The Roaring Twenties — The Most Important Decade for the Wristwatch?

The Roaring Twenties — The Most Important Decade for the Wristwatch?

Any student of horology can make a case for any decade, from 1900 onward, as the period which saw the greatest impact on the development, ascent and eventual all-encompassing success of the wristwatch. Throw one at me and I’ll show you how: 1940s? Military watches, sweep-seconds, shock-resistance. 1960s? Automatic chronograph, the Accutron – stop me when you’ve heard enough.

For my money, however, the era during which the wristwatch reached critical mass is the Roaring Twenties. Look at the zeitgeist, and what came of age during that decade: The motorcar was no longer a curio. Art Deco – still the most handsome of styles in every discipline – had replaced the fussier Art Nouveau. Jazz was the music of the day. Talking motion pictures arrived. Electrical recording made modern music playback possible. The USA’s Air Commerce Act of 1926 set the foundations for commercial air travel. Bugatti built the most aesthetically perfect, successful race car of all time: the Type 35B. My parents were born. I could go on like this forever.

William Grover-Williams won the inaugural Monaco Grand Prix, driving a Bugatti 35B in 1929 (Image: classicargarage.com)
William Grover-Williams won the inaugural Monaco Grand Prix, driving a Bugatti 35B in 1929 (Image: classicargarage.com)

Horologically, it was the end of the modern wristwatch’s slow burn from 1904, when Cartier produced one for aviator Santos-Dumont, through WWI (1914-18), when straps were added to small pocket watches to render them more convenient for soldiers, and onto 1918, when Cartier launched the Tank. The flood of ladies’ watches suited the liberation of the era, and “flappers” – your great-grandparents’ equivalent of feminists – wore their tiny timepieces with the same chic aplomb that today’s “it-girls” sport Royal Oaks, men’s Rolexes or Chanel J-12s.

Flapper girls, 1920s
Flapper girls, 1920s

On the technical front, the single most important, nay, earth-shattering game-changer was English watchmaker John Harwood’s development of the first practical, viable self-winding timepiece. It was patented in 1924, and is the basis of every automatic with a swinging weight. That means all of them. [Note to future historians: Harwood is as important as Breguet, Daniels, Harrison, et al. Deal with it.]

Harwood watch
Harwood watch

As for the ultimate occurrence in the Roaring Twenties, when the wristwatch got the final seal of approval? Easy-peasy: it involved the sort of product placement a brand would kill for, when the A-lister chooses a timepiece on his or her own, without inducement, like Steve McQueen and his Heuer Monaco. For this writer, the “Eureka!” moment came on 9 July, 1926, with the premier of the film, The Son of the Sheik.

It starred Rudolph Valentino, who was so dominant a screen god in the silent film era that we don’t even have a modern equivalent – his fame made Brad Pitt’s superstar power and sex appeal look like that of Shia LaBeouf. And what did this Italian matinee idol do for the wristwatch? He insisted on wearing his treasured Cartier Tank during the filming. In every scene.

Vilma Banky and Rudolph Valentino in the 1926 film, Son of the Sheik; Valentino insisted on wearing his treasured Cartier Tank during the filming. In every scene. The issue with his decision is that the Tank is not a timepiece that would've been a reality in the period in which the film is based
Vilma Banky and Rudolph Valentino in the 1926 film, Son of the Sheik; Valentino insisted on wearing his treasured Cartier Tank during the filming. In every scene. The issue with his decision is that the Tank is not a timepiece that would've been a reality in the period in which the film is based
Rudolph Valentino in costume for the 1926 film, Son of the Sheik; Valentino insisted on wearing his treasured Cartier Tank during the filming. In every scene. The issue with his decision is that the Tank is not a timepiece that would've been a reality in the time period in which the film is based
Rudolph Valentino in costume for the 1926 film, Son of the Sheik; Valentino insisted on wearing his treasured Cartier Tank during the filming. In every scene. The issue with his decision is that the Tank is not a timepiece that would've been a reality in the time period in which the film is based

Not enough? A year later, Mercedes Gleitze swam the English Channel wearing a Rolex Oyster. It made the front pages. It made Rolex. The Roaring Twenties rule. I rest my case.

In 1927 a Rolex Oyster crossed the English Channel, worn by a young English swimmer named Mercedes Gleitze. The swim lasted over 10 hours and the watch remained in perfect working order at the end of it.
In 1927 a Rolex Oyster crossed the English Channel, worn by a young English swimmer named Mercedes Gleitze. The swim lasted over 10 hours and the watch remained in perfect working order at the end of it.
To celebrate the crossing of the channel, Rolex published a full-page ad on the front page of the Daily Mail proclaiming the success of the waterproof watch. This event marked the birth of the Testimonee concept (Daily Mail, 1927)
To celebrate the crossing of the channel, Rolex published a full-page ad on the front page of the Daily Mail proclaiming the success of the waterproof watch. This event marked the birth of the Testimonee concept (Daily Mail, 1927)
Mercedes Gleitze's Rolex Oyster watch (Image: rolexmagazine.com)
Mercedes Gleitze's Rolex Oyster watch (Image: rolexmagazine.com)

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