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Invention of Wristwatch: History and Evolution

The history of the wristwatch began in 1810 with the creation of the Breguet No. 2639. The Queen of Naples commissioned a wrist-worn repeater watch from the most famous watchmaker of the era, Abraham-Louis Breguet. The Queen’s order thus led to the invention of the first timepiece to be worn on the wrist: the Breguet No. 2639.

History of the wristwatch
Wristwatches have continued to evolve since their invention in the early 19th century

Over half a century later, in 1868, Patek Philippe’s creation of another wrist-worn timepiece popularized wristwatches more broadly in European society. The trend gained steam over the later half of the nineteenth century, as wristwatches replaced their pocket-worn predecessors by the end of World War I.

Wristwatches serve as both a practical and ornamental accessory in modern times. Wrist-worn watches have evolved to incorporate quartz, digital, and smart technology. However, the traditional mechanical movements perfected over centuries are still in high demand by collectors.

The guide below sheds light on the origins of the wristwatch and explains its evolution into the accessory as we know it today.

Who invented the wristwatch?

Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the wristwatch in the early nineteenth century, starting the design in 1810 and completing the work in 1812. Breguet was a master craftsman and a visionary in horology whose many technological advancements in watchkeeping earned him the reputation of the greatest watchmaker of all time. His clientele included royalty and elite figures of his era, a testament to his skill and reputation.

Caroline Murat, the Queen of Naples and sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, commissioned this world’s first wristwatch. Known for her taste in fine jewelry and passion for Breguet’s timepieces (of which she owned over 30), the Queen desired an exquisite and functional timepiece. Breguet’s watch, Breguet No. 2639, married elegance with technical precision in a small, wrist-mounted timepiece. Alas, this piece has been lost to history. However, the invention had set in motion a time-keeping revolution that would eventually see wristwatches replace their pocket-worn counterparts.

In 1868, Patek Philippe made another significant stride in wristwatch history. The Swiss manufacturer created a wristwatch for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary, further establishing wrist-worn watches as practical and fashionable accessories. While Breguet’s creation was born out of the desire for a unique timepiece, Patek Philippe’s design aligned with evolving fashion trends and practicality in timekeeping. The Countess’s timepiece is renowned for its craftsmanship and is considered one of the earliest examples of wristwatches transitioning into mainstream use.

What was the reason behind the invention of the wristwatch?

The reason behind the invention of the wristwatch was the order the Queen of Naples had placed to Abraham-Louis Breguet. The Queen was an admirer of Breguet’s timepieces and desired one that would blend timekeeping with aesthetics and elegance. To satisfy this desire for a watch that serves as an ornamental jewelry piece, the Queen commissioned what would become the first wristwatch ever made.

In contrast, the wristwatch Patek Philippe later created for Countess Koscowicz in 1868 was more aligned with practical considerations and changing fashion trends. This wristwatch marked a shift from the pocket watch, offering a more convenient way to tell time. While Breguet’s creation for the Queen of Naples was a symbol of royal opulence, Patek Philippe’s design for the Countess Koscowicz reflected a shift towards utility in personal accessories.

Are “wristwatch” and “watch” the same?

No, “wristwatch” and “watch” are not the same. All wristwatches are watches, but not all watches are designed to be worn on the wrist. Watches come in various forms, each serving the same fundamental purpose of timekeeping but differing in design and method of wear. Listed below are the five common types of watches.

  • Pocket watches: Traditional watches are carried in a pocket, often attached to a chain. They were the norm before wristwatches gained popularity.
  • Wristwatches: Designed to be worn on the wrist, secured by a strap or bracelet. They offer convenience and ease of access, making them the most common type today.
  • Smartwatches: Smartwatches are worn on the wrist but offer advanced features beyond traditional timekeeping, like fitness tracking and smartphone connectivity.
  • Pendant watches: Worn around the neck like a necklace. These are more decorative and less common in modern times.
  • Ring watches: Small watches are incorporated into a ring, serving more as a fashion statement than a practical timekeeping tool.

What is the first wristwatch in the world?

The first wristwatch in the world is the Breguet No. 2639, commissioned by Caroline Murat, the Queen of Naples. Abraham-Louis Breguet designed and created watch number 2639 upon receiving an order for it from the Queen.

