Watches symbolize structure, continuous motion, and synchronization. The idea of the watch’s purpose in society has changed drastically from its invention as the calculation and importance of time has evolved through the history of watches.
The first recorded measurement of time was a sundial created by the Egyptians in 1500 B.C. However, it’s possible that rudimentary attempts to measure time started long before that. History continued and the measurement of time evolved as the sundial joined innovations with mechanical engineering, spring work, and creative thought. Monasteries inspired mechanical clocks with regimented worship schedules and the ringing of bells became aligned with hourly shifts.
As clocks developed and became more reliable people wanted a mobile time keeper. The first wrist watch was made in sixteenth century England and was incredibly popular among women. Men preferred the pocket watch until the twentieth century. Military men started to make the shift to wearing wrist watches as they used time synchronization in battle to avoid signaling to the enemy. In World War I soldiers were also encouraged to wear their watches on the wrist for the improved efficiency of checking time over a pocket watch that a soldier would have to reach into their coat to view. This time-keeping trend continued in the post-war era as enlisted soldiers continued to wear their time pieces at home and wrist watches overturned pocket watches as the popular accessory.
Rolex and Quartz have dominated the watch market with popular designs and strong reputations of lasting mechanics and reliable time pieces. However, as manufacturing processes have become more efficient and inexpensive the function of watches has turned more towards fashion and status. Heirloom and antique watches are often appreciated as jewelry or works of art rather than just as time pieces. Women typically choose watches based on fashion appearance and often wear inexpensive costume watches that are of decent quality but feature bolder fashionable designs. Men’s dress watches are appropriate for business and formal attire and lend an air of control and timeliness.
The first digital wrist watch appeared in the 1920s and was popular as a futuristic digital time piece but they were too expensive for the common market. It wasn’t until 1975 that digital watches were mass-produced and became accessible and fantastically popular. The digital display, however, is more useful than collectible because of the lessened craftsmanship required to make them. Collectors prefer analog dials over digital displays for many reasons including historical relevance, masterful work, and higher quality of dials and watch workings.
Watches are now reaching new heights, and depths, in space and deep sea. Astronauts require watches that can remain efficient through zero gravity environment, extreme temperature changes, strong vibrations, and other extreme conditions. Interestingly, astronauts wore 24-hour analog dial watches on the first manned U.S. orbital mission to avoid confusion between AM and PM which are meaningless in space. Scuba Diving requires watches to be water resistant and strong through pressure changes. Special diving watches are rated for their abilities to withstand pressure at certain depths.
The watch has evolved to fit the needs of consumers within a changing society and is currently losing favor. A 2007 study among teens found that nearly two-thirds of teens never wear a watch and only about 1 in 10 wears one every day. In 2006 Americans spent $5.9 billion on watches. That is a lot of money but was 17% less than five years earlier. The watch continues to evolve and as its importance fades in a society with smart phones and gadgets to take its place it surely will continue to develop to keep with the times.