A Short History of the First Wristwatch

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Nowadays we take wristwatches for granted, and they are part of our everyday reality, but several hundreds of years ago wearing one was inconceivable for most. It is a bit difficult to pinpoint the exact date when the wristwatch was invented, either because there are few documents from the time, or because it was more than one watchmaker experimenting with the idea. Many people wrongfully believe that it was Swiss manufacturer Peter Henlein who invented the first wristwatch in 1505, but the truth is he was just one of the first to create small pocket watches.

A more credible source for the invention of the first wristwatch is given by Patek Phillipe, a brand which is as popular and reputed today as it was back then. The story goes that this Swiss watch manufacturer created a wristwatch for the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1868, and it was the first timekeeping piece to be designed especially for the wrist. However, it was created mostly to be worn as a piece of jewelry, so the bracelet and other decorative elements were much more important than its actual time-keeping.

There are also many who believe this was not the first time a pocket watch would be adapted for the wrist, and that people attached them to ribbons long before Patek’s creation; but there is nothing to document this, so the belief is unfounded. In fact, most people rejected the idea of a wristwatch in the beginning, especially men, who considered them to be and look feminine. Thus, for at least half a century, men continued to wear pocket watches which were larger, and therefore more masculine. But the first wristwatch, in the modern sense of the word, was that of Countess Koscowicz.

Later on, as things progressed, people started seeing the advantages of the wristwatch, but the aristocracy was still undeterred. It was the military who first saw the potential of the wristwatch, and the first mass production of this timepiece occurred in 1880, when Girard-Perregaux was ordered 2000 pieces for the German army. The German naval officers found these inventions to be quite useful, because it allowed them to measure time while operating weapons and building strategies without having their hands occupied. A few decades later, the British army would see the first wristwatch as well, and it was to be worn by soldiers fighting in the Boer war.

It is said by many that the Brits would not have won the Boer war had it not been for wristwatches, because they were gravely outnumbered by their enemies. Yet the time-keeping devices helped them, just like the Germans before them, to synchronize attacks and coordinate troop movements. In 1906, the first wristwatch with an expandable bracelet appeared, but there was still a design flaw in the glass, because it was too thin and broke easily. That is why many watches of the time featured metal guards or grilles on the watch, which were sometimes called shrapnel guards.

Since then, the evolution of the wristwatch has been constant, and improvements are brought to this craft every year. Both women and men enjoy wearing them today, and they have been once more lifted to the status of jewelry.

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