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A Look Back: Military Demand Spurred The Emergence Of The Swiss Wristwatch

Last week, we traced the early rise of Switzerland as the premiere country for watchmaking. Today, we take a closer look at how Switzerland's watchmaking expertise transitioned from clocks and pocket watches to wristwatches – as the 19th century turned to the 20th century.

Boer War military watch

Boer War military watch via oobject.com

It was predominantly during the Anglo-Boer Wars that the British military recognized the value of having a watch on the wrist instead of in the vest pocket. There was no need to stop, put down weapons, pull out a watch and synchronize time. Thus, military officers began wearing watches on the wrist.

As the concept of wristwatches began taking hold, many discussions ensued among watchmakers about where to put the crown, as no one knew on which wrist people would prefer to wear their watches. Audemars Piguet decided that since most people were right handed, the left wrist would be most likely. That precedent has been in place for more than a century – except for in certain watches made for left-handed individuals. Those have the crown on the opposite side.


Alberto Santos-Dumont

The first real large-scale production of wristwatches did not happen until the first decade of the 20th century. In 1904, Cartier produced a wristwatch for Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont so he could see time quickly while flying his dirigibles around Paris. That watch – the Santos – was later the first wristwatch to be put into serial production. From there, Swiss wristwatch inventions surged.

In 1908, Eterna won a patent for the first wristwatch with alarm mechanism. The year 1909 saw the first chronograph wristwatch. During World War I, governments globally saw the usefulness of wristwatches, and Swiss brands complied with rugged pieces, chronographs, and watches with luminous materials for easy night reading. Open-worked grids that covered the crystal but allowed for viewing of the dial protected most of those watches.

In the 1920s, wristwatches became mainstream. The Swiss offered creative designs in women’s watches during the heady days of the Roaring Twenties, with many watches adorned with marcasites, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies. Additionally, highly geometric designs emerged, with many women's watches in square and rectangular formats.

Technological advancements also reigned. Rolex, for instance, made headlines in 1927 when Mercedes Glietze swam the English Channel wearing a Rolex Oyster. After more than 10 hours under trying conditions, the first truly water resistant watch maintained perfect time without condensation or penetration of water.

World War II saw new wristwatch innovations from the Swiss. Breitling introduced slide rule bezels for pilot calculations, and in 1938 IWC unveiled its antimagnetic pilots’ watch, the Mark X. In 1945, wristwatch chronometers took hold, and the Swiss Observatories held international chronometer trials. In 1948, Eterna introduced the first ball-bearing mounted rotor in a self-winding watch, a standard still used today in automatic wristwatches.

The next era to emerge was the rugged watches that competed for a spot in space exploration. While American-made watch brands, such as Hamilton, vied for a space, it was Omega that became the official watch for NASA. In 1969, the first man to walk on the moon was wearing an Omega Speedmaster wristwatch.

The early 1970s saw the introduction of quartz watches out of Japan. This development nearly destroyed Switzerland’s watch industry, which had not embraced quartz technology in its infancy – falsely believing that no one would opt for battery powered watches over mechanics – but the quartz story is one for another time.