemen’s pocket watches: following two weeks of trials, the testing office in Bienne confirmed that a small wristwatch with an 11-ligne movement (diameter of approximately 24 millimeters) was of genuine chronometer quality. Similar successes followed soon after, though with less fanfare.

His watch for me

Perhaps because they were less interested in transient fashions, men may have had less to do with the rise of the wristwatch, but they still had a part to play:

  • In 1879, the Imperial German Navy commissioned Girard-Perregaux to make wristwatches for its officers
  • British soldiers wore Omega wristwatches during the Boer War from 1899 to 1902
  • Louis Cartier, a gifted designer, launched the “Santos”, the first man’s wristwatch, in 1904 for his friend Alberto Santos Dumont. In 1917, he created the rectangular “Tank”, inspired by British military vehicles, for General Pershing and other high-ranking officers of the Allied forces.
Cartier Santos

From the 1940s, by which time most men had embraced the wristwatch, the female pioneers had a harder time of it. Equality was not on the industry’s agenda. Ladies were sold smaller versions of men’s watches, or delicate models with a lot of bling. Product designers thought this approach would appeal more to women. After all, diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

Refusing to be patronized, women went on the offensive under the banner “His watch for me!” And then in 1999, IWC shot right back with full-page ads: “They smoke our cohibas. They drive our Harleys. And drink our Lagavulin. Leave us our IWC at least!” The provocative approach bore fruit. Without these ads, many women may have missed the fact that men’s watches were indeed worth considering. Seen from this perspective, now is a golden age for watch-loving women. Unlike men, who may well find it hard to wear a woman’s watch, women have the entire market to choose from. They just have to trust their instincts.

Gisbert L. Brunner

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