The History of the Wristwatch

This book is devoted to wristwatches. But every smartphone can show the time nowadays, so the role of a wristwatch must also be to attract admiring gazes as a piece of jewelry that can be seen from a distance. If you believe style consultants, then a wristwatch — alongside a wedding ring and a pair of cufflinks — is the only appropriate jewelry for a man. Quietly ticking on its wearer’s wrist, a watch signifies the importance its owner ascribes to precious time.

To delve more deeply into the history of timepieces for the wrist, we must return to the era of Napoleon Bonaparte. One evening some time before his coronation as French emperor, the First Consul and his entourage were traveling by coach to the Theatre-Francais in Paris. The horses suddenly bolted in the Rue Saint-Honore and the noble carriage toppled in front of Marie-Etienne Nitot’s little shop. The jeweler and his staff hurried to the fallen vehicle, helped the theatergoers to their feet, and invited them into the shop. After the coach had been righted, Bonaparte thanked his hosts and promised not to forget their kindness. Nitot recalled this pledge when he heard about the upcoming coronation, which was to occur on December 2, 1804. Hoping to be commissioned to craft the crown jewels, he and the gemstone merchant Salomon Halphen entered the lion’s den in the Tuileries Palace, where they convincingly presented their offer to the future emperor. Pressed for time, Napoleon agreed. His visitors explained that they lacked liquidity to purchase the precious materials, so their patron gave them a prepayment of 2.5 million francs. The sum on the jeweler’s invoice was ultimately six times greater, but Napoleon and his wife were wholly satisfied. It went without saying that an appropriate gift was needed two years later, when Josephine’s son from her first marriage wed a daughter of Bavaria’s King Maximilian I. The court jeweler created a pair of sumptuous bracelets that Auguste Amalia of Bavaria could wear on her left and right wrists. One of these bangles included a manually adjustable calendar, the other a little watch movement. It seems legitimate to describes Marie-Etienne Nitot as the inventor of the first wristwatch in the truest sense of the world.

But a history of this genre of timepiece would be incomplete if it failed to mention England’s Queen Elizabeth I, who was delighted to receive a ticking present on the occasion of the reinstitution of the Reformation in 1571. Her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, had arranged to have a small portable cloc redesigned so she could war it on her wrist. The French intellectual Blaise Pascal is believed to have affixed his pocket-watch to his forearm in the mid 17th century. Mothers and nursemaids did likewise because they felt that their timepieces were better protected there from children’s unpredictable little hands than if they were worn around the neck as pendants or pinned to clothing as brooches.

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