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Exploring Watch Trends Over the Last 100 Years

Watchmaking is not immune to the trends of the time so how have they changed over the last 100 years?...

While watchmaking is very much a historical craft, it isn’t powerless against the trends and technology of its time. Hence watches have changed over time much the same way as clothing does and no decade is exactly the same. 

Each decade saw watchmaking reflect the era it was a part of with real world influences taking part in their design and application. Hell, wristwatches became popular because of the First World War, so over the last 100 years or so, what were those watchmaking trends?

Keep in mind that these are just general trends and not an exhaustive overview of each decade in watchmaking. 

The 1910s: War Shaping Watchmaking

Trench watches circa WWI
Trench watches circa WWI | Credit: Hodinkee

Wristwatches before WWI were considered a woman’s accessory but thanks to their convenience for men serving during the war, they became incredibly popular. Specifically, trench watches were all the rage as they quickly became symbols of courage and bravery.

Trench watches were simple, circular watches with a crown at the 3 o’clock position. Pocket watches were still the standard of the day, so these watches incorporated a lot of elements from them. Essentially, they looked like pocket watches attached to a wired strap. Typically, they featured protective grids to cover the crystal which at the time were not shatterproof. These grids were also hinged.

The brands that were successful were those that built military watches like Omega, Longines, and Elgin.

The 1920s: Let’s Get Experimental

Cartier tank 1920s
Cartier Tank Louis from the 1920s

The 1920s was the first proper decade of wristwatch and really established watchmaking as we know it today. There wasn’t a war to focus on so they had fun! Art Deco played a huge part in their design and as such rectangle designs, like the Cartier Tank were very popular.

If there was one watch that epitomised the 1920s, it was the Cartier Tank released in 1917. They were so popular that all rectangle watches at the time were called “tank.” These watches weren’t the only milestone for Cartier as the Santos became the first ever mass-produced watch and it was hugely popular, so much so that it’s still in production today.

The huge winner of the decade was women who had a huge amount of choice for watches, as long as you were into teeny tiny dials.

A Patek Philippe from 1928
A Patek Philippe from 1928 | Credit: Hodinkee

There wasn’t a large consensus as to how to design a watch just yet, so the general trend was experimentation, but generally speaking it was small and rectangular dials.

The 1930s: Refining the 20s

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso from the 1930s
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso from the 1930s

If the 20s belonged to the Cartier Tank than the 30s belonged to the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso released in 1931. Considered an Art Deco masterpiece, the Reverso came about thanks to British Army officers who would constantly damage their watches playing polo. So Jaeger-LeCoultre created a watch that would flip the dial to protect it hence the phrase “polo ready.”

The angular lugs, three horizontal grooves above and below the dial became a symbol of Art Deco. The blank side allowed wearers to customise it with a coat of arms, inscription, or the like. It was firmly established as an institution once it was worn by King Edward VIII.

The general trend of the 1930s was to build on what was introduced in the 1920s. The Reverso is the epitome of that as it is still a rectangular watch with a small dial like the Tank, but with the added innovation of the flip dial.

1940s: War Shaping Watchmaking… Again

An A-11 from the 1940s

Much like the 1910s, war shaped watchmaking in the 1940s. This was the decade of the military watch with the A-11 being the embodiment of that, after all, it’s called the watch that won the war for a reason.

The A-11 was made in collaboration with Bulova, Elgin, and the Waltham Watch Company when the U.S. military needed a watch for the war that was durable, accurate, and functional. There were plenty of variations of the A-11 but there were universal design features like a black dial with white hands for great visibility and a hand-wound hacking movement so that the second hand could be stopped allowing for accurate synchronisation.

Not everything released in the 1940s was a military watch. For example, the Rolex Datejust, the first self-changing date watch, a huge innovation at the time.

A 1940s Rolex Datejust
A 1940s Rolex Datejust

Despite outliers like that, the general trend was military watches like the Hamilton Khaki pilots watch and the Marine Chronometer. The difference between the 1940s and 1910s was that the watches this time weren’t just adapted pocket watches, but wristwatches specifically designed for use in war.

It should be noted that dials are still quite small with 35mm being the average size.

The 1950s: The Emergence of Tool Watches

Rolex Explorers of the 1950s

By the 1950s, watches aren’t just here to tell you the time, they’re here to help you perform activities outside of the trenches. Tool watches became extremely prevalent and as such, this decade belonged to Rolex.

First you have the Rolex Explorer released in 1953 to celebrate the first ever successful ascent of Mt. Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. The Rolex Submariner in 1954 was the first watch to reach a water resistance of 100m. The GMT Master also released in 1954 became a statement of luxury for the few who could afford regular air travel.

The first Rolex GMT Master ref. 6542 | Credit: Wind Vintage

The decade will be remembered for the emergence of the Rolex tool watch, as solid an institution if ever there was, but the general trend of watches was elegant, simple, and mostly gold. Minimalist dials were domed with domed crystals in order to fit the rather high movements into relatively flat cases. The hands were often bent by hand to give watchmakers more room to build as flat a watch as possible.

Tool watches were still quite expensive so it was these minimalist watches that you saw on most people’s wrists at the time.

The 1960s: Space, The Final Frontier

An Omega Speedmaster from 1968 | Credit: Brent Miller Jewellers

Much of the early sixties was similar to the 50s until the Omega Speedmaster Professional went to space in 1969. Omega, Longines, Rolex, and Hamilton all supplied a watch to NASA in order to test them and the Speedmaster was the only one to pass all of them.

