WATCHES: How World War I changed watches forever

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on September 26, 2019.

Guards intended to protect crystals against breakage took on an enormous variety of forms.

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IT is mostly just assumed that a watch should be worn on the wrist, but when was the last time you thought about how it got there in the first place? It is a perfect solution. A moderately-sized watch is unobtrusive when worn on the wrist and it is easy to position it to view the time. It fades into the background when we do not need it but it is immediately available when we do. It is just about as good a solution as possible.

And those attributes are exactly what made it the ideal solution for soldiers in World War I (WWI), the first major historical event where timekeeping migrated from the pocket watch to the wrist. The trend reportedly started during the Boer War, when Britain marched on the Boer states of the Republic of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The reasoning behind the wrist-mounted convention was simple: It freed up one hand that would normally be used to operate a pocket watch. When WWI rolled around, the functional benefits of the wristwatch turned it into a trend and it did not stay on the battlefield — it became a fashion statement in the civilian world as well. Prior to the advent of the war, it was typically only ladies who wore wristwatches, but next they were symbols of masculinity and bravado, reflecting the spirit of a soldier.

When the clock moved from the pocket watch to the wrist, it was an opportunity for an injection of fresh design. By today’s standards, trench watches, or “wristlets” as they were known, look quite radical. The demands of trench warfare meant that soldiers needed to protect their watches while entering and exiting the trenches, so naturally the crystal was the primary element to protect. The crystal was often guarded by a hinged cage that was designed as to not obscure the numerals, a design element that was carried over from the pocket watch. The symmetry and design flair in guard designs were a detail that set trench watches apart from contemporary watches in such a fantastic way.

It is a design feature that is both beautiful and problematic because the hands are easily obscured by the guards, making the time more difficult to read, but there is no denying that there is something fascinating about the ironic elegance emerging from solving a simple durability problem. The crystals on trench watches were mineral glass, which was relatively fragile. Shattering-resistant Plexiglass emerged in the 1930s and brought the crystal guard to an end.

Engraving names, titles and places on the caseback also carried over from pocket watches. Though dog tags had been implemented during WWI, a personalised engraving could serve as a redundancy system for identification. Roughly 2.8 million American soldiers served overseas during WWI. About 1.8 million of them were in France.

Contemporary watch design has generally stayed the same since the mid-century era, with many companies cranking out models that often reference their own designs from that time. Some design features emerging during the trench watch era ended up dying there. Enicar produced a teardrop-shaped case that featured an integrated compass made from sterling silver. The curvature of the case fits the wrist perfectly and the way the compass is worked into the case is something I have not seen on any other watches. From a function standpoint, it is brilliant but there is also an undeniable beauty that just has not been present in watch design ever since. And this was a watch made for fighting wars! — Bloomberg


This article was originally published on Hodinkee.