Much more recent than we might think, wristwatches have been produced by firms that were in the forefront of technology and design.
Although wristwatches are essentially a 20th-century innovation, some do exist from the last quarter of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. Most of these, however, are no more than miniature pocket watches that have been converted by the addition of wire lugs to take some sort of strap.
The production of wristwatches really began during World War 1 when it became obvious that soldiers needed a reliable timepiece whose face could be seen at a glance, without any need to fumble in a coat pocket. Makers quickly adapted their products to wartime conditions and soon protective tops, 'unbreakable' glass, luminous numerals and sturdy straps became common features.
WRISTWATCHES BECOME POPULAR
After four years of war, wearing a wristwatch had become a habit for ex-servicemen, and was soon taken up enthusiastically by a younger generation; it was more convenient and less pretentious than the fob watch and suited the less formal dress of post war years.
The leading makers between the wars included such famous names as Patek Philippe, Rolex, Cartier, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet who all produced an astonishing number of case and dial designs. Rolex, moreover, was in the forefront with technological advances.
As early as 1914, the company's ability to create accurate movements was recognized by Kew Observatory which awarded them the first 'class A' certificate for a wristwatch. Rolex went on to produce the first waterproof 'Oyster' watch in 1926 (whose qualities were demonstrated when worn by the typist Mercedes Gleitze during her cross-channel swim in 1927) and in 1930 the first really reliable and durable self winding watch, the Rolex 'Perpetual'.
By 1928 wristwatches were outselling pocket watches. By 1935 over 85 per cent of watches produced were wristwatches and by the 1940s the different types of wristwatch included complicated chronographs (precision stop watches), calendars (which show month, date and day of the week and allow for leap years) and repeaters (which repeat the time on demand with a sounding device).
There were also novelties, such as Ingersoll's Mickey Mouse watch, and even digital watches, with rotating covered dials that allowed the correct numbers to be seen through apertures.
Bold geometric deco wristwatches are perhaps the most stylish. The rectangular Rolex Prince, for instance, is typical, with its distinctive face and white and yellow striped gold case.
Although there were few design innovations in the 1940s and 1950s, when many older models were simply reissued with minor variations, from the 1960s sleek, futuristic styles began to appear, along with ever more 'complicated' watches. With the development of the quartz movement came the age of the cheap, 'throwaway' watch. Nevertheless, quality watches continue to be made - at a price - and continue to interest knowledgeable collectors.
WRISTWATCH COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Wristwatches were not seriously thought of as collectables, apart from their value as jewellery, until the mid-1970s when the first auction devoted exclusively to wristwatches was held.
From then until 1990, prices for rare or classic models rocketed to dizzy heights, with a few examples fetching over £250,000 and even commonplace watches by reputable makers selling for remarkable sums. But while prices have stabilized to more sensible levels, this is still an active and expanding area for enthusiastic collectors.
COLLECTING WATCHES ON A BUDGET
There are now few, if any, bargains to be had in the middle to top end of the wristwatch market. All reputable (and a great many disreputable) dealers know the value of the old and classic models by the big-name manufacturers.
You may, however, be one of the lucky people who have come across or inherited an old wristwatch after the death of a relative. Nearly all watches bought before the 1960s were relatively expensive, so whether or not your find has a famous maker's name on the dial it is worthwhile taking it to a specialist dealer or major auction house for a valuation. Never respond to classified ads offering good prices without first getting a professional appraisal.
When buying an old wristwatch, always go for the best that you can afford. Rolex and most of the other quality manufacturers continue to make luxury watches today which are often bought as an investment or as a very special gift.
But it is far better, if you want to spend a large amount of money on a watch, to consider a classic older model which will cost less than a modern one but will be a piece of history, not only in its elegant design but also in its exquisite craftsmanship. And, like fine jewellery, it is unlikely to lose its value.
While top quality wristwatches are probably beyond the average collector's price range, there are a number of lesser known makers who produced attractive, serviceable and now affordable watches. Stylish watches from the 1940s and 50s with no maker's name on the dial are even cheaper.
FAKES AND COPIES
A word of warning: there are literally thousands of fake wristwatches being sold today, mostly of various kinds of Rolex, Gucci and Cartier models. These are cheap imitations made in the Far East and are often passed off as the real thing by unscrupulous traders.
Bear in mind, too, that many companies have restarted production of their popular models, so legitimate copies of older watches exist.
A chronograph is a watch that records time. An athletics stopwatch is the simplest example.
A chronograph can be started at will, stopped at will and has a second hand or several dials that fly back to zero at the press of a button.
Some record the day, date and month; others, have dials that record seconds, minutes and hours.
Some record speeds or have a very slim split second hand.
Some have a telemetric scale to determine the speed of sound compared with that of light and enables you, for Instance, to measure the distance of a storm after seeing a lightning flash.