How the Trench Watch Became the Modern Wristwatch We Know Today | VARIO
The Trench Watch, a simple innovation for soldiers of the past, became the blueprint for one of the world's most beloved accessories. Here's how it happened.
Group portrait of Canadian soliders from WW1. Two soldiers can be seen wearing wristlets.
The design of the wristwatch is perfect in its comfort and convenience. Even with the widespread adoption of the smartphone, which can instantly tell the time at your current location and any other place on Earth, watches like Rolex Submariner prove that the world has no intention of leaving its favorite accessory behind.
But how did we get here? The wristwatch has colorful history – one that, sadly, cannot be credited to a specific inventor. However, like many key inventions, it was driven by necessity, and while the originator may be lost to time, the result of their ingenuity has become timeless.
Early Trench Watch from Ebay
THE PREDECESSOR: FROM PENDANT TO POCKET
Invented in the 13th century under the Roman Catholic Church, weight-driven mechanical clocks may be the modern wristwatch’s oldest ancestor, but it is hardly the first way we tracked the time. From sundials to hourglasses, humanity has been keeping tabs on the progression of the Earth around the sun for thousands of years – this was just the first time we created a device with such carefully regulated speed.
Two hundred years later, German inventor Peter Henlein invented the smaller, portable version of the mechanical clock known as the ‘clock watch’ or pocket watch. Bulky and egg-shaped, this first iteration of the pocket watch was worn around the neck and did not have any glass to protect the watch face from outside interference. They also did not have an hour hand, so rather than the exact time, wearers only had a rough estimate of the time of day. In 1675, the improved pocket version was introduced, boasting a minute hand and glass cover. Charles II of England is widely regarded as the originator of the pocket watch style.
A SMALL DETOUR: THE BOER WAR
While the Trench Watch was popularized in the World War I era, there is evidence of this type of timepiece being used on the battlefield much earlier. During the 1899 to 1902 Boer War, soldiers informally altered their pocket watches to attach them to their wrists on the battlefield and more accurately synchronize their movements.
Up until this point, while the pocket watch had remained a solid fashion statement for men, wristlets, which was the term for watches attached to the wrist via bracelets, were mostly seen as a feminine fashion. Here were the first hints that not only could they be marketed to men, but also have practical military application.
IN THE TRENCHES: THE ORIGIN OF THE MODERN WRISTWATCH
By the start of WW1 in 1914, the wristwatch solution was not entirely new, but for the first time ever, it would become a standard accessory for a significantly large group of men.
Since most civilian males did not wear ‘wristlets’ at this point, their foray into the trenches would, for many, be their first experience with having a timepiece on their wrist. Under hectic battlefield conditions where timing was everything, it was important for units to coordinate everything from their training and schedules to the moment they launched an attack. Here, wristwatches were not a fashion statement, they were a critical part of survival, and watch manufacturers rushed to produce, en masse. These Trench Watches solved several issues:
- Portability – Pocket watches had to be pulled from pockets, opened, and closed each time military personnel needed to check the time. Trench Watches could be read with a glance at the wrist.
- Readability – Where earlier pocket watches were fashion-focused, Trench Watches needed to be read in a variety of conditions, including rain and nightfall. Luminous radium, combined with larger numbers, solved this issue.
- Durability – To make them more resistant to dust, water, and other substances that civilians would not ordinarily have encountered, screw cases and glass covers were added to many Trench Watch designs.
Over four years, they evolved from a part of the elite, upper-class culture into a symbol of courage and bravery. These were no longer just fashion accessories, but a practical device for the working class.
AFTER THE WAR: THE WRISTWATCH REDEFINED
By the time the first World War ended, opinions on the wristwatch had done a one-eighty. With its practical design that was far more convenient than its pocket watch predecessor, and close association with the men who had fought bravely to protect their country under harsh conditions, the Trench Watch was now the new standard.
Veterans of WWI came back home wearing their trench watches, thus setting a standard for civilian men to follow. Moving away from wartime conditions, as men returned to the workforce and business environment, marketing of Trench watches changed.
After WWI solidified the birth of men's wristwatch, manufacturers began creating timepieces to be worn on all sorts of occasions. By 1930, more wristwatches than pocket watches were being sold. Companies could now focus on aesthetics as well as utility and create watches that were far more durable and multi-functional than their Trench Watch forefathers. By the time the second World War began, Trench Watches were not a new solution, but paved the way for Field Watches, a well-loved utilitarian tool that militaries all over the world use.
AN ODE TO THE TRENCHES
Most of the elements we see in our favorite watches emerged from the Trench Watch era. Genuine Trench Watches from the World War era are beloved antiques and collectors’ items to this day however most of them are fragile with its age. When VARIO set out to make a tribute to the watch that started it all, we wanted to ensure that we weren’t just cherry-picking a few design elements but capturing the spirit of what made the Trench Watch so definitive. Some key upgrades made possible by more than a century of innovation include a switch from fragile glass to shatter-proof double domed sapphire, toxic radium paste to non-radioactive Lume, and fragile watch components to a robust Japanese automatic movement that boasts hand-winding and hacking seconds. Where an original Trench Watch might have crumbled elements, needing a quick replacement due to age, shock, or the tiniest bit of moisture, ours is made according to modern specs and to remember history and carry stories far into the future.
With our gorgeous, high-quality straps, pieces from the VARIO 1918 collection are snapshots of a time when history was being made in more ways than one. Watch lovers will certainly appreciate this homage that convinced men to wear wrist watches.
For the full collection of 1918 WW1 Trench watch, please visit
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