Research on Antiques & Collectibles


How a practical evolution of the Fob Watch is still a timeless collectible

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Imagine it is 1928 and you are a young man, perhaps home from school, sitting under the clock at New York's Biltmore Hotel. You are waiting for a girl. After smoothing your hair, you check your flannel pants for puffs of lint and pull your camel coat close. Everything's just swell. But where is that girl? You pull up your sleeve and look at your new Bulova wristwatch. She is ten minutes late. Maybe I should leave, you think, with a touch of irritation. But then you soften and press the little button on your watch. Up pops the watch face, and there, nestled against your wrist and framed in the gold watchband, is her picture. You smile, sigh and decide to wait. That moment, she floats through the revolving doors. In the twenties, the wristwatch was all the rage, the novel offspring of the pocket watch. Today these early wristwatches are back in favor, sparked by an interest in what is fine, old and well designed.

There are waiting lists for that classic, the Cartier tank watch, so called because it was created by the French jeweler in 1918 for the American Tank Corps, in honor of their defense of France during World War I. These fetch high prices at auction. Nor is the tank watch unusual in its dramatic appreciation in value. Prices for pre-1930 quality wristwatches of all makes have more than tripled in the past few years. Of the American-made wristwatches, a good-looking Hamilton or Elgin, of gold and in working condition, sells for $500 to $1,000. Collectors can find watches of similar design but in base metal for $100 to $250.

One explanation for the new popularity of old watches, is that with prices for both new quality wristwatches and antique pocket watches are constantly soaring into the thousands of dollars. People who want quality, are realizing that they can find it in an old wristwatch for anywhere from $800 to $5,000. This is one area in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods in which today's reproductions are selling for more than the originals. Characteristic of these early wristwatches are the finely tuned mechanisms, geometric proportions and distinctively far-out gadgets that they offer. There are watches with beveled colored crystals of blue or green. There are "time illegible watches," those in which the numerals are distorted to fit the rectangular shape of the watch face; the "12" and the "6" are especially large in such watches, dwarfing the other numerals. More unusual are wristwatches produced by the Swiss manufacturer Le Coultre that featured not only digits for the days of the month and for the hour, but also a miniature version of the painted, revolving "phases of the moon" often seen on grandfather clocks.

The military and World War I were indirectly responsible for the development of the wristwatch. During the war years, American watch companies such as Elgin, Hamilton and Waltham began to make the transition from pocket watches to wristwatches by offering a pocket watch with two metal loops on which a flexible strap could be attached. This new design was created to satisfy the needs of the action-oriented man, as a 1917 advertisement for the ten-dollar Elgin "Military Watch" stated: "Sportsmen, motorists, golfers, athletes, and Army and Navy men instantly appreciate the features which make this the handy 'extra watch' for outdoor service." As World War I progressed, the military increasingly became a source of inspiration for watchmakers, and so Gruen introduced the "Twenty-four Hour Wristwatch," which told time military-style - from 13 to 24 o'clock for the afternoon and evening hours.

Like so many bright ideas, the invention of the first wristwatch is attributed to several people as well as different moments in time. Cartier claims that Louis Cartier, grandson of the founder of the firm, originated the product in 1904 when his friend, the European aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, complained that the business of fishing for his pocket watch while minding the complex controls of his plane was a serious problem. Cartier responded in a flash by strapping a watch with a leather band and a small harness buckle to the aviator's wrist.

The story of Gerald and Sarah Murphy, expatriate bon vivants of the 1920s and '30s - reported that Patrick Murphy, Gerald's father - "designed and marketed the first wristwatch" in 1915, while he was president of Mark Cross, the maker of fine accessories. According to the same source, this was "at the suggestion of a British infantry officer who complained that a pocket watch was too cumbersome for trench warfare." However, Edward Wasserberger, current president of Mark Cross, said that Murphy was responsible only for introducing the wristwatch to the American market, not for inventing it.

Other accounts take the idea back even further – to the seventeenth century, when the absentminded French philosopher Blaise Pascal, after repeatedly misplacing his pocket watch, took a piece of ribbon and tied the timepiece to his wrist. It is also reported that the Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon I, along with numerous other nineteenth-century women of fashion had what was known as a watch bracelet, a jewel-encrusted bracelet with a small watch hidden under a bejeweled lid.

Simple, sporty wristwatches were not worn by fashionable women until the 1930s. Throughout the twenties, narrow, rectangular wristwatches with diamond-studded cases were the vogue, and these were treated more as valuable pieces of jewelry than as functional accessories. An evening adornment, they were worn always over gloves. Today, these ladies' diamond watches are a very good deal and in the past two decades their prices have slipped as their popularity with the fashion-conscious has declined. Most famous of these ladies’ diamond-studded watches was the Swiss firm Patek Philippe, that featured pearl and platinum band and a face adorned with square-cut diamonds and with sapphires. To make that watch today would cost $6,000 to $8,000.

Fashion and design are not always the major factors to consider when purchasing an old wristwatch. In general, there are two kinds of collectors: There are people who buy for the movement alone, as opposed to those who buy just for the design. Likewise, there are two kinds of customers - those who buy a single watch to wear, and others who are amassing quality wristwatches as a collection. The latter, usually do not encase their watches, but, rather, put them to use, changing them from day to day as they do neckties.

Along with Patek Philippe, the finest Swiss and French watchmakers of the period were Vacheron & Constantin, Rolex, and Universal - a Swiss firm whose products were the status symbol of the twenties, as they could be purchased only in Europe. Of the American firms, Hamilton, Gruen, Bulova, Waltham, Elgin and Longines rank among the best although they, along with Carrier, made only the cases, preferring to use movements made by the fine European firms.

Like old cars, antique wristwatches can be expensive to maintain and repair. A watch should be examined by a jeweler or guaranteed by the dealer before purchase to ensure that the movement is original (watch movements are marked with an identifying serial number) and in working condition. Sometimes the oil has dried and the mechanism needs cleaning; but the biggest problem is that sometimes the watches need new parts, which are often not available and have to be specially made. Additionally, after years of wear, the cases of old watches may become thin, causing the gold to buckle on even the best watches. Never expect old watches to run as well as new, they will always be a little off, but you'll just love them for their shapes and for what they are.

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