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The Evolution of the Art Deco Wristwatch | VARIO

Less than two years after WWI ended, the roaring 20s ushered a new era in art, architecture, and style. Here's how Art Deco changed watches forever.

Looking back at How the Trench Watch Became the Modern Wristwatch, it’s clear that the watches we wear today were shaped by significant cultural change.

Prior to World War I, pocket watches were accessories for the elite, with wristwatches or wristlets falling in and out of fashion with their intended audience – women. During the war, the utility of the Trench wristwatch and its association with courage and patriotism triggered its mass production, transforming it into a unisex product. By the end of the war, wristwatches were accessible to the working class, and as the economy grew and prospered in the ‘roaring 20s’, they became an expression of style and status, especially in the business world.

Naturally, as the increasingly popular Art Deco movement became associated with wealth and sophistication, watchmakers began creating timepieces that could fit that mold.

empire state building
Empire State Building


While the term ‘Art Deco’ wouldn’t surface until 1925 at an exhibition in Paris, the art style itself had been evolving for quite some time. With influences like Art Nouveau, Bauhaus, and Cubism, Art Deco as a movement focuses on simple elegance and uses strong, clean lines, geometric shapes, exquisite detail work, and man-made materials that stand out. These include iron, silver, glass, glazed brick, or chrome.

Two often-cited examples of Art Deco architecture are New York’s Empire State and Chrysler buildings. Both buildings incorporate prominent geometric elements; the Empire State Building with its aluminum-framed vertical window columns and the Chrysler Building with its sunburst-terraced crown. Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film, The Great Gatsby, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel of the same name, also boasted strong Art Deco set design and promotional materials.

the great gatsby


Drawing inspiration from core Art Deco elements that captured the glamour and sophistication consumers desired in the Roaring 1920s, watchmakers began releasing these Art Deco designs, many of which are still highly sought-after until this day. Here are a few modern interpretations of the golden era in Art Deco design.

Vacheron Constantin American 1921

For proof of the timelessness of Art Deco watches, watch lovers need only look to the success of the Vacheron Constantin Historiques Collection. Since 2009, the brand has been releasing updated versions of some of its most iconic watches, including the American 1921, which was originally known by its 11677 reference number.

This wristwatch’s most distinct feature is its 45-degree counter-clockwise tilt, which angles the twelfth hour hand to the left of the white face. Both functional and stylistic, it allowed wearers to glance at the time while driving, for instance, without removing their hand from the steering wheel and tilting it. Though the face was a circle, it was set inside a gold, rounded square, blending the geometric elements. A bold gold typeface and sub-second display completed the look.

Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 Mid-Size (photo by Monochrome Watches)

Bulova’s 1920s Breton and Cambridge Models

Founded in 1825, Bulova was no stranger to creating watches by the time the Art Deco period rolled around. In fact, they would release dozens of fantastic models throughout the 1920s and 1930s that perfectly encapsulated the evolving style trends of the time.

By 1928, the company had multiple watch models that included bold lettering – often gold – against a white square or rectangular dial. Two examples of this are the Breton and Cambridge models, with the Breton carrying a more simplistic rectangle silver case and gold lettering, while the Cambridge was much flashier with gold and silver accents at the top and bottom. Both models also had a sub-seconds display, which was another feature shared by many of their Art Deco wristwatches.

Joseph Bulova Breton
Joseph Bulova Breton (photo by A BLOG TO WATCH)

The First JLC Reverso (1931)

Swiss luxury watch company Jaeger-LeCoultre created its first watch, Reverso, as a solution for British polo players in India that kept breaking their timepieces on the field. One of the definitive Art Deco watches of the period, the Reverso was a simple rectangle watch with a black face and silver accents. Simple, singular strokes marked each hour – two strokes were used for the number twelve – and a rectangular chemin de fer marked the minutes.

JLC would eventually release several variations of the watch, which swapped specific elements without compromising its strong Art Deco influence. The silver-faced, gold-baton indexed Reverso Silver held the shiny, chrome look typical for the movement, while the Reverso Lady replaced the batons with a bold, geometric typeface.

tribute to first reverso
Tribute to Reverso 1931 (photo by Quill and Pad)

Hamilton 1940s Boulton

Not every watch company that created great Art Deco watches has kept its doors open or stayed independent. Hamilton Watch Company, now integrated with the Swatch Group, made a series of Hamilton Boulton towards the end of the Art Deco movement in the 1940s which was reissued from time to time, making them a mainstay in their collection.

The vintage model always featured a high-end movement, whereas the modern version is very similarly styled to the original but it's much larger and many of them are quartz with the exception of some mechanical movements.
Hamilton Boulton Mechanical (photo by Carollinum)

By now, readers should have a deeper understanding of what made Art Deco watches so exceptional, and why watchmakers continue to draw inspiration from their styles to this day. VARIO is no exception, as in 2019, we created our very own tribute to these timeless timepieces.

Vario's Empire Art Deco Watch

Because of how well Art Deco ties into modern trends, VARIO’s Empire Art Deco Watch, while paying homage to its predecessors, still feels new and exciting, like the other watches on this list.

From the understated guilloché dial and bold yet elegant lettering, to the simple yet distinctive geometry of the hands, you’ll find it embraces the same sweeping beauty that sits in the halls of the Empire State in New York. There are many ways to exude luxury, and the Vario Empire taps into this Art Deco movement to find innovative ways to, represent luxury, glamour and exuberance. Dial options range from the more traditional White Tuxedo, Black Tuxedo, and Gunmetal guilloche, to the vibrant colors and materials of the period like Spring Green, Summer Blue, and Autumn Salmon. A gorgeous Empire State exhibition case-back protects the reliable internal Miyota 6T33 Hand-Wound, Seiko NH38A Automatic and Seiko VK64 Meca-Quartz movement.

Despite almost a century of evolution in style, Art Deco remains one of the most easily recognizable, and beloved eras in watch design. VARIO isn’t just carrying on the legacy, but ensuring that through modern engineering, watches of this kind are far more durable and accessible to watch lovers the world over.

vario empire watch

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