The Military Origins of the Wristwatch — A Brief History

The Military Origins of the Wristwatch — A Brief History

| 03.20.23

Did you know that the wristwatch — or, rather, the man’s wristwatch, as you’ll come to understand in a moment — is barely more than a century old? And that its origins lie in the military?

That’s right. The ladies’ ‘wristlet’ — small, wrist-worn pendant watches — was adopted well before the men’s wristwatch. A "gentleman," you see (whatever the heck that means), carried a pocket watch in his waistcoat pocket, attached by a "fob," or chain. Wristwatches were deemed appropriate only for women.

Seth Thomas Steel Pocket Watch 

(There is a story — that very well be apocryphal — regarding the first men’s wristwatch: 

In the late 19th century, the German Kaiser Wilhelm I was supposedly somewhat ahead of the curve: He is said to have placed an order in 1879 directly with Constant Girard of Girard Perregaux for 2,000 wristwatches for his naval officers. These watches were actually produced in 14K gold — the better to fend off rust. However, no pictorial or physical evidence of any of these watches exist, and it may be that this is merely a tale, one that has origins with Constant Girard’s son.)

In any case, the common gentleman continued to use a pocket watch, right up through the beginning of World War I. At this point, circa 1914, soldiers found themselves in somewhat of a predicament: It’s awfully difficult to time artillery barrages, coordinate infantry charges, receive and place telephone calls and signals, etc, and operate your weapon simultaneously if you need one hand free to hold your pocket watch. 

Elgin Trench Watch

Certain individual soldiers — followed by watch companies and jewelers themselves — began soldiering on wire lugs to their pocket watch cases, attaching them to leather straps, and wearing them on their wrists. Eventually, dedicated wristwatch cases were developed using smaller watch movements. Many of these were given radium-painted dials for visibility and wire grilles to protect them from shrapnel, and these ‘trench watches’ are the earliest, mass-produced men’s wristwatches. The grilles, in turn, gave way to ‘unbreakable’ glass. 

In 1910, The New York Times referred to wristwatches as a "silly ass fad." By 1916, they had changed their tune, remarking upon the "changed status of the wrist watch" as it began to take hold in the public consciousness. As men began to return from the Great War wearing ‘strap watches’ on their wrists, these horological innovations came more and more into vogue — until, eventually, the pocket watch largely went the way of the dodo.

Of course, the innovations didn’t stop with the end of World War I.

The pilot’s watch, the field watch, the dive watch — each of these developments that we take for granted now have their origins in the military. Like so much of men’s fashion (think of the t-shirt, the duffel coat, the jump boot, the field jacket, etc, etc, etc), watches have largely developed out of military necessity.

Elgin Aviator's Watch

Take the pilot’s watch, for example: While early wrist-worn timepieces for aviators were of the diminutive, rather dressy persuasion — think of the Cartier Santos, for example — it became evident during World War II that pilots and navigators required oversized pieces that were highly legible and could be easily read in the cockpit. Hence the ‘flieger’ design that is so prevalent, even today.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Milspec 1 - In The Shop

And the dive watch? Though Rolex patented its Oyster case way back in 1926, it wasn’t until the advent of early SCUBA-like systems in the early 1940s — of both the open- and closed-circuit variety —  that the need for a highly water-resistant, super legible aquatic watch came into play. Panerai developed these for the Italian Navy’s “Decima MAS” special operations units during the War, while in the early 1950s, ex-S.O.E. operative Bob Maloubier helped develop the Fifty Fathoms with Blancpain.

Ironically, it’s only in the past 30 years or so that the most popular military watch — the humble and affordable G-SHOCK — made its way to soldier’s wrists from civilian’s wrists, and not the other way around.