Up there with the Ferrari, the plush pad and the trophy wife, a designer watch has long been an aspirational must-have for men. And the watch industry, for a chunk of time, devoted itself largely to an affluent, male audience.
But it hasn’t always been that way…
It was women who pioneered wearing watches on the wrist. It’s thought that Queen Elizabeth I did so and Queen Marie Antoinette commissioned a diamond ‘bracelet watch’.
The first wristwatch in the modern sense of the word was designed for the Queen of Naples in 1810. Made by Abraham-Louis Breguet, it was a thin, oval repeater watch, mounted on a wristlet of hair and gold thread.
Breguet’s innovation came and went without much fanfare and the next known wristwatch emerged from the hands of Swiss watch manufacturer Patek Philippe. He made it for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1868 and it was more a piece of costume jewellery than a ‘timepiece’.
Bejewelled wristwatches caught on in royal and aristocratic circles in the mid to late 1800s, but only with women. They were very expensive, custom made bracelets that were barely functional as watches. Which wasn’t really such a big deal, as ladies of leisure had no need for accurate timekeeping.
Women at Work
Women were important to the watch industry not just as consumers, but also as workers. From the end of the 19th century, women made up between a third and a half of the Swiss watchmakers’ work force. They were encouraged to work there, rather than face poverty, which it was feared could lead to socialism, communism or anarchy.
For Ladies and Soldiers
Wristwatches remained a tough sell to the male market for a long time. They had a feminine image and men preferred to stick to what they knew, making a macho statement with larger, traditional pocket watches.
The armed forces were the exception. The USP of being able to use them with one hand was a huge benefit to soldiers and the first wristwatches to be mass-produced were for the German military in the 1880s. Wristwatches were also common among soldiers of the Boer and First World Wars.
Military use, however, didn’t do much to attract civilian men to the concept. In 1914, when a wristwatch was shown at an exhibit in Switzerland, it was shrugged off as ‘a passing fancy’. Many critics thought that wrist movement would inevitably damage fragile watch mechanisms.
In well-groomed circles, wristwatches remained popular with women and became known as ‘wristlets’. The big watchmakers were beginning to invest in this lucrative female market, encouraging women to own several watches to suit a variety of outfits and occasions.
Rolex was among the watch brands that recognised the importance of its fashionable female audience. For many years, Rolex’s ‘Princess’ watch, launched in 1920, was the most expensive watch they sold.
When Mercedes Gleitze swam the channel in 1927 with a waterproof Rolex Oyster strapped to her wrist, it sealed a modern, sporting image for wristwatches that started to make waves with men as well as women.
By the 1930s, men’s ‘strap watches’, so-called to distinguish them from ‘wristlets’, were re-branded as wristwatches. No longer a utility item, they were now gaining male admirers as stylish accessories.
After the Second World War, life was for living, and luxury was back on the agenda. This pleasure-seeking spirit gave high-end watch companies Piaget, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Chopard a new sense of creativity.
The watch industry went into overdrive designing men’s watches with cutting edge style and technology and succeeded in ditching the effeminate label.
American watch companies Gruen and Hamilton led the charge, soon to be overtaken by the Swiss watch producers Longines, Omega, Jaegar-LeCoultre and Bulova. The same as now, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Audemars Piguet catered for the luxury end of the wristwatch market.
Rolex, the king of the sport model wristwatch, also held its own, while Tiffany and Cartier (who made watches collaboratively with established watchmakers), provided the ultimate in sparkling wrist candy.
In this period of hyper-activity in the watch industry, wristwatches were confirmed as a desirable male accessory and men became the dominant force in the watch market.
From Revolution to Evolution
Putting watches on the wrists of men has allowed the wristwatch market to flourish. Watches have endured many phases since then, from the digital era to the predominance of hip-hop inspired bling.
For many decades, it could be argued that the female watch market was side-lined, with energy focused on exciting a male audience. Many women’s watches were simply downsized versions of men’s watches with some diamonds thrown in for good measure. Or worse, the same style but in pink!
But that cannot be said of the current watch market, which is pretty damn exciting from a female perspective.
Cartier now has a female head of technical development, Patek Philippe’s Head of Watch Creation is a woman and DeLaneau is a brand designed and made entirely by and for women. There are huge numbers of women designers in the industry. The result is intuitive design that delivers what women want, not what men think they want.
And, while the world’s economy flounders, men and women alike are still spending a mint on showpiece watches. Luxury watch sales are hitting record levels and the whisper is that women’s watches are the next big thing for this prospering industry.