T he watch underwent an extraordinary evolution during the 20th century - transforming from pocket to wrist, its design reacted to a rapidly changing world. Wars, financial crashes, space races and sporting events all played their part in influencing the design of the watch.
During the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s and early 1980s, the rise of the battery powered watch threatened to eliminate the traditional mechanical watchmaking industry, yet out of the cataclysm that this seemingly heralded, a mechanical renaissance was born.
Alex's book The Watch: A Twentieth-Century Style History is available for purchase here.
- Circa 1890
- Circa 1910
- Circa 1955
- Circa 1957
- Circa 1959
- Circa 1968
- Circa 1968
- Circa 1980
- Circa 1983
- Circa 1987
- Circa 1988
- Circa 1995
- Circa 1997
- Circa 2007
- Circa 2017
Swiss, Gold Double-Dialled Keyless Calendar Watch
Greenwich’s establishment as the Prime Meridian at the 1884 International Meridian Conference led to the formation of 24 time zones to be used around the world. Watches with indications for multiple time zones appeared soon afterwards and this is a typical example – the front dial is marked for ‘Greenwich Time’ whilst the back dial is divided into 7 subsidiary dials showing the time in various world locations. It’s interesting to speculate how such an object altered the owner’s perception of the world.
Zenith, Gold and Enamel Hunter-Cased Keyless Lever Watch
The enhancement of a watch’s case with enamel decoration has a long and rich history, one that is largely dominated by Swiss and French artisans. By the turn of the 20th century, a broad range of decorative enamel techniques were being employed. The vibrant yet relatively free polychrome enamel painted scenes shown on this watch are typical of the period.
Jaeger-LeCoultre, Memovox, Reference 3151 Yellow Gold Wristwatch
The history of the alarm watch stretches back to the 16th century, but it was not until the middle of the 20th century that successful commercial production was achieved within the confined space of the wristwatch case. Jaeger-LeCoultre named their first alarm model, launched in 1950, the Memovox – literally, the ‘Voice of Memory’. Early examples were often aimed at the businessperson, to act as a reminder for a meeting or other event.
Hamilton, Ventura, Reference 500 Yellow Gold Asymmetrical Wristwatch
In New York on 3 January 1957, a press conference was held by the Hamilton Watch Company to announce the release of the first series-produced electric wristwatch. Hamilton commissioned the industrial designer Richard Arbib to create one of the launch models, the Ventura. The Ventura was a futuristic looking wristwatch that had an asymmetrically shaped case that boldly represented the beginning of a new era. This new era would threaten the very existence of the traditional mechanical watchmaking industry.
Rolex, Submariner Small Crown, Reference 6536 Stainless Steel Wristwatch
At the beginning of the 1950s, the increasing interest in scuba diving, both for civilian and military purposes, led to the development of specialist diving watches. These were rugged, waterproof watches that had utilitarian designs and were clearly influenced by the military watches of the previous decade. Rolex displayed their first Submariner models at the Basel Watch Fair of 1954 and these watches would become part of a new generation of so-called ‘tool’ watches.
Rolex, Daytona Paul Newman, Reference 6239 Stainless Steel Chronograph Wristwatch
In 1963, Rolex introduced what would become one of the most famous watches of the 20th Century, the Cosmograph, which would soon be designated the Daytona to celebrate Rolex’s sponsorship of the International Speedway at Daytona Beach. Introduced under reference 6239, a range of models followed. Dial designs varied, however, it was the ‘exotic’ form of dial, popularly named the ‘Paul Newman’ following the picturing of the actor wearing an example, that would become the most iconic and collectible.
Omega, Speedmaster, Reference 145.012-67 SP Stainless Steel Chronograph Wristwatch
In 1964, NASA contacted several watch companies to obtain quotations for robust chronograph wristwatches that could be used during their space missions. Of the firms contacted, only 4 replied, and from these, 3 watches were selected. Ultimately it was the Omega Speedmaster that impressed above all others – the model’s highly legible design, robust construction and ability to perform accurately in extreme conditions had ensured its selection. Famously it would be a Speedmaster that would become the first watch to be worn on the moon.
Piaget, Beta 21, Reference 15101 C 10 Yellow Gold Cushion-Shaped Wristwatch
The Beta 21 quartz movement, produced by a consortium of Swiss watchmakers (including IWC, Omega, Piaget, Rolex and Patek Philippe), was commercially released at the Basel Watch Fair of 1970. An extremely large movement, the models that incorporated it were necessarily over-sized and a far cry from the increasingly slim mechanical watches of the 1960s. Yet these were fiercely modern watches using the latest technology and their designs were unapologetically assertive - a true statement piece for their owners.