Breguet’s archives from the early and mid-nineteenth century detail the origins of watch No. 2639. According to the watchmaker’s register of commissions (a record of orders the manufacturer receives), Caroline Murat placed two orders with Abraham-Louis Breguet on June 8th, 1810. The first was for a grande complication watch, whereas the second one requested a “repeater watch for a bracelet.” Breguet’s manufacturing register then details the creation of the timepiece, which was completed in 1811 and delivered to the customer in 1812.

Watch No. 2639 reappears in Breguet’s repairs register four decades later, once in 1849 and again in 1855. No further records exist of the world’s first wristwatch, which is now presumed lost. Luckily, the archives of the manufacturer have preserved enough detail for us to know what the timepiece looked like and its technical specifications.

What did the first wristwatch look like?

It’s impossible to know precisely what the first wristwatch looked like. Breguet No. 2639 has been lost without a trace since its last repair in 1855. However, Breguet’s commissions and manufacturing records indicate that watch No. 2639 had the following features and specifications.

  • Moon phase indicator: The world’s first wristwatch had a moon phase complication.
  • Repeater: The watch had a repeater, although the frequency of the chimes remains unknown.
  • Thermometer: Watch No. 2639 came equipped with a thermometer. It’s not certain how this feature looked.
  • Silver dial: The dial was engine-driven and was made of silver.
  • Thin, oval shape: The case was delicate, with a slender oval shape.
  • Hair-and-gold-thread wristlet: A wristlet of hair and gold thread held the watch case.

Unfortunately, Breguet’s records omit the following crucial information about watch No. 2639.

  • Size: There is no indication of the exact dimensions of the world’s first wristwatch.
  • Configuration of the dial: The dial must’ve been oval to fit the case, but its exact configuration remains unknown.
  • Shape of the bracelet: No records of the bracelet’s shape exist.
  • Attachment and fastening: The nature and aesthetic of the watch’s attachments and fastenings are unknown.
Possible appearance of the world's first wristwatch
Possible appearance of Breguet No. 2639 based on the manufacturer’s records

Despite the missing details, Breguet has paid homage to the illustrious No. 2639 with its Reine de Naples line, which comprises timepieces based on the known details of the lost original. Watches in this line feature the characteristic oval shape of the famous No. 2639, albeit with dial, bezel, jewels, cases, and bracelet variations.

How has the wristwatch evolved over time?

The wristwatch has evolved from a time-telling ornament to an indispensable tool of everyday life, reflecting technological advancements, fashion changes, and cultural norms shifts. It has continuously transformed since its inception as a bespoke piece for royalty in 1810. The following eight milestones mark the evolution of the wristwatch.

  • 1810 – the first wristwatch: Abraham-Louis Breguet creates the first known wristwatch for the Queen of Naples, blending the intricate art of watchmaking with the elegance of jewelry.
  • 1868 – Patek Philippe’s innovation: Patek Philippe crafts a wristwatch for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary, signaling the wristwatch’s potential as a fashionable and practical timepiece for the wider public.
  • Early 20th Century – wristwatches for men: Wristwatches gain popularity among men during World War I for their practicality in combat, leading to designs that emphasize durability and readability.
  • 1920s – the Art Deco influence: Wristwatches embrace the Art Deco movement, characterized by geometric shapes and lavish decoration.
  • 1950s – the diving watch: Brands like Rolex and Omega introduce wristwatches designed for diving, offering water resistance and specialized features that contribute to wristwatch versatility.
  • 1960s – the quartz revolution: The introduction of quartz movements in the 1970s revolutionizes the industry with increased accuracy and affordability, reshaping the market and consumer expectations.
  • 1980s – the digital watch: Digital wristwatches emerge, offering electronic displays and additional functionalities like calculators and alarms, further expanding the wristwatch’s role.
  • 2000s – smartwatches: The 21st century sees the rise of smartwatches, which incorporate mobile technology, health tracking, and internet connectivity, representing a leap towards wearable technology.

How were the first wristwatches used?

