Have you wondered why our wrist worn timepieces are called watches? This term likely originates from the Old English “waecce” which roughly translates to a “watchmen”, a person who keeps watch and signals the time using a bell or horn. Devices that keep time would eventually use this word, and in the 16th century that would extend to portable timepieces, either carried in a pocket or worn on the body.
The history of the word “watch” is just a small part of a long and interesting story of a timekeeping evolution. From early mechanical clocks, to the latest in electrically powered smartwatches, the history of watches is both fascinating and complex, full of revolutionary ideas which have transformed the way time is tracked over our lifetimes.
In this article, we want to cover some of that fascinating history of luxury watches, from the rise of the earliest wristwatches to the introduction of quartz and smartwatch technology, and how these new technologies affect the luxury watch industry. We will discover how some of these companies, each over 100 years old, survived the onslaught of new technology and adapted to changing trends over the years. Join us, and discover how luxury watches became a status symbol for sophisticated lifestyles over the years.
In the 16th century, “Nuremberg eggs” were created as the first portable watches. They were large, bulky, yet intricate necklaces for women. In the 17th century, men began wearing watches in a pocket. This was a general theme until the early 19th century, women’s pendant watches and men’s pocket watches. In 1810, however, everything changed, as the Queen of Naples commissioned Abraham-Louis Breguet to make the first watch for a wristlet. The mid 18th century saw other wristlet watches developed, including a Patek Philippe creation for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary and Girard-Perregaux “bracelet watches”. These wrist watches were generally worn by women as men preferred pocket watches for protection from the elements, a thing women didn’t have to worry about in those times.
The early 20th century saw major changes in how watches were perceived by the public. Wristwatches became more popular with women who were becoming more active. Under the influence of the Suffragette movement, where women were advocating for the right to vote and challenging the classical role of genders, wristwatches were proving to be more convenient and a symbol of women’s independence and empowerment. They were often worn by Suffragettes as a statement of commitment.
The convenience of the wristwatch did not go unnoticed by men by any means. Many soldiers had taken to strapping their pocket watches to their wrist in order to coordinate movement and conveniently check time in the heat of battle. This also led to watchmakers developing more durable and reliable watch mechanisms as well as features such as chronographs and waterproofing. Not to be outdone, Louis Cartier was approached by none other than aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont to design a watch that could be worn functionally while in flight. This led to the Cartier Santos, the first wristwatch to gain mass appeal among men and women.
Originally a fashion piece associated with women, wristwatches became more practical and socially acceptable for men due to the evolutions of both technology and design. They remain today a common accessory for both men and women and remain the most important part of the luxury watch market.
The mid 20th century saw the rise of major luxury watch brands such as Rolex, Omega,Hublot, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet. These brands became known for high-quality craftsmanship and attention to detail. The watches were worn by the elites at the time as they were too expensive for the average person, except maybe for the basic Omega and Rolex models. The second half of the century, however, saw new technology threaten the mechanical watches of old. Introduced in the seventies, quartz watches offered greater accuracy and greater affordability. This brought watches to the masses causing a Swiss watch crisis, crippling many of the best mechanical watch brands. This led to most watch manufacturers closing their doors, while many of the others were purchased outright. While some people embraced the new technology, the phrase “adapt or die” doesn’t always apply.
Understanding their products to be more prestigious and valuable, the major Swiss watch brands may have released a quartz or two, but they stuck by their mantra of showcasing exquisite watches and intricacies that can only be produced by hand. The level of attention to detail and artistic expression just can not be replicated by mass-produced quartz or digital watches. Even with smartwatches taking over, this dedication to a craft has seen a welcome resurgence in mechanical watch interest. The major watchmakers have embraced this resurgence, often creating limited edition and bespoke models, watches that showcase the ultimate in design and engineering.
This does not mean luxury watch brands are ignoring technology. Many of the brands are integrating new technology in their lineup, quite often merging the two worlds into a new creation. Both Montblanc and TAG Heuer have created smartwatches that combine traditional mechanical movements with fitness tracking and other digital features. Frederique Constant has even developed a hybrid watch that combines a traditional mechanical watch look with built in fitness tracking. While some have decided to embrace some form of smartwatch, many of the major ones are sticking to what they know, making high quality mechanical timepieces with exquisite craftsmanship.
The history of luxury watches has not been a smooth journey for even the biggest watch brands. Between the quartz crisis and the rise of smartwatches, the luxury watch market has been under constant threat. This market has evolved over time, from rugged tools to luxury pieces of art. Since the earliest portable timepieces to the newest smartwatches, the watch has always been a symbol of status and an example of sophistication. Continuously evolving to meet the demands of consumers, luxury watches have survived the test of time and continue to inspire awe with their intricate mechanisms and stunning beauty.
If you are ready to start your luxury watch journey, or interested in expanding your collection, Value Your Watch has an excellent selection of luxury pieces from some of the best dealers in the country. Browse the site to find that perfect addition to your luxury lifestyle and if you have any questions, the customer service at Value Your Watch is second to none. We hope you enjoy your stay here.
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