History of Watches: Uncovering their Timeless Heritage

Published by soldcorp.com on

Why look at the history of watches?

Watches have been an essential accessory for centuries, serving not only as timekeeping devices but also as symbols of status, craftsmanship, and personal style. The history of watches is a fascinating journey through time, reflecting the evolution of technology, fashion, and societal norms. In this exploration, we’ll delve into the rich tapestry of men’s watches, from their humble beginnings to the sophisticated timepieces of today.

Early History: Birth of Timekeeping

The earliest attempts at timekeeping can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where sundials and water clocks were used to measure the passage of time. These early devices, while innovative for their time, were far from portable. Rather, they were limited to stationary locations like temples and public squares. It was not until the Middle Ages that mechanical clocks began to appear in European monasteries and towns, sparking a gradual shift towards portable timekeeping.

Birth of the Portable Watch

The earliest watches were not wristwatches, but rather pocket watches. In the 16th century, German inventor Peter Henlein successfully invented a timekeeping device small enough to carry with you. They were expensive, though. At this stage, it was mostly the rich who would own a watch. Worn on chains and stored in the pocket, these early watches were a far cry from the sleek wristwatches we know today. Over time, they did become readily available for all, gaining popularity with men who were out and about.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the first watches with a wrist strap began to emerge. These early watches were often seen as feminine accessories, as men favored the more traditional pocket watch. However, as technology advanced, and norms changed, wristwatches gained traction among men.

Collection of pocket watches

World War I: The Turning Point

The turning point in the history of watches came during World War I. Soldiers quickly realized that using a pocket watch while entrenched in the depths of combat and warfare was impractical. This led to the widespread adoption of wristwatches. These timepieces were specifically designed to be durable, accurate, and easily readable in the heat of battle. Brands like Rolex, Cartier, and Omega began producing wristwatches for military use, solidifying its status as a practical accessory for men.

A Rolex watch from 1917, during WWI. Note the large numbers designed for easy reading.

The Golden Age in the History of Watches

Following World War I, the watch continued to grow in popularity. The 1920s and 1930s marked the golden age of horology, with watchmakers competing to create intricate, beautiful, and highly accurate timepieces. Art Deco designs and innovative mechanical movements became the hallmark of luxury pieces. Companies, primarily from Switzerland, like Patek Philippe, Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Rolex produced iconic watches during this era. Swiss neutrality allowed watchmakers from the country to flourish during WWII and beyond.

A vintage Rolex watch from the 1920s

The Advent of Quartz Technology

While mechanical watches were the market standard for centuries, the late 20th century saw a significant shift with the introduction of quartz technology. Swiss companies faced stiff competition from Japanese manufacturers like Seiko, who produced accurate and affordable quartz watches. This era marked the “Quartz Crisis,” which reshaped the watch industry, leading to the decline of many traditional Swiss brands. Quartz continues to be the movement of choice for affordable watch brands. Japanese companies like Seiko, Citizen, and Casio are all known today for providing customers with high quality watches at a low price using quartz movement technology.

Quartz watches utilize an electronic oscillator that is regulated by a quartz crystal to keep time. This allows them to be both cheaper and much more accurate than their mechanical counterparts which use intricate systems of gears and springs to tell time. A quartz watch also never needs to be wound up. Quartz movement has allowed luxurious and elegant watches to be made more accessible for the masses.

The Resurgence of Mechanical Watches

The history of watches took a little bit of a U-turn around the late 1900s. In the 1980s and 1990s, a resurgence of interest in mechanical watches began. Enthusiasts appreciated the artistry, craftsmanship, and heritage of mechanical timepieces. The big Swiss manufacturers reasserted themselves in the market by focusing on precision, innovation, and timeless design. Quartz watches continue to dominate the affordable watch market. Mechanical watches are now targeted for the collector with deep pockets.

Modern Men’s Watches: A Fusion of Tradition and Technology

Today, men’s watches continue to evolve, blending tradition with cutting edge technology. Smartwatches have become increasingly popular, offering features like fitness tracking, mobile notifications, calling, and even health monitoring. Watches with digital time displays are also popular. However, the appeal of traditional mechanical watches remains strong, with collectors and enthusiasts valuing the intricate movements and timeless aesthetics.

Watches maintain their important place in men’s fashion today. With the ready availability of quartz watches, you no longer need to break the bank to wear a fashionable piece on your wrist. If you do have the money and desire for old school mechanical craftsmanship, then there is no shortage of options from top luxury brands. It truly is a great time for watch enthusiasts. Whatever you’re looking for, you’re likely to find it. You probably don’t even need to leave your home with the popularity of sites like Amazon.

Icons Throughout the History of Watches

Throughout history, several watch models have achieved legend status in men’s fashion and remain timeless today:

  • Rolex Submariner: Known for its rugged design and waterproof capabilities, the Submariner has been a favorite of divers and watch enthusiasts since its introduction in 1954.
  • Patek Philippe Calatrava: An emblem of understated elegance, the Calatrava has been a symbol of luxury and timeless style for nearly a century.
  • Omega Speedmaster: Forever linked to space exploration, the Speedmaster was the first watch worn on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.
  • TAG Heuer Monaco: Made famous by Steve McQueen in the film “Le Mans,” the square-faced Monaco is an icon of motorsport and style.


The history of men’s watches is a captivating tale of innovation, style, and changing societal norms. From their origins as pocket-sized devices to their current status as fashion symbols, watches have stood the test of time. As we continue to embrace new technologies, it is important to remember the enduring appeal of traditional mechanical watches, which continue to capture the hearts and wrists of men around the world. Whether it’s a vintage piece with a storied history or a modern marvel of engineering, the watch remains a timeless accessory that transcends trends and fads.

Purchasing such history can be expensive, though. To see more cheap and affordable men’s watches instead, read our blog post Best Affordable and Cheap Watches for Men. Also, if you are just getting into the watch world, you did good by reading their history. However, it is also important to know about the various watch definitions and terms. Read our blog Defining Time: Watch Definitions and Terms A Complete Guide to get a glimpse of common terms associated with watches. Thank you for reading.

-SOLD Corp


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