The first wristwatches were used as jewelry and status symbols, with timekeeping playing a less prominent role. They served as an accessory for nobility, signifying wealth and sophistication. That said, the world’s first wristwatch (Breguet No. 2639) was commissioned by the Queen of Naples, who was an amateur horologist with a great appreciation for the technology behind timekeeping.

The initial users of early wristwatches were women of the European aristocracy. Patek Philippe’s 1868 creation sparked a broader interest in wristwatches, yet women still largely favored them. Men of the era primarily stuck to pocket watches, viewing wristwatches as feminine accessories. This perception stemmed from the resemblance of early wristwatches to fine jewelry. It wasn’t until World War I that wristwatches became popular among men. The practicality of having a watch on the wrist, rather than fumbling for one in the pocket, became apparent on the battlefield. Soldiers needed an efficient way to tell time while keeping their hands free, leading to the widespread adoption of wristwatches by men. The rugged and functional designs developed for military use shifted society’s perception of wristwatches and gave them universal acceptance as a practical tool for both men and women.

How does the first wristwatch differ from wristwatches today?

The first wristwatch differs from today’s in design, functionality, and technology. Early watches were ornate creations with mechanical movements, while modern wristwatches range from minimalist to complex structures, often featuring quartz technology or smart capabilities. Below are five factors that differentiate early wristwatches from their modern counterparts.

  • Design aesthetics: Early watches were elaborate and decorative. The design of today’s wristwatches varies widely, from sleek and professional to sporty and rugged.
  • Mechanism: Breguet’s creation used a mechanical movement requiring manual winding. In contrast, contemporary wristwatches may be mechanical, automatic, quartz-powered, or digital, with some even harnessing solar power or kinetic energy.
  • Material durability: The materials used in early watches were primarily precious metals and jewels, as watchmakers sought to emphasize luxury. Modern watches use a range of materials designed for longevity and resistance to elements, such as stainless steel, titanium, and sapphire crystal.
  • Precision and accuracy: Early wristwatches were crafted with the finest techniques of the time, but they somewhat lag behind the precision of today’s timepieces, which benefit from centuries of innovation in horology.
  • Accessibility: Wristwatches’ astronomical prices originally limited their availability to the elite. Nowadays, wristwatches are accessible to the public, with price tags to suit virtually any budget.

What are the oldest wristwatch brands in the world?

Listed below are three of the oldest wristwatch brands in the world.

  • Breguet: Established in 1775 by Abraham-Louis Breguet, this brand holds the honor of creating the first wristwatch for the Queen of Naples in 1810. Today, Breguet remains synonymous with innovation and luxury in watchmaking.
  • Patek Philippe: Founded in 1839, Patek Philippe is renowned for its role in pioneering the wristwatch. The production of a wristwatch for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1868 helped the brand cement its legacy in horological history.
  • Vacheron Constantin: With its inception in 1755, Vacheron Constantin is one of the oldest manufacturers of luxury timepieces. They have consistently contributed to the evolution of the wristwatch with their exquisite designs and mechanical mastery.

These venerable houses mentioned above shaped the landscape of horology and hold the distinction of being the first wristwatch companies in the world. These manufacturers continue to honor their legacy through timepieces that blend historical craftsmanship and contemporary innovation.

Do old wristwatches cost more money?

Yes, old wristwatches often cost more money. Older watches generally command higher prices due to their rarity, historical significance, and brand legacy. Vintage watches that are rare, well-maintained, and come from a renowned brand or have a unique history tend to appreciate over time, fetching higher prices in the collector’s market. For example, models that were limited editions, owned by historical figures, or were groundbreaking at their time of production command premiums. Conversely, older watches from obscure brands or those in poor condition often hold less value than their brand-new counterparts from coveted watchmakers.

What is the future of wristwatches?

The future of wristwatches appears to move into the following three trajectories.

