Early Ladies Wristwatches: When Beauty Came Before Function

May 21st, 2010

Nationally recognized appraiser Reyne Haines is known as a specialist in Art Nouveau glass and Tiffany, but she has also just written “Vintage Wristwatches,” a book that focuses on one of her many other passions. In this interview Haines explains how the predominance of men’s timepieces makes it relatively easy and inexpensive to put together a good collection of watches designed for ladies. Haines can be contacted via www.reynehaines.com.

I was living in New York and helping my landlord get some things together for a local garage sale. As I was going through all the stuff, I came across a pretty Tissot wristwatch. I didn’t know anything about watches. The only watch I had was a Seiko that I got for high school graduation. The Tissot watch didn’t run but I bought it anyway for $5 and took it to a watchmaker. I found out that it was a quartz watch and all it needed was a battery. Vintage Tissot watches cost a few hundred dollars, sometimes more, depending on the model. This watch was worth probably about $125.

Over time, I’d see a lot of ladies’ wristwatches at estate sales and other places. They were very different from the new ladies watches you see at jewelry stores today. I’d pick them up because to me it was just like having another piece of jewelry, another accessory to wear. For not that much money, I could have a variety of wristwatches. The more I looked at the craftsmanship that went into them, the more I started to look at them as little works of art.

When I was really into it, I’d have upwards of 30 or 40 watches at a time. Like most people who collect anything, your tastes begin to change the longer you collect. In the beginning, you find things that are common, and they’re interesting, but you start to see the same watch again and again. I’ve gotten to the place where I value quality over quantity, but it’s still hard for me to pass up an inexpensive, pretty watch if I see one.

Collectors Weekly: Do you still find watches at yard sales, estate sales, and auctions?

Haines: I’m living in Texas now, and the yard sales here aren’t like they are in the Midwest and on the East Coast. In New York, you can go to estate sales and buy pieces of Tiffany. You can find amazing stuff. Down here, yard sales tend to be more used clothing, baby toys, and stuff like that. But you can find good watches at jewelry shows here and also at flea markets, surprisingly enough.

Collectors Weekly: How did “Vintage Wristwatches” come about?

Haines: I’d written the introduction for a watch book published by F+W (the parent company of my current publisher, Krause) a couple of years ago. They contacted me about writing my own book on wristwatches. People always ask me to write and speak about Tiffany, 20th-century decorative arts, and those kinds of things, so I thought the watch book would really be fun to do. It was a much bigger project than I’d anticipated. It brought me around to looking at watch companies that I’d never really paid much attention to before.

Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of ladies’ wristwatch collectors?

Paul Ditisheim

This circa 1930 Paul Ditisheim features pink gold, rubies, and diamonds.

Haines: Men’s wristwatches are more collectible, which is interesting because wristwatches were originally made as a piece of jewelry for women. Men didn’t wear them, they carried pocket watches, but today men are the biggest collectors of wristwatches. The market is changing and growing as more women are starting to collect. It’s an undervalued market. You can easily and affordably start a collection. Now is the time to get in before the market gets too saturated with collectors. That’s when the price of things usually goes up.

Most of the books on collecting watches are geared toward men’s watches. That’s why I included so many women’s watches in my book. A lot of people, when they think about collecting women’s wristwatches, think about their grandmother’s watch—it’s something from the ’30s or ’40s, very petite, with a small dial and usually a stretchy kind of band. There’s nothing especially exciting about that kind of watch other than the fact that your grandmother owned it. You may want one example, but not a collection of them.

The good news is that there are many other kinds of vintage ladies’ wristwatches beyond this one stereotype design. Manufacturers also made a junior-sized watch for kids. It’s bigger than the standard ladies’ watch, but smaller than a man’s. Those work very well for women, too.

Collectors Weekly: Who was the first woman to wear a wristwatch?

Haines: Patek made the first wristwatch in the mid-1800s. It was given to Countess Koscowicz of Hungary. Other timepieces were made around that time, like pendant watches and obviously pocket watches. Pocket watches were often made in small ladies’ sizes as well, but I think they were originally made more as jewelry items than as functional timepieces.

