By John E. Brozek
© InfoQuest Publishing, Inc., 2004
International Watch Magazine, January 2004 Kira Watanabe
Today, a wristwatch is considered as much of a status symbol as a device to tell time. In an age when cell phones and digital pagers display tiny quartz clocks, the mechanical wristwatch has slowly become less of an object of function andmore a piece of modern culture.
Walk into the boardroom of any Fortune 500 company and you’re likely to see dozens of prestigious wristwatches, including such names as Rolex, Vacheron Constantin, Frank Müller, Jaeger-LeCoultre and even Patek Phillipe. However, this was not always the case. Less than 100 years ago, no self-respecting gentleman would be caught dead wearing a wristwatch. In thosedays of yore, real men carried pocket watches, with a gold half-hunter being the preferred status symbol of the time—no pun intended.
Wristlets, as they were called, were reserved for women, and considered more of a passing fad than a serious timepiece. In fact, they were held in such disdain that many a gentlemen were actually quoted to say they “would sooner wear a skirt as wear a wristwatch”.The established watchmaking community looked down on them as well. Because of their size, few believed wristlets could be made to achieve any level of accuracy, nor could they withstand the basic rigors of human activity. Therefore, very few companies produced them in quantity, with the vast majority of those being small ladies’ models, with delicate fixed wire or chain-link bracelets.
This allstarted to change in the nineteenth century, when soldiers discovered their usefulness during wartime situations. Pocket watches were clumsy to carry and thus difficult to operate while in combat. Therefore, soldiers fitted them into primitive “cupped” leather straps so they could be worn on the wrist, thereby freeing up their hands during battle. It is believed that Girard-Perregaux equipped theGerman Imperial Naval with similar pieces as early as the 1880s, which they wore on their wrists while synchronizing naval attacks, and firing artillery.
Decades later, several technological advents were credited with the British victory in the Anglo-Boer War (South Africa 1899-1902), including smokeless gunpowder, the magazine-fed rifle and even the automatic or machine gun. However, some wouldargue that it was a not-so-lethal device that helped turn the tide into Britain’s favor: the wristwatch.
While the British troops were superiorly trained and equipped, they were slightly outnumbered, and at a disadvantage while attacking the Boer’s heavily entrenched positions. Thanks to these recently designed weapons, a new age of war had emerged, which, now more than ever, required tacticalprecision. British officers achieved success by using these makeshift wristwatches to coordinate simultaneous troop movements, and synchronize flanking attacks against the Boer’s formations.
In fact, an “Unsolicited Testimonial” dated June 7, 1900, appeared in the 1901, Goldsmith’s Company Watch and Clock Catalog as follows:
“… I wore it continually in South Africa on my wrist for 3 ½ months. Itkept most excellent time, and never failed me.—Faithfully yours, Capt. North Staffs. Regt.”
This testimonial appeared below an advertisement for a military pocket watch listed as The Company’s “Service” Watch, and was further described as: “The most reliable timekeeper in the World for Gentlemen going on Active Service or for rough wear.”
In 1906, the evolution of wristlets took an even biggerstep with the invention of the expandable flexible bracelet, as well as the introduction of wire loops (or lugs) soldered onto small, open-faced pocket watch cases, allowing leather straps to be more easily attached. This aided their adaptation for military use and thus marked a turning point in the development of wristwatches for men.
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