  • Integration of smart features: Wearable technology continues to advance, and integrating smart features into traditional watch design is becoming more prevalent. Smartwatches with capabilities such as health monitoring, GPS, and mobile connectivity are already on the rise, pointing to a future where wristwatches serve as extensions of our digital lives.
  • Resurgence of mechanical movement: There is renewed interest in watches with mechanical movement. For some, the interest in traditional technology stems from nostalgia for a non-digital world. For others, mechanical movement eliminates the need to change the watch’s battery. Meanwhile, luxury watch brands largely forgo quartz in favor of mechanical movement, as the latter requires more intricate craftsmanship – a characteristic collectors and horology enthusiasts continue to value greatly.
  • Emphasis on sustainability: The watch industry is seeing a greater emphasis on sustainability, with brands exploring eco-friendly materials and production methods. This trend is likely to grow, with future wristwatches becoming more sustainable.

What are the most luxurious watches today?

Below is a list of the 20 most luxurious watches today.

  1. Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime: Features 20 complications, including a Grand Sonnerie and a perpetual calendar. A one-of-a-kind iteration of the timepiece sold for $31 million at auction, while other models cost between $3.4 million and $3.2 million.
  2. Breguet Grande Complication Marie Antoinette: An antique gold pocket watch with multiple complications. This historical timepiece is valued at $30 million.
  3. Jaeger-LeCoultre Joaillerie 101 Manchette: A sapphire-dial bracelet watch presented to Queen Elizabeth II on the 60th anniversary of her reign. The watch features 576 diamonds and has one of the smallest movements in the world. The estimated price of the timepiece is $26 million.
  4. Chopard 201-Carat: Features 874 high-grade diamonds, a marvel of jewelry and timekeeping. The value of the watch is estimated at $25 million.
  5. Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication: A gold pocket watch with 24 complications. The watch sold for $24 million at an auction.
  6. Jacob & Co. Billionaire Watch Collection: Adorned with 260 carats of emerald-cut diamonds in the original composition, the series is a testament to opulence and precision. The collection’s retail price ranges as high as $20 million.
  7. Rolex Paul Newman Daytona Ref. 6239: Iconic design and association with Paul Newman, marking its rarity and desirability. The original timepiece owned by Paul Newman is priced at around $18 million.
  8. Patek Philippe Stainless Steel Ref. 1518: Rare stainless-steel construction, combining elegance with exclusivity. One model fetched $11 million at auction due to its rarity.
  9. Louis Moinet Meteoris Collection: Incorporates rare fragments from celestial bodies, combining luxury with astronomical wonder. The price of the collection stands at $4.6 million or higher.
  10. Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4: Known as one of the world’s most complicated wristwatches, featuring 36 complications. The Mega 4 has a retail price of $2.7 million.
  11. A. Lange & Söhne Grand Complication: Ultra-complex watch with chiming mechanisms and a perpetual calendar. The timepiece is priced at $2.6 million.
  12. Rolex Paul Newman Ref. 6264 John Player Special: Rare and sought-after design, exemplifying Rolex’s timeless appeal in watchmaking. One sold for $1.5 million at auction, though typical prices range between $400,000 and $950,000.
  13. Bulgari Magsonic Sonnerie Tourbillon Watch: Timepiece features a sonnerie mechanism and tourbillon. The watch’s price hovers around $950,000.
  14. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Grande Complication: Incorporates a minute repeater, perpetual calendar, and split-second chronograph, representing a zenith of complexity and prestige. With a retail price of approximately $740,000, it exemplifies luxury in the refined craftsmanship of Swiss watchmaking.
  15. Ulysse Nardin Hannibal Minute Repeater Tourbillon: Combines minute repeater and tourbillon, honoring Hannibal Barca with exquisite craftsmanship. The retail price of the timepiece stands at $735,000.
  16. George Daniels Co-Axial Chronograph: This watch comes with a co-axial escapement system. The current owner purchased the piece for £385,250 ($617,594) at Sotheby’s.
  17. Christophe Claret DualTow Night Eagle: A limited edition timepiece with a unique belt-driven system. The retail price of the watches in this collection is around $545,455.
  18. Maitres Du Temps Chapter One Round Transparence: Showcases a complex tourbillon with multiple complications. Watches of this limited edition are priced at $540,000 apiece.
  19. Chopard L.U.C All-in-One Janus Watch: Dual-faced design with numerous complications. The price of the timepiece is between $389,000 to $404,000.
  20. Girard-Perregaux Quasar Light Tourbillon: Watch featuring a transparent design with a complex tourbillon mechanism. The watch costs $294,000 at the time of writing.