Oh, how times have changed!
When wristwatches — or “wristlets” as they were then known — came into vogue in the second half of the 19th century, they were delicate, bejeweled and wildly inaccurate status symbols for well-to-do women who rarely needed to know the time. The only masculine choice was a pocket watch.
Beginning around 1920, however, soldiers returning from World War I popularized the style of wearing a watch strapped to a wrist. Many had learned its utility in a trench, where using a pocket watch was both clumsy and dangerous.
“Wearing a wristwatch became a sign of manliness that other men began to emulate over time,” said Aja Raden, the author of “Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World.” “To the point that everyone forgot they started with women.”
In her 2015 book, Ms. Raden maintains that the story of the first wristwatch — a gold bangle bracelet centered on a functioning clock that Patek Philippe made for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1868 — is the story of modernity.
A woman’s desire for “a strange, expensive bracelet,” Ms. Raden said, led to the trench watch, which, in turn, spawned the entire wristwatch category, heralding nothing short of universal, synchronized time. (It also generated the never-ending debate about who actually made the first men’s version: Girard-Perregaux in 1880 for the German Imperial Navy or Cartier in 1904 for the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.)
“When everyone had a wristwatch and they were affordable and you didn’t need an institution, like the church or factory, to tell you what you were doing, the world changed enormously,” Ms. Raden said.
To understand how those changes affected the way we value and understand timekeeping, we asked more than a dozen experts to identify the milestones and developments of the past 100 years of wristwatch history.
Their views diverged based on their personal interests, from precision to pop culture, but all agreed on one essential point: “You look at some watches and you don’t really care what time it is,” said Nicholas Manousos, executive director of the Horological Society of New York. “You’re looking at a beautiful piece of mechanical art.”
1926: The Birth of the Sport Watch
Today, wristwatches are very loosely categorized based on one question: dressy or sporty? At the start of the 20th century, however, that distinction didn’t exist. Most timepieces were pocket watches — dress styles, by definition.
That changed in 1926 with the debut of the Rolex Oyster, the world’s first water-resistant watch, which the company founder Hans Wilsdorf promoted the following year in a marketing stunt starring the English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze.
“There is arguably no more important innovation,” said Stephen Pulvirent, managing editor of the online watch platform Hodinkee. “It made watches everyday objects.”
By employing a screwed-down crown, Rolex created what it described in ads at the time as a hermetically sealed case that could withstand “changes of climate, dust, water, damp, heat, moisture, cold, sand or grease.”
In 1931, the Geneva-based company followed up on the Oyster case with the Perpetual movement, the world’s first self-winding mechanism with a rotor that spun 360 degrees. The combination of the automatic movement and water-resistant housing has served as a blueprint for virtually every sport model introduced since then.
It took until the dawn of the postwar leisure lifestyle, however, for the sport watch to find its footing. Before that, “the upper class didn’t play sports, because it would mean getting tanned — to be pale was elegant,” said Aurel Bacs, the celebrated auctioneer whose Bacs and Russo consultancy runs the watch department at Phillips. “Then, people realized that the ultimate recreational activity after the war became sport, and you needed a watch that would be sporty and upper class.”
No model epitomizes that combination better than the 1972 Royal Oak by Audemars Piguet, the first luxury watch to be encased in steel. Although it was initially mocked, the watch — and its much-copied integrated bracelet — has become part of the segment’s foundation, as has its creator, the Swiss designer Gerald C. Genta. (Mr. Genta’s equally sporty follow-up to the Royal Oak, the 1976 Patek Philippe Nautilus, is, arguably, the world’s most coveted watch model today, with waiting lists for some versions said to be as long as eight years.)
“It’s hard to overstate the impact of Genta’s design language on contemporary watches,” Mr. Pulvirent said. “Talk to any retailer about what sells: stainless steel watches between 42 and 44 millimeters, on a bracelet, with a chronograph and a date window. People want medium to large sport watches that are easier to read and they can wear with everything.
1950s: Tool Watches Go Mainstream
Once the sport watch category was established, a few makers, again led by Rolex, began to produce more robust models to aid in rugged outdoor activities like aviation, deep-sea diving, mountain climbing and scientific exploration. Broadly described as tool watches (a modern term of apocryphal origin), they included features such as chronographs, rotating bezels to allow the wearer to read elapsed time and luminescence to increase nighttime legibility.
“The rotating bezel was pivotal,” said Paul Boutros, head of watches for Phillips in the Americas.
Early examples showcasing the game-changing element were the 1953 Rolex Submariner, the first dive watch waterproof to 100 meters (330 feet) and the 1955 Rolex GMT-Master, one of the first watches with the ability to display the time in any two time zones, aimed at an emerging customer demographic: jet-setting business travelers.
