A watch is a portable timepiece, most commonly carried in a pocket or strapped on the wrist. Pocket watches can be as large as three inches in diameter, while wristwatches are smaller, so that they do not interfere with the wearer's movement. Though they are usually worn for practical reasons, so that the wearer can keep track of the time, watches are also pieces of jewelry, which express the wearer's wealth, social status, and sense of style. Watches have become not only treasured family heirlooms, passed from one generation to the next, but also gifts to mark special times in a person's life, such as graduation or retirement.
The idea of the timepieces as an accessory is quite ancient. Romans as early as 500 B.C.E. carried small sundials as jewelry. The mechanical clock was invented in Europe around 1300 C.E. , and portable miniature clocks soon followed. By the fifteenth century pocket timepieces became common accessories for both men and women. During the nineteenth century most men who could afford to carried pocket watches, often gold or silver, with decorative covers that closed over the face. The most fashionable way to wear such a watch was tucked into a vest pocket, with a long gold chain that draped across the front of the vest to tuck in a buttonhole, often with a gold penknife on the other end. Working men sometimes carried their watches in a pants pocket for protection. Women, on the other hand, wore their watches in a variety of fashionable ways. Some suspended a watch from a long chain around the neck, while others had a small watch attached to earrings or pinned by a ribbon at the waist.
Evidence of a watch attached to a bracelet comes from as early as the sixteenth century, but the first regular use came during the Boer War between England and Dutch settlers in South Africa from 1899 to 1902. English officers needed to coordinate their attacks, and they didn't want to have to dig in their pocket for a watch. The wristwatch was the answer. The vast military movements of World War I (1914–18) required even better timing, and soldiers on both sides of the conflict began wearing self-winding wristwatches, which meant that they wound the watch with a small spindle on the side of the watch. Unreliable at first, they were soon made quite accurate. Men returning from the war kept their watches, and they became popular accessories. Soon, wristwatches were made with decorative leather or metal straps and with rich casings of gold, silver, or other precious metals. Wristwatches have been the most common form of timepiece ever since, both for men and women, and are available today in every price range, from a five-dollar plastic watch to a thirty-thousand-dollar gold Rolex.
Dale, Rodney. Timekeeping. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Edwards, Frank. Wristwatches: A Connoisseur's Guide. Willowdale, Canada: Firefly Books, 1997.
Terrisse, Sophie Ann, ed. Prestigious Watches. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.