Perusing a collection of antique ladies’ cocktail watches is like opening the door onto a long-lost world of old-fashioned romance and glamour. Heart-felt sentiments hand-engraved onto the back of an elegant gold watch given ‘To Betty with love from Dan’ pay tribute to a forgotten love story. And you can still imagine a jewel-laced watch being draped around the alabaster wrist of a 1930s screen siren on the opening night of her movie. What better way to mark a dazzling moment in time?
For over a century wristwatches for ladies have combined functionality and beauty in one easy-to-wear piece, reaching their zenith in the highly decorative, often bejewelled ‘cocktail’ or ‘evening’ watch. Add to this the horologist’s skill at engineering in miniature and it comes as no surprise that the interest in these timeworn masterpieces is rising.
When did the fashion for ladies’ wristwatches begin?
Records exist of Elizabeth I wearing a watch on her arm, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that the wristwatch really took off. Prior to this high-society ladies could accessorise with intricately enamelled, bejewelled fob or pendant watches, a feminised version of a gentleman’s pocket watch. But as the fashion for structured, corseted gowns waned, a new solution to the timepiece was sought. Delicate silk ‘flapper’ dresses, en vogue in the 1920s and 30s, could not withstand the weight of a fob watch, nor did they have pockets to carry one in. Ladies required a multifunctional piece that was practical but punctuated their style. Wearing a timepiece on the wrist made it a quick and easy task to read the time for the busy, modern woman, especially during the outbreak of World War I when women had a new role to play, replacing men in the workforce.
When was their heyday?
The years of 1900 to 1930 witnessed the greatest output of women’s wristwatches. As a relatively new phenomenon, demand was high and improvements in manufacturing techniques enabled watches to be produced quickly to coincide with rapidly changing tastes and fashions. As horology developed, movements could be made smaller, allowing the strap and the case to take centre stage over the dial. Towards the end of this period, wristwatches for ladies were treated as pieces of jewellery. In some designs the dial was concealed by a hinged flap, giving the impression of a bracelet, rather than a watch. This was also the time when coloured gemstones such as rubies and sapphires were becoming available and were used to embellish watches with flamboyant colour.
What should I look for?
Quality varies tremendously as there has always been a need for a wristwatch to suit every budget. ‘The key is to buy the best quality and most unusual example you can find within its range,’ says watch enthusiast Deborah Doyle. ‘Look out for clean dials and detailed, engraved decoration on silver cases – a sign of quality.’ Examples that have a name on the dial are always going to be more attractive as the manufacturer will have a following and a standard of quality that helps hold up the value. Remember to check the length of the strap: ladies generally had smaller frames in the first part of the 20th century and it is common to find that watches from this period simply do not fit the modern woman’s wrist.
Amy Brenan’s full feature on antique cocktail watches was printed in our March issue. You can buy this issue and other back issues here
Image: Silver and marcasite bracelet with watch hidden in centre made in Birmingham 1964, £365, Spectrum at Grays Antiques