Robust stainless steel cases were quite popular in this era along with tonneau dial watches which were considered very modern at the time. Neutral colours dominated along with rubber and leather straps.

Like the 30s, the 60s kept up the trends of the 50s with little tweaks here and there, but that was all about to change thanks to the Seiko Astron in 1969, the first quartz watch.

The 1970s: Quartz Changing the Game

Seiko Quartz LC Digital | Credit: Clockwise

The 1970s were an interesting time for watchmaking. With the advent of quartz as a cheap and more reliable way of timekeeping, there was little left for Swiss watchmakers to do but double down on their luxury items. So you have luxury sports watches appearing like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus taking up much of the mechanical watch market.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak from the 70s | Credit: Matthew Bain

This is the quartz crisis however so obviously those are the pieces that most people are wearing. These often had bright and bold block colour dials. It was also at this time that LCD displays became very popular. So in that sense, this decade belonged to Seiko.

The 1980s: Swatch

An 80s Swatch watch collection | Credit: The Guardian

Quartz reigned supreme in the 1980s in part thanks to Swatch and their ridiculous number of pieces they put out. It was neon galore with lots of primary colours and minimalism has basically been thrown out the window.

Swatch were budget friendly and accessible to all. People were collecting Swatch watches like they were Cabbage Patch Kids or Beanie Babies. They were machine built, lightweight, and made to be disposable. These were the antithesis of Swiss mechanical watchmakers who prided themselves on their longevity and craftmanship.

320 million Swatch watches were sold annually in the decade. In 1982 alone 65 million Americans spent $2 billion on Swatch watches which makes sense given the trend to wear multiple at one time on your wrist.

The 1990s: Complications, Complications Everywhere

An IWC Grand Complication
An IWC Grande Complication from 1990

By this time the Swatch craze had died down but due to their affordability they were still present just not as ubiquitous. It was at this time that Swiss-made watches became even more prestigious. Vintage aesthetics were very popular, especially chronographs which led to a flurry of complications appearing on watches. The more complications you could fit onto a dial, the better.’

So you had watches like the IWC Grande Complication in 1990, the Blancpain 1735 Grande Complication, and the A. Lange & Sohne Lange 1. Though as mentioned previously, chronographs were quite popular too so the Rolex Daytona and Breitling Navitimer were all the rage.

A Panerai Luminor worn by Sylvester Stallone

We also have the James Bond and Omega collaboration occurring in this decade and this began a general trend of celebrity involvement in watches. Sylvester Stallone had a Panerai Luminor ‘Sly Tech’ and wore it in the film Daylight (1995) while also buying 200 of them for friends and those who worked on the film, giving Panerai a serious boost in popularity. Arnold Schwarzenegger was also often seen wearing a Royal Oak Offshore in the 90s, both on and off film. But not only did action stars help boost mechanical watches back into the spotlight, this was a period where rap music hit the mainstream and many namedropped certain watchmakers in their lyrics.

The 90s were a good decade for mechanical watches and were a comeback of sorts. They leant into watch quartz watches lacked, quality, craftmanship, and innovation.

The 2000s: Big, Big, Big

A Big Bang Chronograph from 2005

If the 90s put mechanical watches back on the map, then the 2000s proved that the watch industry was able to redefine itself through creativity and innovation without losing out on tradition.

Big watches were very much in at this point with an average size of 40-44mm compared to the 37-39mm of the 90s. Some watches even got as large as 48mm. Panerai saw a lot of popularity in this era as they already made big watches. Similarly, Hublot’s Big Bang in 2005 became a big hit thanks to its use of revolutionary materials that were very popular with larger audiences and “new money.”

Submariner Kermit
Submariner Kermit

Rolex had a stellar decade as well after investing heavily in innovation. Notable releases include the updated Daytona in 2000 with a new movement, the in-house Calibre 4130. In 2003 the Submariner “Kermit” was released followed by the Yachtmaster II in 2007, and the Sea Dweller Deepsea in 2008.

Also notable was the emergence of the pre-owned market which, much like today, saw a lot of Rolex’s traded, particularly vintage Submariners and Daytonas.

The 2010s: Smartwatches & Hype Culture

The original Apple Watch | Credit: CNET

Smartwatches threatened to provide another crisis to traditional watchmaking, but thanks to weathering the quartz crisis, traditional watchmakers had a niche all to themselves. As such, they revelled in their history with neo-vintage releases, like the Tudor Black Bay, becoming the norm alongside the increased popularity of pre-owned watches.

Smartwatches were the norm after the Apple Watch was released in 2015 with pre-orders making more money in one day than some established Swiss brand’s made in a year. It forced a few brands to adapt like TAG Heuer and their Connected smartwatch, or Frederique Constant’s Horological Smartwatch.

Smartwatches hurt entry-level quartz and fashion watches, but it didn’t affect the top shelf brands.

Paul Newman Daytona
Paul Newman Daytona | Credit: Time + Tide

At this point the vintage watch market was worth around £2.5 billion, with monster auction sales leading to added hype to specific models, like the Paul Newman Daytona, which is almost solely responsible for the hype around the Daytona today.

For more vintage watches, check out these soccer timers from the days of mullets and moustaches. 

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