Patek and Cartier were among the first companies to make ladies’ wristwatches, so they weren’t for the masses. It took awhile before they were mass-produced, but by the early 1900s, more than just upper-class women were buying wristwatches.

At first men had no interest in wearing a watch on their wrist but during World War I, pilots needed something more accessible than a pocket watch while they were flying. That was the original impetus for men’s wristwatches. Civilian men started wearing them after that.

Collectors Weekly: How did wristwatch design change as men began wearing them?

Gruen

This Gruen has an engraved bezel and triangular sapphires at each end of the gold-filled band.

Haines: Both the design and functionality of the watch changed, while advances in technology changed the wristwatch industry’s entire business model. For example, by the 1970s, when the Japanese began mass-producing quartz watches, many watch houses—especially the Swiss ones—went under because the quartz watches were more accurate and could be made a lot faster and more cost effectively. As the watches became more affordable, the American and Swiss companies that made mechanical watches either struggled or had to rethink their business models completely. Many didn’t survive.

So not only did the styles change, but the movement changed from something mechanical that you wound yourself to the electronic quartz watch.

Collectors Weekly: Were the watches that women wore still seen as jewelry?

Haines: Generally, no. They were seen as being more functional. However, companies still made watches that were to be admired as jewelry. For example, you’d see ladies’ watches with dials and bands encrusted with diamonds and sometimes gemstones. Watches were also being made with covers. There would be a hinged cover with diamonds on it that would protect the dial. You’d flip open the cover to check the time and then close it back up. When the cover was closed, the piece looked more like a diamond bracelet than a watch.

Collectors Weekly: Did the small size of ladies’ wristwatches limit the movements in any way?

Haines: Yes. Ladies watches just basically told time. They didn’t come with alarms, chronographs, or complicated movements. As the size of ladies’ watches got a bit bigger, some companies made watches that also told the date, but that was about it.

For the most part, men’s watch movements were far more complicated. Men used watches for a lot more things than a woman would. Some had an alarm, a chronograph, and there were diver’s watches. A lot of the watches with complicated movements can be attributed to sporting activities.

Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the early makers and designers of ladies’ wristwatches?

Croton

This Croton from the 1940s is almost all 14K yellow-gold band, plus the diamonds and mother-of-pearl dial.

Haines: Gruen, Omega, Hamilton, and Elgin were some of the bigger manufacturers. You also had Patek and Bulova. Of the jewelers, Cartier and former Cartier designer Marcel Boucher are important names, as are Tiffany & Co. and Van Cleef & Arpels.

A lot of the watches worn for special occasions were made of platinum and studded with diamonds. They had very simple faces, enameled numbers. They also came in gold and sometimes even pink gold, which some people call rose gold.

Some bands were encrusted with diamonds but many times the strap was nothing more than a simple thin black silk cord that attached to the head of the watch. It would have a little clasp that held the sides together. Sometimes the cord would be banded off in sections. And each section would be kind of clasped together. It might have one or two little diamonds or maybe rubies.

These were generally high-end watches, but you definitely had plenty designed just for everyday wear that weren’t as fancy. Also, through the 1930s, ladies’ wristwatches tended to be very dainty, but as times changed they got bigger, from the bands to the heads.

Collectors Weekly: Did wristwatches follow the same fashion trends as jewelry?

Haines: A lot of the styles were the same. If you had a watch, for example, that was made during the 1920s the case would probably be very geometric. Maybe it would have some enameling on it, but it would have a very Art Deco flair.

“Patek and Cartier were among the first companies to make ladies’ wristwatches, so they weren’t for the masses.”

My favorite eras for wristwatches are Art Deco and Mid-century Modern. During those periods, wristwatches used a lot of enameling and their designs were kind of overstated. Some of the watch companies employed what they called an exploding dial—the numbers on the faces would be really large. I like all that enameling and the geometric designs.

Modernism, as far as art glass went, used bold colors. The impact on wristwatches was similar. Everything was bigger than life and very showy. There was a lot of yellow gold, the bands tend to be wide, and the dials were sleek, but very modern. A lot of times you’d see a dial with no numbers on it. The emphasis was on the dial, the stone, and the material used for the dial. Designers would use natural stones as well as gemstone. Sometimes the dial would be painted to resemble some kind of mineral.

