From the trenches of WWI – The Birth of The Wristwatch

Time is a simple concept that is comprised of small instances in everyday life, however, it was not always easy to keep track of. Starting from pop up clock watches found in moving caravans, and stationary clocks found in various religious structures, the watch evolved would eventually evolve to pocket timepieces for citizens to keep track of time while strutting their social status.

The digression of the gentleman’s pocket watch into the trendy, fashionable, and luxurious wristwatch begins in the trenches of World War I. This pinnacle epoch began the evolution of technology in warfare gadgets such as the clunky, and awkward protocols of the first armored tank, poison and gas, machine guns, and war planes that scouted enemies positions, and dropped weaponry from the sky. Although many historians emphasize the newfangled toys that would change the battlefield forever, many forget about the tiny clock that was strapped to a soldier’s wrist in order to coordinate attacks and find flaws in the enemies defense. To soldiers found on the battlefield, keep track and telling time was more than a fashion statement, it was a matter of survival and strategy.

During WWI, large armies dug into unprecedented distances and barriers which encompassed much of the infantry to go underground into elongated trenches. Due to this specific type of warfare, it was no longer possible to simply holler or sound a horn as a way to signal an attack or retreat. This made it necessary to coordinate time and to tell it accurately and the term synchronize watches was birthed. Military officials waited and watched for second and minute hands to tick down before blowing the whistle and rallying of their men.

Many companies began their journey into developing a line of small timepieces that attached themselves to bracelets. In 1902, Omega began advertisement for the wristwatch by depicting a British artillery officer that described it as “an indispensable item of military equipment”. The company’s advertisement campaign continued in 1904 with an endorsement by a British commander: “The intensive use during so many months of active service in the cavalry section of the army certainly is a hard test, especially if you consider heat and frost, rain and sandstorms”.

Other’s such as Cartier began their own work, which has become a perennial staple in the world of horology. Cartier’s iconic Tank watch was created in 1917 and was inspired by the Renault tanks that Louis Cartier (company’s founder) saw on the battlefield while he was on duty as a soldier. The Tank’s design was molded after a bird’s eye view of the tank’s square cockpit, and lateral tracks. With this brilliant and innovative design, Cartier began to rise to prominence where it still remains today.


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Another major company began to create their ascendance in the world of horology, Wilsdorf & David, Ltd., which would eventually be renamed The Rolex Company, Ltd. It established itself as a trusted brand through its awards such as certificates of “chronometric precision” from Bienne, Switzerland, and Kew Observatory in London. This specific award was the first distinction given to a bracelet watch.

Wristwatches were known as “wristleys” until the 1920s and were designed specifically for women. Much like pocket watches, they were bracelets designed to show social status through various pieces of precious gemstones, and of course a tiny watch face that was used for decoration more so than pragmatic application. However, this all would change when a branding campaign was created to persuade military men to use these timepieces on their wrists.

Soon after, luxury horology houses Omega, Longines, Cartier, and Rolex began working on developing and designing battle-ready wristwatches and their advertising campaigns changed the image from feminine luxury to soldier’s masculinity. Since then, watches have been worn on wrists, and has combined masculinity with social status and decadence.

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