10 Milestone Moments in the History of the Wristwatch

Today it is common to wear a watch on one’s wrist, but it was a different story around 100 years ago. World War I, which started in 1914 and ended in 1918, brought to the battlefield much that was new — airplanes, mustard gas, military tanks. It also brought something new to civilian society: wristwatches, which had become military-issue equipment, supplanted pocketwatches in popularity. Soldiers returning home from the war brought their wristwatch-wearing habit with them, thus beginning the fascinating history of the wristwatch, an invention that has become an integral part of our modern life. In this article, you’ll discover 10 milestone moments from the first 100 years of the wristwatch’s history. It is an excerpt of the article “A Wristwatch Timeline,” which you can download from the WatchTime Shop.

1. Breitling Chronograph

Breitling: Chronograph, 1915
Breitling: Chronograph, 1915

1915: Breitling launches one of the first wrist-worn chronographs. It features something new: a push-piece at 2 o’clock, separate from the winding crown, rather than integrated into it as on the pocketwatch chronographs of the time.

2. Cartier Tank

Cartier: Tank, 1919
Cartier: Tank, 1919

1919: Cartier introduces the Tank watch. The company says that the shape of the case sides was inspired by the treads on military tanks, which were first used in WWI.

3. LeCoultre & Cie. and Jaeger Reverso

Le Coultre&Cie and Jaeger: Reverso, 1931
Le Coultre & Cie and Jaeger: Reverso, 1931

1931: The Swiss company LeCoultre & Cie. and the French firm Jaeger collaborate to bring out the Reverso, whose case can be slid sideways and flipped over to protect its crystal. (The two companies will merge in 1937.)

4. John Harwood designs the winding mechanism

British watchmaker John Harwood, 1926
British watchmaker John Harwood, 1926

1926: Fortis introduces the first wristwatch with an automatic winding rotor. The winding mechanism was designed by the British watchmaker John Harwood, who modeled it on the one that Abraham-Louis Perrelet devised for pocketwatches in the 18th century.

5. IWC’s First Pilot’s Watch

IWC Schaffhausen: First Pilot's Watch, 1936
IWC Schaffhausen: First Pilot’s Watch, 1936

1936: IWC Schaffhausen makes its first pilots’ watch, which it calls the Special Pilot’s Watch. It has a rotating bezel for measuring elapsed times.

6. A. Lange & Söhne’s factory is destroyed

A. Lange & Söhne: Company building destroyed, 1945
A. Lange & Söhne’s company building was destroyed in 1945

1945: Russian planes bomb the A. Lange & Söhne factory in Glashütte, Germany, nearly destroying it just hours before the armistice is signed.

7. First automatic chronographs

Zenith: Movement El Primero, 1969
Zenith El Primero movement, 1969

1969: The world’s first automatic chronographs are introduced. One, Caliber 6139, the first to hit the market, is from Seiko; another, the now-famous El Primero, is from Zenith; and a third, Caliber 11, is the work of a consortium of companies: Heuer-Leonidas, Breitling, Dubois Dépraz, Büren, and Hamilton.

8. Jean-Claude Biver and Jacques Piguet buy Blancpain

Jean-Claude Biver, 1983
Jean-Claude Biver, 1983

1983 Jean-Claude Biver and Jacques Piguet, head of the Frédéric Piguet movement manufacturer, buy the defunct Blancpain brand and relaunch it as an all-mechanical-watch brand with movements supplied by Frédéric Piguet.

9. SMH, now known as Swatch Group, is formed

Nicolas Hayek, SMH CEO 1983
Nicolas Hayek, SMH CEO, 1983

1983: The two financially troubled Swiss watch conglomerates ASUAG and SSIH are merged to form SMH (Societé Suisse de Microélectronique et d’Horlogerie), now known as the Swatch Group. Nicolas Hayek engineers the merger and becomes CEO.

10. Rolex’s new Cosmograph Daytona

Rolex: new Cosmograph Daytona, 2000
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, 2000

2000 Rolex launches a new version of the Cosmograph Daytona containing the new, in-house Caliber 4130. The introduction means that all Rolex-brand mechanical watches now have in-house movements.

