Pocket watches became increasingly complicated over the years and this model from 1890 includes a minute repeater as well as an annual calendar.
Style Watches

Time on your hand: the origins of the pocket watch

Long fallen to the wayside, the pocket watch worn today echoes the gentlemanly ways of the past.
Aurelio Icasiano III | Jan 01 2019

In its heyday, the pocket watch owed its popularity to function and aesthetic appeal. It was developed in the 1500s and became the standard personal timepiece during the First World War.

The pocket watch owes its progeny to the invention of the mainspring, a thin strip of metal that replaced weights and balances as a means to power clocks. The mainspring led to the development of more portable devices that could be worn. The earliest clock-watches were bulky and inaccurate as they could only tell the hours. But they were novel, worn over the neck like a pendant, fastened to clothing, or carried in bags. Only the elite could afford them, thus, carrying a timepiece became a status symbol.

Considered as jewelry, pocket watches were often inscribed with initials and coats of arms, such as this example from Jaeger-LeCoultre (c.1870).

It was vanity that led to the refinement of the clock-watches in the seventeenth century. After King Charles II made waistcoats fashionable because they refined the waistline, he took the clock-watch, fastened the chain to his buttonhole, and slid the timepiece in the pockets of his waistcoat. Soon, a variety of chains and fobs (the ornamental emblems hanging from the chain or watch) came out to accessorize the timepiece.

The popularity of the pocket watch saw its apogee in the nineteenth century, when railroads were being built and trains became a convenient mode of transportation. More and more, people relied on train schedules and pocket watches allowed commuters to catch their rides. This was especially true in the United States, which pressed pocket watches into service because of a sprawling railway system that crossed time zones. Companies such as Ball, Hamilton, Elgin, and Waltham would start producing pocket watches en masse. With supply at a high, the pocket watch became less expensive. Much like the wristwatches of today, it became a common accessory; men would wear it whether on the rails or at the theater.

Older pocket watches commonly had engraved dials and cases, showcasing the artistry of the watchmaker (Jaeger-LeCoultre c.1895).

During the First World War, pocket watches served to time the movements of pilots and soldiers. Models with 24-hour dials were issued to military personnel, but they proved unwieldy in combat situations. Thus, soldiers began to mount their pocket watches on straps and attach them to their wrists. This was by no means revolutionary as wristwatches had been around for nearly 50 years. But they were considered a woman's accessory—having been developed in 1868 by the Swiss watch manufacturer Patek Philippe for the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary. Only when soldiers began using them did wristwatches gain favor among men. By the end of the war, the wristwatch became the timepiece of choice, relegating the pocket watch to disuse and eventual obscurity.

While still uncommon today, the pocket watch has retained its appeal, especially as a statement piece or among those enamored of old gentlemanly style. No wonder, the watchmakers of Switzerland like Cartier and Panerai still come up with new models from time to time.


Photographs by Aurelio Icasiano III

This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 17 2014.