During my years in primary school in the early 1960s, one of my dreams was to own a branded wristwatch. In the day, a wristwatch was the preserve of the White man and the few educated Black Kenyans who could afford one. My first watch was a simple Oris which was gifted to me in 1966.
But for me, what mesmerised my young mind was the watches that James Bond wore in the movies; watches that had multiple dials and which were waterproof and could withstand several atmospheres below sea level. His favourite wristwatch was the Rolex Submariner as featured in the first James Bond movie Dr. No in 1962.
The modern wristwatch got its start about 112 years ago when a visionary clock seller in London first conceived a timepiece that could be worn on the wrist. Hans Wilsdorf founded his company in 1905, puzzling at length for a proper name for his fledgling business.
At last, he chose the name “Rolex” claiming that a genie whispered the name into his ear while riding a London horse-drawn bus. Wilsdorf commissioned Swiss craftsmen to create precision timepieces, like pocket watches but worn on the wrist.
According to the company site, “In 1910, a Rolex watch was the first wristwatch to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision, granted by the Official Watch Rating Centre in Bienne.”
The wristwatch was originally thought to be a fashion fad. Gentlemen still considered the pocket watch to be the proper portable chronometer.
But in a strange twist of historical fate, the wristwatch gained acceptance as a serious timepiece during WWI when pilots especially, needed to be able to assess time without fumbling in their pockets for a watch in flight.
Elsewhere, improvements in communication technologies had enabled militaries to more accurately coordinate their manoeuvres, which required soldiers to discern the time at a glance. European soldiers were outfitting their devices with unbreakable glass to survive the trenches and radium to illuminate the display at night.
The company continued to innovate modern technologies for the personal timepiece and between 1926 and 1945, precision quality standards were maintained while improvements continued. In 1926, the term “Oyster” was coined to the way that the watch was completely sealed watertight.
This claim was tested and proved in 1927 when an English swimmer spent 10 hours crossing the English Channel wearing one.
In 1931, the brand introduced Perpetual Movement, the self-winding mechanism that is at the heart of every modern mechanical watch. Then, in 1945, the “Datejust” feature was added to the face, both displaying and automatically changing the date.
As the century progressed, they began to be found in many places where precision and sturdy construction were critical. Explorers and scientists working on new frontiers and the edge of the known world, including exposure to altitude, depth, speed, and magnetic fields, wore the watch.
The tough and exotic images of Rolex provided unique advertising opportunities, especially among celebrities and explorers.
While lesser mortals could certainly not afford the Rolex brand, by the end of WWII the pocket watch was obsolete while the wristwatch had become accepted as a symbol of sophistication and status.
Other more affordable brands such as Oris, Timex, Kienzle, Pierpont, Roamer, Rado had become available and were popular in the mass market. For the wealthy and more discerning there were designer watches made by specialist houses such as TAG Heuer, Longines, Jaeger, Patek Philippe and, Tissot.
It is worth noting that the neutrality of Switzerland during the war protected the watchmaking industry.
The next important chapter in the history of the wristwatch was the so-called “Quartz Crisis” when in 1969, the world-renowned watch company Seiko of Japan created a watch that relied on a quartz crystal, oscillating by small electric pulses (once per second), to push the hands forward.
This new watch was way more accurate in timekeeping than many mechanical watches, and also cheaper to produce.