Over the decades, the tool watch category gradually came to dominate the wider sport segment by appealing to buyers’ aspirational impulses. A testament to the enduring fascination for wristwatches geared to professionals is the number of midcentury models still in production, including the 1952 Breitling Navitimer, a navigational timer for pilots; the 1953 Rolex Explorer, inspired by Sir Edmund Hillary’s and Tenzing Norgay’s historic ascent of Mt. Everest; the 1953 Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, a dive watch developed for an elite squad of French underwater commandos; the 1955 IWC Ingénieur, designed explicitly for engineers; and the 1957 Omega Speedmaster, a chronograph that many consider to be the ultimate tool watch because, in 1969, it accompanied the astronaut Buzz Aldrin to the moon.
But does a tool watch still serve a purpose in the digital era, when even personal devices have access to a broad array of information and applications.
“Hillary was using his watch to time how much oxygen he had in his tank so he wouldn’t die,” said Geoffrey Hess, international watch specialist at Phillips and organizer of the annual Rolliefest gathering of Rolex collectors. “No climber would need that today, but he’d still buy it. You buy it for the history.”
1957: Battery-Powered Watches Electrify the Market
On Jan. 3, 1957, the American watchmaker Hamilton welcomed journalists to the Savoy-Plaza Hotel in New York City to announce the Electric 500, the world’s first battery-powered watch. It was the opening salvo in a war that would ultimately reshape the watchmaking industry.
In the 1989 book “The Watch of the Future: The Story of The Hamilton Electric Watch,” the watchmaker René Rondeau recounted the company’s quest for precision in an era of jet-age optimism. But the Hamilton Electric’s prominence was short-lived. In 1960, the watchmaker’s main American rival, Bulova, introduced the Accutron, the first watch to employ a tuning fork as its regulating organ, replacing what in mechanical timepieces is known as the balance wheel or pendulum.
“It was a space race,” Mr. Manousos said. “We could see the trend was going toward wristwatches that used electricity. It wasn’t just a marketing gimmick; it was a real effort to make the wristwatch more precise.”
In 1969, the Japanese watchmaker Seiko settled the debate with the debut of the Astron, the first quartz-powered watch. Not only did the new technology out perform Hamilton’s and Bulova’s achievements, but it also set the stage for a crisis that put nearly 60,000 Swiss watchmakers out of business.
“Overnight, the perception of a mechanical wristwatch was that it was fragile, not particularly precise, very expensive and very complicated to repair,” Mr. Manousos said. “Everyone rushed to quartz technology.”
The advent of cheap, accurate, Japanese-made quartz wristwatches augured a dark decade for the Swiss — not to mention the Americans, whose watchmaking industry was already on shaky ground following World War II. In 1969, Hamilton manufactured its last watch in Lancaster, Pa., marking the last time any company made a watch from start to finish in the United States, Mr. Manousos said.
1974: George Daniels and the Independent Watchmaker
At the height of the quartz crisis, the British watchmaker George Daniels introduced a mechanism called the coaxial escapement, which helped improve timekeeping performance by eliminating the need for oil. Hailed as the first major technical advancement in escapement technology in 250 years, the invention was acquired by Omega’s parent company, the Swatch Group, in 1993, and used for the first time in 1999. It now is central to the brand’s vast range of chronometers.
The coaxial escapement, however, is not why Mr. Daniels appears on this list.
“Before Daniels, the wristwatch was a utilitarian thing — maybe you had a nice one in a fancy gold case, but there weren’t a lot of collectors,” Mr. Manousos said. “What he did was prove that the mechanical watch can be considered an art form.”
In 1985, the watchmakers Svend Andersen and Vincent Calabrese no doubt had Mr. Daniels’ pioneering work in mind when they founded the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants, a nonprofit organization based in Zurich, Switzerland, and dedicated to perpetuating the art of independent watch- and clockmaking.
The community they nurtured has grown to include some of the greatest names in contemporary watchmaking, including Franck Muller, François-Paul Journe, Vianney Halter, Philippe Dufour, Felix Baumgartner and Maximilian Büsser.
“These watchmakers have shown that you don’t have to have a workshop with 500 workers to make watches or make a living,” Mr. Bacs said. “The academy made it clear to every graduate: If you are alone and you have talent, you can do it.”
Since the late 1990s, the success of the academy’s vision has remade the industry, allowing independent, personality-driven brands — such as Akrivia, founded in 2012 by the latest horological wunderkind, Rexhep Rexhepi — to compete with those owned by deep-pocket luxury groups.
