The history of the wristwatch is indeed short. Wristwatches did not begin to see widespread use until the 1920s. Men tended to regard the wristwatch as effeminate.
Watches adapted to the wrist made sporadic appearances as early as the late 1500s. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have been given one. In the early 1800s the wristwatch made more frequent appearances when jewelry and watchmakers began creating gem encrusted timepieces for royalty.
Impact of War: Toward the end of the 1800s, women began to embrace the wristwatch as an item of adornment. Despite the feminine association, the concept became accepted as indispensable to military campaigns as mechanization in war grew. The ability to read time with a quick glance rather than having dig through to pockets was critical in battle.
Officers in the South African Boer war (1899-1902) used wristwatches. By World War I, military organizations began to demand them. They became especially crucial to fledgling aerial combat operations.
As demand for wristwatches in warfare grew, rugged timepieces covered with metal grids were introduced. The first chronograph wristwatches were developed, and luminous hands and markers were developed.
Between the Wars: Following the war, automatic (self winding) wristwatches were created, drawing on technology used in pocket watches. Initially they were unreliable, but were perfected by the late 1930s and early 1940s. In the 1920s, the wristwatch became the dominant means of timekeeping among both men and women. Then, as now, men seemed to prefer more rugged, sportier models, including chronographs. Rolex created the first water resistant watch which was worn unscathed by a woman channel swimmer in 1927. Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart strapped on wristwatches for their celebrated flights.
During the Great Depression, demand for wristwatches withered and many top watchmaking companies went out of business. Despite reversals, many design innovations were introduced. With the advent of World War II, watches in most countries were an unattainable luxury and production ceased for all but military needs.
Neutral Switzerland continued making wristwatches to fulfill military orders. Watches were developed for fighter pilots and for underwater specialties requiring far greater water resistance.
Following World War II, civilian production resumed and many innovations were seen, leading to the 1957 introduction of the first electric battery powered wristwatch made by Hamilton Watch Company in America.
Competition among manufacturers in the 1950s and 60s revolved around reductions in size. In 1969 the first automatic cronograph wristwatch was developed, and Neil Armstrong wore an Omega Speedmaster as he made his giant leap for mankind..
Quartz Revolution: Precision has always been the greatest challenge in making timepieces. Quartz crystals were long known to offer highly reliable frequency standards. This led to the first Quartz clock in the late 1920s which was considered the most accurate time keeping device yet developed.
Still, the technology to allow use of Quartz crystals in wristwatches had to await invention of the integrated circuit in 1970. This enabled a Swiss group to manufacture the first commercially available Quartz watch, the Beta 21. The Swiss, however, lacked the industrial means for large scale production and were reluctant to pursue a technology that could crush Swiss dominance in less precise mechanical watches.
In short order, commercially viable production of Quartz watches fell to the Japanese who came to market with the first analog Quartz watch. By 1971 Seiko was offering Quartz crystal wristwatches accurate to within five seconds a month or a minute a year. America`s Hamilton Watch Company immediately followed with the Pulsar and its digital (LED) readout.
Early Quartz watches had certain drawbacks -- short battery lives, and LED watches required pushing a button to display the time. Soon, this was replaced by the LCD (liquid crystal display) providing a continuous readout and battery life was improved. The Quartz revolution was well under way by the late 1970s, led by the Japanese and Americans. Only about 13% of wristwatches made today are mechanical.
Although the Swiss helped pioneer Quartz technology, they were slow to join the bandwagon, believing erroneously that Quartz was no more than a fad. Swiss watchmaking fell into decline. Not until 1983 did the Swiss industry begin to regain its vigor with introduction of the Quartz Swatch watch by the predecessor of what today is the Swatch Group. With the Swatch, consumers quickly embraced a new concept - the wristwatch as a fashion statement as well as a tool.
Today, wristwatch design has advanced to an abundance of choices from dirt cheap to bejeweled masterpieces. Once again, Swiss watchmakers hold sway in the middle and higher price brackets while Japanese and Hong Kong makers hold the moderate and low end. Most American manufacturers have been acquired by foreign interests.
One unmistakable trend is that buy-outs, mergers and acquisitions going to the highest bidder have resulted in a growing number of prestige brands being moved under the roofs of large conglomerates. TAG Heuer, Ebel, Zenith, Chaumet, Dior and Fred, for instance, have recently been acquired by the French LVMH Group. Many familiar brands and much technology in the Swiss arena has been moved under the umbrella of the Swatch Group empire. The tradition of small independent watchmakers working in pastoral settings is drawing to a close. Globalization will continue reaching deeply into the watch making craft.
It is a plain truth at the start of the 21st century that the wristwatch is more indispensible than ever as a tool for business, sports, fashion and daily living.