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  • Writer's pictureValerieBound

Today’s watches owe their thanks to a Countess!

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

Today, watches and jewelry are often grouped together, sold together at department store counters and combined in lots at auctions. Beautiful timepieces and beautiful gemstones have a lot in common - attention to detail and superb craftsmanship. But it wasn't always that way.

Watches have a unique history, their connection to wartime and how we came to wear them on our wrists. You may think wristwatches are a thing of the past, because now you have your phone. But don't forget that Apple continues to make their watch, and lots of luxury retailers are churning out timepiece like never before. So I don’t think the watch is going away just yet. Time will tell, I guess.

Pocket watches

Before wristwatches, there were pocket watches. Men had pocket watches that they treated with great care.

Assortment of antique pocket watches
Assortment of antique pocket watches

The reason men kept watches in their pocket was because they actually depended on them to tell time, and watches back then were rather fragile. Heat, cold, moisture, and dust could all mess with the gears and springs and make them less accurate, so men fished them out of their pocket only when necessary. The heyday for American pocket watches was the from the 1860's to the early 1900's. There's still an active collector markets for them.

Before Pocket Watches

Prior to pocket watches, the timepieces in the 1500’s and 1600's were typically egg-shaped, mounted on a ribbon or chain, and worn around the neck. They were poorly designed, lost several hours in a day, and didn’t have any glass protecting the face.

Antique timepiece c. 1530
Antique timepiece c. 1530

Charles II of England changed all this when he introduced the waistcoat for men in 1675. This wardrobe change was critical since it had pockets that were perfectly sized for watches. Watches were soon made flatter, and smooth, so they could slip in and out of the pocket easily. Watches in this time period were only worn by royalty, nobility, wealthy merchants, etc. And the watches themselves were quite beautiful, with engravings, enamels, and small gemstones.

Pocket watches, c. 1600's - 1700's
Pocket watches, c. 1600's - 1700's

The Countess and the wristlet

While men (wealthy men) were busy and content with their pocket watches, women were excited about something new called a wristlet. In the mid to late 1800’s, aristocratic women wanted timepieces as well. A woman named Countess Koscowicz of Hungary had the distinction of being the first to commission her own. She went to renowned Swiss watch manufacturer Patek Philippe in 1868, and asked for something luxurious, with gold and jewels, and a tiny, functioning timepiece. She was not disappointed.

The first ever wristwatch, made by Patek in 1868
The first ever wristwatch, made by Patek in 1868

The Countess’ circle of friends went wild about the little bejeweled bracelet, and that was the beginning of a fad. These wristlets become common along women of nobility and royalty, and were frequently decorated with gemstones or enamel. Apparently, they weren’t very functional as actual watches, but that was hardly the point. These women didn’t really need to keep time.

Watches become practical

For both men and women, the watches were really considered a novelty item, something you used to show off to your friends. They remained expensive and out of bounds for most people. They were a decorative item, like jewelry. However, the technology with watches kept getting better and with their improving timekeeping came real practicality. Suddenly, you could use your watch to tell time! With accuracy!

It turns out that this is very important when fighting a war.

Men and their wars

The British fought in Burma and Africa in the late 1800’s and they immediately started strapping a small watch face to their wrist. Fumbling in your pocket for your watch when you’re also trying to shoot your gun is not a situation you want to be in! These watches were called “wristlets,” just like women’s watches at the time.

An early ad for a men’s wristlet
An early ad for a men’s wristlet

Returning war veterans wore their wristlets, but there was still a huge portion of the population who saw this whole exercise as a silly fad. One they hoped would go away, citing “the idiotic fashion of carrying one’s clock on the most restless part of the body.”

And so it was that women were the main wearers of wristwatches for a little while longer…..

Change is hard

World War I was a game changer for wristwatches. For one thing, the watches themselves got better with bigger faces, and numbers that glowed in the dark. It become easy to tell time! Soldiers commonly synchronized their watches before battle, and got used to wearing them constantly. Precise timing for missions and attacks was imperative, and men saw the real value in knowing the time, and being able to tell what time it was with a quick glance.

pocket watch converted to wristwatch, ad for military watch from 1918
A pocket watch converted to a wristwatch (L) and an ad for a military watch from 1918 (R)

This time, when the soldiers came home wearing their watches, it was different. It was cool, and masculine.

World War I ended in November 1918. In 1920, wristwatches made up 15% of all watches sold in America. But by 1935, that number jumped to 85%. If you were a manly man, a guy’s guy, you owned a watch. It was the same across the sea. In England, by 1930, more wristwatches than pocket watches were sold.

Cartier’s Tank Watch

In 2017, Cartier celebrated 100 years of its iconic Tank Watch. Designed in 1917, it came on the market in 1919, just as World War I had ended. Cartier was inspired by the military tank, which he saw as a symbol of safety and power. He was also inspired by the cubist art movement.

Selection of Cartier’s tank watches
Selection of Cartier’s tank watches

This famous and recognizable watch became incredibly popular with the public. And it become a status symbol for the rich and famous, as well. These are just some of the people I found who have owned their very own Cartier Tank Watch: Princess Diana, Jackie O, Michelle Obama, Angelina Jolie, Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, Rex Harrison, Clark Gable, Rudolph Valentino, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, William Randolph Hearst, and Tom Ford.

Jackie O’s Tank Watch sold at auction last year for $379,500. It was engraved on the back with a note from her brother-in-law, who had given it to her.

Did you know you can still buy your own tank watch from Cartier? It will only set you back about $3000.....

Watches Today

It turns out watch sales have been increasing every year since 2009. Perhaps this trend is on the way back in. All because a Hungarian countess wanted to impress her friends. What do you think?

This post has been edited and updated since it was originally published on June 21, 2018.


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