“This group of watchmakers learned something from the art world,” Mr. Pulvirent said. “You don’t need millions of customers. You need 20 people who buy everything.”
1983: Swatch and the Mechanical Watch Comeback
The 1980s get a bad rap in the Swiss watch industry. “They’re really the Middle Ages for us,” said Mr. Büsser, founder of the Geneva-based independent brand MB&F. “It was the era of darkness because nobody had any idea of what to do.”
Well, almost nobody. In 1983, Nicolas G. Hayek, a Swiss businessman born in Lebanon, orchestrated the merger of two financially troubled Swiss watch conglomerates to form SMH (Societé Suisse de Microélectronique et d’Horlogerie), known as the Swatch Group. By consolidating a number of parts suppliers and movement makers, Mr. Hayek ensured not only their survival, but also the survival of the mechanical know-how in which they specialized.
“If they were left to fend for themselves, so many would have died,” Mr. Boutros said.
That same year, Mr. Hayek famously presided over the debut of the Swatch Watch, a plastic Swiss-made quartz timepiece available in a range of styles and colors, designed to beat the Japanese at their own game.
“With a cheap quartz watch that cost 50 or 60 francs at the time, they were able to save the whole Swiss watchmaking industry,” said Pascal Ravessoud, director of external affairs and watchmaking expert at the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva.
For all of Mr. Hayek’s success in industrializing the Swiss industry — creating economies of scale, centralizing production and introducing large-scale automation — his true legacy may be the impact Swatch had on the nascent category of wristwatch collecting.
“When I see F.P. Journe collectors buy one watch in every color, for fun I ask them, ‘Were you a Swatch collector?’” said John Reardon, a Patek Philippe expert who owns the resale site Collectability. “The answer is always ‘yes.’”
Mid-1980s: The Emergence of Computer-Aided Design
The gradual introduction of computer-aided design, or CAD, into the watch industry, beginning around 1985, is often seen as a demarcation between vintage and modern timepieces.
“It revolutionized the whole process because all of a sudden you could modify a design very quickly rather than having someone redo a 2-D drawing,” Oliver R. Müller, founder of LuxeConsult in Aubonne, Switzerland, wrote in an email. “It allowed for shorter times to market and for more frequent and more numerous novelties.”
The Swatch Group, under Mr. Hayek’s leadership, is often cited as the driving force behind the industry’s leap from a cottage trade to an industrial powerhouse. But the high end was embracing technology, too. Patek Philippe used a combination of hand techniques, CAD and CNC (computer numerical control) machinery to develop its Calibre 89, a pocket watch often cited as the poster child of the mechanical watchmaking renaissance taking root in the late 1980s.
Some argue that what the industry gained in productivity and output as a result of CAD, it lost in that ineffable quality often described as soul.
“Watches conceived before 1985 don’t look the same,” Mr. Ravessoud said.
Perhaps not. But to an industry hungry to recapture its former glory, the promise of faster, cheaper supply was impossible to resist.
“In the past, it was a human drawing the design, and the watchmaker would make it work,” Mr. Reardon said. “Now it begins with the movement, and the design follows. It’s not about beauty, it’s about making a watch to sell.”
1986: The Complications Arms Race
For all of its innovations, the 20th century is sometimes viewed by horologists as bereft of anything truly new in the way of complications, the term for any function on a watch that does more than indicate the time.
“Nobody gave a damn about creating beautiful watchmaking; it was all about creating the cheapest, most reliable tool to give time,” Mr. Büsser said.
Complicated wristwatches — including Patek Philippe’s now-grail-like Ref. 1518, the world’s first serially produced perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatch (made from 1941 to 1954) — represented a sliver of the marketplace until 1986, when Audemars Piguet made 382 examples of its Ref. 25643BA, the first serially produced wristwatch featuring a tourbillon. French for “whirlwind,” the tourbillon is a rotational device patented by the French watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1801 to counteract the effects of gravity on the gears of a mechanical watch. It has since become a mark — some might argue cliché — of the horological elite.
“You can do a tourbillon?” Mr. Bacs said. “‘We can do a tourbillon with a perpetual calendar.’ ‘We can do four balance wheels (thank you, Roger Dubuis).’ ‘We can do an ‘inclined tourbillon,’ ‘a multiaxis tourbillon’ and on and on.”
The tourbillon may be the showiest of watchmaking complications, but it’s just one of six — including the moonphase calendar, perpetual calendar, split-second chronograph, minute repeater and ultraslim model — now recognized as the building blocks of high horology.
“The 21st century has seemingly been about all complications,” Mr. Reardon said. “We’re all in the recycling bin of the brilliance of the past. Mechanically, almost everything has been done before.”
