From "silly-ass fad" to luxury status symbol: Inside the billion-dollar men's watch industry

A hundred years ago, the luxury men’s watch industry shifted its sights from the pocket to the wrist. And despite mighty challenges from technology and globalization, the enduring appeal of status, elegance, and testosterone, means billions for the high-end watch business. Ira Basen looks at the business of luxury time in his documentary, “Wrist Wars.”
A visitor looks at a selection of Patek Philippe watches at the BaselWorld watch fair on March 22, 2018 in Basel, Switzerland. The annual watch trade fair sees the very latest horological designs unveiled from companies from all over the world. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Listen34:59
The first wristwatches were worn towards the end of the First World War and were popularised by public figures, notably the Duke of Windsor. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
 
First World War British Officer's Trench Wristwatch, from the Patria Watch Company, c. 1916. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
 

Luxury Swiss-made watches can cost tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, but they don't keep time as accurately as electronic watches that sell for a fraction of that amount.

They're also not nearly as "smart" as watches that are essentially wearable computers that both tell time and connect you to the world.

And the counterfeit versions of those high end watches are often indistinguishable from the real thing to the untrained eye.

And yet, the luxury-watch industry continues to successfully stake its claim on the wrists of many men, who see them as symbols of success, masculinity, and upward mobility.

But it wasn't always that way.

Up until the First World War, men kept their watches in their pockets. An article in the New York Times in 1916, referred to wristwatches as a "silly-ass fad," favoured by women of the leisure classes, and vaudevillians.

Carlene Stephens, a curator at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., says that up until the war, "there is a whole literature of what the respectable man will wear, and a wedding ring, and a watch chain, and a gold watch concealed in a pocket are acceptable. Watches worn on the wrist were seen as effeminate."

But as the war intensified the "silly-ass fad" became a life saver.

For the first time, warfare involved highly coordinated attacks from the air, and on the ground from tanks, artillery and masses of soldiers advancing in unison.

Timing was critical.

But it was hard to synchronize watches if you had to fumble around to get them out of your pocket.

So soldiers and pilots began to tie their pocket watches to leather straps and wrap them around their wrists.

Right after the war, watch companies like Cartier started designing watches inspired by the military aesthetic.

Soon, the men's wristwatch, borne out of necessity, became a ubiquitous piece of men's fashion.

Click "listen" above to hear Ira Basen's documentary, Wrist Wars, about the history of men's luxury mechanical watches and how watch companies stay relevant in an era of electronic watches, forgeries and smartwatches.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.