The Earliest Wristwatches
One of the earliest references to what we would perhaps now call a wristwatch, or at least an “arm watch” was the new year gift received by Queen Elizabeth from Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, in 1571. It was a richly jewelled armlet, having “in the closing thearof a clocke, and in the forepart of the same a faire lozengie djamond without a foyle, hanging thearat a rounde juell fully garnished with dyamondes and a perle pendaunt.” What exactly this item was is not known because it no longer exists, but it clearly contained a spring driven clock or watch, and was intended to be worn on the arm, presumably somewhere where the watch would be easily visible, which would mean the forearm or wrist. The imaginative illustration shown here is taken from a 1926 Gruen Guild advert and shows Robert Dudley presenting the queen with her wristwatch.
The first wristwatches we have details of were small watches on bracelets (bracelet-watches or montres-bracelets) intended for ladies. An account book of Jaquet-Droz and Leschot of Geneva mentions in 1790, “a watch to be fixed to a bracelet.” When Eugène de Beauharnais married Princess Auguste-Amélie of Leuchtenbergin 1809, the Empress josephine presented her daughter-in-law with two bracelets, one containing a watch, the other a calendar. These were made in 1806 by the Parisian jeweller Nitot.
In 1810 the famous French watch maker Bréguet was comissioned by the Queen of Naples to make a wristwatch, which was completed in 1812. Patek Philippe made the key-winding lady’s bracelet watch shown on the left in 1868 for the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary.
Similar developments were taking place in Switzerland. In February 1889, Albert Bertholet of Bienne registered a claim, which was granted Swiss patent number CH 576 in April 1889, for a “Montre bracelet simplifiée” or simplified wristwatch, which implies that there must have previously been a more complicated wristwatch. Bertholet’s simplification was to do away with the winding and setting by crown and stem. The watch was wound by turning the bezel, which was geared directly to the mainspring barrel; to set the hands a gear, which engaged directly with the cannon pinion, was brought to a small slot in the side of the case so that it could be turned with a finger. M. Bertholet does not specify whether his montre bracelet was intended for men or for women but, given the name “bracelet watch” and the prevailing fashion at the time, we must suspect that if it was used – and I have never seen even a mention of such a watch – it would have been in ladies watches.