These milestones are part of our 12-page timeline devoted to chronicling the first 100 years of the wristwatch’s history. Download it now for just $2.99 from the WatchTime Shop!




12 Responses to “10 Milestone Moments in the History of the Wristwatch”

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  1. As other comments have noted – missing anything quartz related. Also missing the first G-Shock. Also missing significant achievements from Longines and Omega.

  2. JordanWatches

    I loved this article, Vintage an antique watches are my favorite collections. I hope more article on Swiss and Japan watches especially vintage models. Cheers :)

  3. Sergio

    This is not a historical timeline but a listing of corporate sponsors. I understand commercial pressures and I appreciate your publication so the representative inequities don’t anger me as much as others who wrote comments and are correct. But for the record, since both companies are obviously sponsors; the Cartier Santos was both first wristwatch and first pilot watch not IWC in 1936. Of course no article listing shall be written without interjecting IWC so they must be a “large” corporate sponsor. I would really appreciate a section in your publication which presented small companies that can’t afford corporate sponsorship. It would be a testament to an even better/balanced publication.

  4. Glenn Krasner

    The Seiko electronic quartz movement not only revolutionized the wristwatch industry, it nearly destroyed the traditional Swiss watch industry across the board. Like the other commentators, I agree that this should have been mentioned.

  5. I like the above comments. I also agree this article is biased and will not stand the test of time. Merging of companies to a conglomerate or buying a defunct company has no place to be mentioned as milestone and has little to no meaning to an observers who purely appreciate the wonders of watch evolution in human history.

  6. Just from Omega alone how about: Co-axial escapement, first 15,000 gauss anti-magnetism, first central tourbillon, first Ratrappante, first diver chronograph etc.

  7. This is a total Bull, article, all the cherry picking of watch history to beef up elite Swiss brands. How you could have an article like this and not have Bulova accutron, Hamilton 500 mvt, Buren micro-rotor, Seiko Astron, The Bunn/ Ball standard for railroad watches or the advent of the pallet escapement. I know articles are written by individuals with bias but if you are going to have an article like this the least you could do is have some real milestones and not cherry picked information to satisfy your sponsors. What is up with acknowledging Seiko was the first automatic chronograph but then showing Zenith?

  8. This not a good article and it is a typical example of commercial text! Why is the author of the article omitting the brand name Fortis from the milestone about the self-winding watches? Is it because Fortis are not paying sponsorship to Watch Time? IWC has a milestone for making pilot watches (supplied to the Nazi’s , and now they have a model called Spitfire … what a travesty) , but there is no milestone about the first watch in space – the Russian Sturmanskie ? No Seiko, really? you manage to omit the biggest leap in the watchmaking industry? Rolex Daytona a milestone ? For what? For being pretty?
    This is not only bad example of article, this is typical commercially spun article, poor, very poor

  9. James Malenfant

    What about the Bulova Accutron? The first fully electronic watch? What about the Seiko quartz? The quartz crystal watches were quite revolutionary. Don’t you like American, and Japanese watch companies? Exactly how is the bombing of a German watch company a milestone? As well, the merging of two watch companies is hardly a milestone. Citizen bought Bulova, does that count? I can buy any watch I want, I have to save for it, but I can, and you couldn’t give me a Euro watch. Although several of my Bulovas have Swiss movements. I think you could have done better from a historical standpoint. Have a great day!

  10. Jeffrey Elgas

    I love watch history, prefer and collect only automatic watches, and I appreciate anyone who writes on it, but did you seriously just write a “top ten” on historical wristwatch events and not include the advent of the QUARTZ MOVEMENT? Did you fall asleep when you were writing about the period from 1945 to 1983, and only think to include “automatic chronographs” in 1969 instead of truly the largest revolution in wristwatches that changed EVERYTHING in the 70s? If your article had been focused on automatic or mechanical only, I could understand this massive oversight. Cheers, and wake up ;)

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