The History of Watches

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Vintage watches are something we have specialised in for a long time so we find it absolutely fascinating to look at how they all began.  We’ve looked into the history of the wristwatch before and talked about the first men’s wristwatches ever made but this time we’re going back further to see how the change from clocks with weights and pendulums to the use of springs allowed clocks to be worn on the body. 

The Locksmith’s Little Clocks

Originally a locksmith, Peter Henlein became the inventor largely credited with creating the first watch.  The breakthrough came when he created a spring mechanism to ‘power’ clocks thereby doing away with the need for weights and pendulums.  This made it possible for him to make really small clocks.  Because these clocks didn’t have dangling weights or parts that had to remain upright, they could be portable and Henlein experimented by making them smaller and smaller until they were small enough to be worn around the neck like a pendant.  These first watches were egg shaped and would eventually be called a ‘watch’ because they were used by sailors to time the length of their watches on the ship.  By 1524, Henlein was making wearable clocks often and they became quite fashionable.

Screws and Pockets

Needing to hold watches together with pins etc. made it difficult to make them very small so when screws first came about in around 1550 it was a game changer.  It meant they could make them much smaller and when they started adding glass instead of metal covers for them in 1610, they became even more handy.  At this point in time though, they were still very much a novelty and fashion accessory as they simply weren’t even nearly accurate enough to be useful in telling the time.  In fact, they didn’t start making watches with minute hands until 1680.  It is also believed that pocket watches as we know them today with their flattened out disc design became a thing because Charles II made waistcoats fashionable so the watches were shaped to fit nicely into waistcoat pockets.

Accuracy by Levers

Even by the early 1700s, watches were so inaccurate that they could lose several hours off the time in a single day.  It was only in around the 1750s that a level escapement was added to the design which made them far more accurate and lose only a few minutes a day.  The first wristwatches ever made were believed to be one made by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1810 for the Queen of Naples and by Patek Philippe in 1869 for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary.  Wristwatches remained almost exclusively an accessory for women until the first world war when an aviator asked for a watch he could wear on his wrist for convenience.  Their extensive use, because of their practicality, during WWI made them a fashionable men’s accessory very quickly and they remain so today.

We love a bit of history at James Ross Jewellers and even though we don’t sell a huge number of pocket watches, we do get them in occasionally and we’re always interested to learn more about how watches came about.  If you would like to talk to us about any vintage watches that we have in stock or can source for you, please give us a call on 01273 239763 or email

The History of Watches was last modified: May 5th, 2020 by Admin