The first wristwatch in history

July 21, 2021By Bonetto Cinturini

Wearing watches on the wrist instead of keeping them in pockets was a true revolution in the European fashion world of the 1800s. No longer hidden but worn in plain sight, wristwatches have changed often since then, remaining an item that is both practical and to be flaunted when worn.

Let’s see how this object has become an indispensable accessory from when it started being worn on the wrist.

From pocket watch to wristwatch

Pocket watches, carried in a pocket or connected by a chain to a waistcoat, remained an essential complement of modern gentlemen until the 19th century.

Also called “cipolla” in Italian (which means onion), museums all over the world exhibit elegant examples that are decorated and personalised in a thousand different ways – the higher the gentleman’s social class, in fact, the richer and more decorated the watch was.

These creations, usually made of materials such as gold and platinum (silver and brass for the middle class), became family mementos that were passed from generation to generation, and are still priceless objects of antiquity.

It was in 1800 that these true wonders of craftsmanship reached their apex thanks to maestros such as Heuer, Minerva, LeCoultre & Cie, Ulysse Nardin and other watchmakers.

A perfect gentleman’s kit of the time included other accessories – snuffboxes for example – as well as pocket watches, which were uncomfortable to wear, only had a three-hour hand, and up to a certain point did not have a protective cover.
It is therefore presumed that they had to be opened to be looked at.
So it can be seen how ‘portable’ timepieces were a declaration of a man’s class from the very beginning.

Wearing a wristwatch initially seemed to be an extremely bizarre idea: in the 1800s it was considered a fashionable, prestigious object, and as such only for nobles and royal families.

The first wristwatch for women was created by Breguet in 1810 for Caroline Bonaparte, the queen of Naples and Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister.

Breguet: the first wristwatch in history

Breguet realizzò per la regina di Napoli un modello chiamato il segnatempo Breguet n. 2639.

Breguet made a model for Caroline called the Breguet timekeeper no. 2639, and the project was developed in the atelier of the man who, at that time, was considered to be the greatest master watchmaker of all time. The archives of the Breguet maison confirm that Caroline, the queen of Naples, commissioned a “repeating bracelet watch” that cost 5000 Franks.

It took 17 people and 34 different work phases to complete the project; towards the end of the process, the queen probably asked for the gold guilloché dial to be replaced with one of silver and Arabic numerals.

Completed in 1812, the watch with an oblong shape and a silver dial contained various complications: a repeater, the phases of the moon and even a thermometer. It can be considered as a refined midway point between a piece of jewellery for women and a clock.

It was the very first model with a wristlet, which was made of hair entwined with gold thread.

The watch soon paved the way for other models for women that were attached to bracelets, ribbons or chains.

The precious heirloom, enclosed in a case of red leather and equipped with a golden key, was then inherited by Giulia Murat, countess Rasponi; documents indicate that it was taken to be repaired in 1849.

The last trace of this splendid creation dates back to 1955, when its owner took it back to Breguet to request two new keys: a male key to wind the watch and a female key to regulate the time.

No further information about Breguet watch no. 2639 was discovered, and even the search to find some sketch of its creation was not successful. Historical documents do, however, confirm that it did actually exist.

In 2012 the Breguet brand celebrated the bicentenary of this historical event by launching the “Reine de Naples” line.

Other wristwatch prototypes

Even though being a revolutionary invention, the first wristwatch was ignored by its contemporaries.

After Breguet’s creation, a model worth noting is the gold wristwatch made by Patek Philippe for the Hungarian countess Koscowicz in 1868, also more a jewel with an encased timepiece rather than a true wristwatch.

Louis Cartier developed a wristwatch in 1904 for the aviator Santos Dumont, who did not want to be forced to raise his hand to see the time while flying.

Cartier Santos is still one of Cartier’s main lines today.

Cartier and Patek Philippe are rivals in the challenge for being the first to make a wristwatch.

Towards the future of wristwatches

When the First World War broke out, wristwatches became obligatory for soldiers because they were considered more practical and less dangerous that pocket watches.

Wristwatches never left the stage from that point; thanks to their undisputed practicality they definitively banished their ancestors with chain (even if they co-existed for a short period, but the pocket watch was used mostly by railway workers).
The birth of the modern wristwatch can therefore be attributed to originating from military or professional needs.
Once again it was the war that shaped the materials used to make the models, which had to be resistant to knocks and scratches, with luminous hands, and so forth.

The straps, which were initially of leather or even fabric, were threaded through the lugs and behind the watch case.

Omega was a brand that perfectly symbolised the bridge between ancient timepieces and modern wristwatches.

Today, wristwatches have become prestigious accessories more than ever, exceeding their 19th century ancestors: hard-to-please enthusiasts and collectors seek to obtain limited editions or exclusive models, others instead choose specific brands to symbolise a social status.

In other words, the watch has moved from pockets to wrists, but has preserved its original intrinsic meaning.