1989: Collecting Culture Surges
Throughout the 20th century, horology collectors focused on pocket watches and clocks. The Art of Patek Philippe sale in April 1989, by the auctioneer Antiquorum, was the turning point for wristwatches.
Conceived by the Antiquorum co-founder Osvaldo Patrizzi and held in cooperation with the Stern family, which has owned Patek Philippe since 1932, the thematic sale coincided with the watch company’s 150th anniversary. In advance of the auction, the chief attraction, the Calibre 89 commemorative pocket watch, went on a global tour, including a stop in New York, where Tiffany & Co. hosted an event with great fanfare.
“I remember seeing ads saying ‘Calibre 89 is coming,’” Mr. Boutros said. “It got so much press. The year prior, Rolex introduced its first self-winding chronograph, the new Daytona, and those two milestones, the 1988 Daytona and the Calibre 89 sale, really helped fuel the growth of wristwatch collecting.”
By all accounts, the sale had an almost immediate impact on the watchmaker’s bottom line.
Before the auction, “Patek Philippe produced only 9,000 watches per year,” Arnaud Tellier, director of the Asia-Pacific region for Antiquorum and a former curator of the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva, wrote in an email. “In the wake of the auction, the manufacture increased its production to 14,000 watches per year and continued to expand its output.”
In step with these high-profile developments, watchmakers were beginning to incorporate subtle design changes to emphasize elements that might be of interest to collectors, such as transparent casebacks offering glimpses of the gears and bridges of a mechanical movement, as in Patek Philippe Ref. 3941, a perpetual calendar introduced in 1985.
“To me, that marks the moment where the whole modern watch economy is born, or galvanized,” Mr. Pulvirent said. “Any watch lover who has ever shown a nonwatch lover the back of a Patek or Audemars Piguet will know. People are blown away.”
2010s: China and the Vintage Revival
The renaissance in independent watchmaking that began with Mr. Daniels reached its zenith around the early 2000s, when daring makers such as Richard Mille and Ulysse Nardin began creating bold, experimental timepieces that challenged conventional watchmaking wisdom.
These were the boom years in mechanical watchmaking, and scores of big and small brands eager for a piece of the action followed suit, designing flamboyant models for status-seeking buyers.
Then came the 2008 financial crisis.
“All of a sudden, the music stopped and nobody knows what to do with all these watches,” said William Rohr, former managing director of the online watch forum TimeZone and founder of Massena LAB, which designs and develops timepieces with a broad range of watchmakers. “But the Chinese started buying like crazy.”
The torrent of traditional round watches that began to stream out of Swiss factories around 2010 reflected both Chinese demand for timepieces with clearly defined historical bearings and a renewed interest in heritage designs among a new generation of American and European buyers looking for understated, enduring classics.
Around the same time, interest in historic yet affordable vintage timepieces signaled the emergence of a parallel market of pre-owned timepieces.
“You have a new generation of buyers propelled by bloggers, who are discussing and promoting vintage watches because they can afford them and they’re the watches their parents wore,” Mr. Rohr said. “And then you arrive in 2010 when everybody is talking about money and value, and people look at vintage and say, ‘Ten years ago this watch was worthless and now look at what it’s worth.’”
Even though Rolex and Patek Philippe have never explicitly promoted their models as investments, their advertising subtly makes the point. Just look to Patek Philippe’s seminal Generations campaign, introduced in 1996 and still going: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”
2014: Apple and Wrist Wear for the 21st Century
When Apple introduced its first smartwatch in 2014, there was no shortage of news articles questioning the future of mechanical watchmaking. And in 2019, when the Apple Watch outsold the entire Swiss watch industry in units, pundits issued more dire predictions.
What many failed to recognize is that 2019 also marked the Swiss industry’s high point: Exports rose 2.4 percent over the preceding year, to reach a record $22.2 billion (2020 is, of course, another story).
Although the Apple Watch competes with mechanical watches for wrist space, many people in the industry say the two are compatible.
“Apple is educating the broader populace about watch fundamentals, and that’s a great thing for the mechanical watch industry,” Mr. Pulvirent said.
Die-hard analog lovers also point out that, unlike smartwatches, mechanical timepieces can run in perpetuity.
“Mechanical watches are eternal, whereas the Apple Watch — I got one for my birthday 10 days ago, my fourth — will become obsolete,” Jean-Claude Biver, a longtime industry executive and most recently chief executive of TAG Heuer, said in late September. “But a Royal Oak or Submariner still works and has value. Obsolescence cannot compete with eternity. Who competes with eternity? God, maybe.”