Patek Philippe, Reference 3448 Yellow Gold Perpetual Calendar Wristwatch
First introduced in 1962, Patek Philippe’s Ref. 3448 was the first series produced perpetual calendar wristwatch with automatic winding. Both the case and dial had a crisp, utilitarian design that focused on the clarity of its display and was a dramatic departure from Patek Philippe’s previous perpetual calendar models. This updating was a perfect reaction to the growing trend for pared-down designs that the 1960s had ushered in.
Audemars Piguet, Yellow Gold Skeletonised Wristwatch
At the beginning of the 1980s, in the midst of the quartz crisis, the future of the mechanical watchmaking industry lay in doubt. The ‘skeletonised’ watch was one design that allowed the finest mechanical watchmakers the ability to emphasize the quality and exclusivity of their work. By exposing their highly finished movements, the traditional watchmaker’s art was placed in stark contrast to the mass-market circuitry of the electronic watch.
Patek Philippe, Nautilus, Reference 3800/1 Stainless Steel and Yellow Gold Bracelet Watch
The 1970s witnessed a new form of dress/sports hybrid wristwatch for which Gérald Genta was almost entirely responsible. During the decade Genta would create, among other watches, three particularly iconic models: the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet, the Nautilus for Patek Philippe and the Ingenieur SL for IWC. In 1981 Patek Philippe introduced the new Ref.3800 Nautilus - this particular example features a steel and gold case that reflects the demand for mixed metal cases and bracelets that grew rapidly during the 1980s.
Breguet, Reference 3310 Yellow Gold Perpetual Calendar Wristwatch
During the 1980s, complication watches made a return to the fore. A significant part of the industry recognised the marketing appeal of the calendar watch, especially those models that carried indication for the phases of the moon. The distinctive style of Breguet watches had been admired for generations and the firm’s elegant yet sophisticated engine-turned dials lent themselves especially well to complex calendar indications, leading to a growing demand for Breguet watches.
Movado, Andy Warhol Times 5 Limited Edition Blackened Stainless Steel Rectangular Bracelet Watch
Following an approach by Movado to design a special ‘Art’ watch, Andy Warhol developed the idea of joining several watch cases together to form a bracelet. Rather than produce ‘painted’ scenes for the dials – which Warhol feared would give the watch ‘a department store fashion watch feeling’ – he instead settled on black-and-white photographic scenes of New York. The Warhol ‘Times/5’ wristwatch would be the first of a series of Artists’ watches produced by Movado.
Ulysse Nardin, Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, Reference 901-22 Yellow Gold Perpetual Calendar Astronomical Wristwatch
The ‘Galileo Galilei’ wristwatch was introduced by Ulysse Nardin in 1985 to re-affirm the company’s position as a maker of exceptional mechanical timepieces. In addition to standard time the watch showed the position of the sun, moon and stars as viewed from earth. The watch’s complex dial also displayed a perpetual calendar, moon phases, moonrise and moonset, sunrise and sunset, dawn and dusk, signs of the zodiac and solar and lunar eclipses.
Rolex, Daytona Zenith, Reference 16520 Stainless Steel Chronograph Wristwatch
Surprisingly, given their popularity in the 1970s, Rolex waited until the introduction of their 1988 Daytona before releasing an automatic chronograph. The movement was based on Zenith’s ‘El Primero’ calibre 400, generally recognised as the finest series-produced automatic chronograph calibre available. Rolex made many modifications to the movement, including reducing the beats per hour, incorporating a Rolex balance with Breguet hairspring and Microstella regulation, and removing the movement’s date indication.
Audemars Piguet, Royal Oak Offshore Alinghi Team, Reference 26062OR.OO.A002CA.01 Limited Edition Pink Gold And Forged Carbon Flyback Chronograph Wristwatch
In 1989 Emmanuel Gueit, a young designer working for Audemars Piguet, produced conceptual designs for a new form of the brand’s flagship model, the Royal Oak. This new Royal Oak scaled up the original format dramatically and gave it a decidedly rugged look, helped by the fact that it was a chronograph model. Released at the Basel Watch Fair of 1993, the Offshore was a vast model by the standards of the period and was nicknamed ‘The Beast’.
A. Lange & Söhne, Grosse Lange 1 Mondphase Lumen, Reference Lsls1392ai Limited Edition Platinum Wristwatch
Following the reunification of Germany, the historical watchmaking firm of A. Lange & Söhne was re-established in 1990. Among the first models released was the Lange 1, and this immediately became an iconic watch in its own right. The design of the dial was highly original, with separate sections for time, seconds, power reserve and oversized date. The case backs were glazed with a sapphire crystal to display the exceptional finishing of the movements for which the firm would become so admired.