Occasionally during the Renaissance, a miniature mechanical watch movement would be attached to a decorative bracelet as a lady's accessory. This idea reemerged during the 19th century, as women's pocket watches were fitted with a bracelet or leather strap so they could be worn on the wrist. Military personnel recognized the practicality of the timepiece, and by 1880, German naval officers were being supplied with Swiss-produced watches. Companies like Cartier, Omega, Movado, Waltham, and Patek Philippe were producing wristwatches for a small but emerging market by 1910. The general popularity of wristwatches, however, grew tremendously during World War I, as soldiers worldwide took advantage of the accessible and efficient timepieces.
Although the wristwatch was initially an ornamental piece of jewelry for women, the wide military use of the timekeeper helped make it an acceptable timepiece for everyone and it quickly grew in popularity. For Instance, in 1920, approximately 25% of the watches exported by Switzerland were wristwatches, while 75% were pocket watches. By 1934, wristwatch exportation had climbed to an unprecedented 65%, while pocket watch exportation had dropped to 35%. These years saw great developments in wristwatch technology. Automatic self-winding and water-resistant models were in production by the late 1920s, and shock-resistant movements were in the works by the late 1930s.
Between 1915 and 1940, watch companies introduced thousands of unique styles for both men and women. Dials and cases were produced in almost every shape imaginable, while watchbands were manufactured in a wide array of materials, colors, and styles. By the mid 20th century, the wristwatch had become the most versatile and reliable personal timepiece available.
In the midst of significant international competition, watch companies consistently researched and experimented with new designs in an effort to increase accuracy. In 1954, the Hamilton Watch Company teamed up with the National Carbon Company to develop a battery. Consequently, Hamilton released the world's first commercial electric watch in 1957. While the battery was a great innovation, the watch still lacked the accuracy that an oscillating quartz crystal could provide. While quartz technology had been harnessed in clocks for nearly thirty years, it was still too large to be incorporated into a wristwatch. The invention of the integrated circuit in 1959, however would eventually make quartz wristwatch technology possible. Within ten years, the integrated circuit was successfully incorporated into watches, making the quartz crystal oscillate and dividing the quartz frequency down to one pulse per second.
The first quartz watch on the market was the Seiko 35 SQ Astron. It was made available on Christmas Day in 1969 and retailed for 450,000 yen, or about $1,250. The Swiss were not far behind. By 1970, a quartz watch movement called Beta 21 was being produced by a consortium of watch manufacturers in Switzerland. Further advancements were made in 1972, when the Hamilton Watch Company introduced the first digital watch, the Pulsar. By the mid 1970s, quartz watches were produced internationally and many models were very affordable. A new timekeeping revolution was well underway.
Today, watchmaking is a diverse and flourishing multi-billion dollar worldwide industry. While quartz technologies such as kinetic watches and radio-controlled watches have generated significant enthusiasm. For consumers who prefer the tradition and artistic elegance of mechanical watches, they too are still in production.
Here are a few wristwatches from the NAWCC Museum collection: