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The History of Cocktail Watches

For over a century, wristwatches for women have combined beauty and functionality in one exquisite piece, reaching their zenith in the decorative, often bejewelled cocktail watch. A delicate, glamourous version of the women’s wristwatch, cocktail watches rose to prominence during the roaring twenties and have since fluctuated in popularity.

Starting with the emergence of ladies’ wristwatches at the turn of the twentieth century, this article explores the history of the timeless cocktail watch.

The emergence of ladies’ wristwatches

Records exist of Elizabeth I wearing a watch, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century that the popularity of wristwatches gained traction. Previously, women of high society accessorised with intricately enamelled pendant or fob watches – essentially feminised versions of the traditional pocket watch.

The popularisation of ladies’ wristwatches

The delicate silk ‘flapper’ dressers – en vogue in the Art Deco era – could neither withstand the weight of a fob watch nor carry one. And as the popularity of restrictive, corseted gowns waned, women sought a new multifunctional, feminine timepiece for all occasions. This resulted in the watch’s repositioning to the wrist, affording women practicality while punctuating their style. Therefore, it became quick and convenient for women to tell the time, which was especially important during WWI when women replaced men in the workforce.

The pinnacle of ladies’ wristwatches

Ladies’ wristwatches saw their greatest output between 1900 and 1930, a period of high demand that coincided with improved manufacturing techniques, enabling watches to be produced at a rapid clip. Swift production methods were crucial in keeping pace with the changing tastes of this turbulent era – the end of which shifted to concealed dials giving the impression of a bracelet.

Diamond-encrusted cocktail watches were coveted for their beauty and strength, reflecting the collective spirit of women during this period. Later, horologists incorporated radiant, coloured gemstones such as sapphires and rubies, embellishing ladies’ watches with the flamboyant hues that typified the Art Deco era.

What is the difference between cocktail watches and evening watches?

The difference between cocktail and evening watches lies in their social undertones. Cocktail watches were designed to express individuality and spark conversation, while the subtlety and refinement of the evening watch allowed the wearer to blend into a more formal, conventional role.

What should I look for in a cocktail watch?

There is a broad spectrum of cocktail watches, with quality varying tremendously between price brackets. To express your individuality, seek the highest quality, most distinctive timepiece you can find within your budget while maintaining a keen eye for clean dials and engraved decoration. These factors signify quality when mounted on a precious metal case, beautifully exemplified in this mid-century diamond and platinum cocktail watch:

The strap’s length is also an essential consideration, bearing in mind that women generally had smaller frames in the early 20th century; therefore, it is common that watches from this period do not fit the modern woman’s wrist, so it helps to be mindful of this in your search.