Collectors Weekly: What kinds of gemstones were commonly used in ladies’ wristwatches?

Haines: Mainly diamonds in the bands, but you’d also see rubies. Sometimes you’d see sapphires and emeralds, too. People often confuse these types of watches with fashion jewelry when they come up at estate sales. They don’t realize that they’re looking at real gemstones or diamonds.

Elgin's Lady Tiger, 1928.

Elgin's Lady Tiger, 1928.

Similarly, I think a lot of people who are selling these things don’t realize that their grandmother had a watch of that caliber. A lot of grandmas had a lot of costume jewelry, so people think the watches are costume, too.

On some of the wristwatches with gemstones, the head of the watch would be pink gold, which people don’t necessarily recognize. They know white and yellow gold, as well as platinum. We don’t see a whole lot of pink gold used today. I think they’re also thrown off because some of these watches have silk cords instead of gold bands. They think, “Why would you put diamonds in a watch that doesn’t even have a gold band?” That was the style at the time.

Collectors Weekly: Do you think that’s why you’ve been able to find these watches at such reasonable prices?

Haines: Yes. I hear stories all the time of jewelry collectors going to yard sales and finding brooches, rings, and things that are real. Sometimes they’re not marked so you don’t realize it’s gold. The people selling them just assume they’re costume jewelry.

Collectors Weekly: Are there rare ladies’ wristwatches that collectors should look for?

Haines: Anything that was made for a very short period of time is going to be rare. Sometimes there’d be one aspect of a watch that was unique—one aspect of it would be different from the rest of the line.

Wear and tear also makes watches rare. Some of the early military watches are collectible because there was a lot of wear on them: The dials would fade, or they’d get water damage. Similarly, enameling will get damaged over the years from the oils on your hand or from being bumped into things. A lot of the ones you see aren’t in very good condition.

I don’t see ladies’ nurses’ watches very often. They’ll have two dials and a stopwatch. The second hand is bigger at the bottom to take the seconds more accurately. They’re not necessarily all that expensive, but you don’t see many of those. Gruen, among other companies, made nurses’ watches in the 1930s and ’40s.

Collectors Weekly: Do you collect men’s wristwatches as well?

Illinois

In the 1930s, Illinois made an Art Deco wristwatch for women called the Berkeley. It featured enamel touches on the gold-filled case.

Haines: Yes, though I have more ladies’ than I do men’s. Some of the men’s watches are smaller, especially some of the earlier models. I could never wear a men’s Rolex. Most of the ones I wear are junior size, but a woman could wear some of the earlier Hamiltons, Bulovas, and Gruens. The chronographs are always bigger and not something that a woman would want to wear.

I’m not really very interested in having something that I can’t enjoy. I want to be able to use it. I like some makers better than others, but the watch has to appeal to me on a personal level for me to want it. For example, I’m a huge Tiffany glass enthusiast, but there are plenty of pieces of Tiffany glass that I don’t find appealing.

As far as watchmakers, I like Cartier, Patek, Rolex, Gruen, Boucher, and LeCoultre. I like some Hamiltons. With the Hamiltons, for example, I like the little watches with diamond-encrusted bands. With Cartier, I tend to like their Art Deco designs. And I like the watches Rolex made in the ’50s.

I’m really hoping that my book will introduce people to a broad array of watches and will encourage them to look at makers that maybe they’ve never considered before.

Collectors Weekly: What’s the best place for collectors to find ladies’ wristwatches?

Haines: I’d hit the estate sales and the antiques shops to start out with. Vintage jewelry shops are good places, too. Some jewelry shops have estate pieces, but not too many. There are dealers online and jewelry shows that come to different parts of the country. One of the challenges with eBay is that the seller may not really know the history of the watch—whether it’s had work done on it and things like that.

There are a lot of reproductions of Cartiers and Rolexes out there right now, so you really have to buy from somebody you trust. You don’t have to worry so much about reproductions with the older LeCoultres, Hamiltons, Elgins, and Gruens, though.

Cartier

Cartier made a version of its famous Tank for women, in 18K white gold and lots and lots of diamonds.

The Internet has made a big difference. Before that, you’d have to wait for an antiques show or an auction to come to your town. You can also buy watches at some of the bigger auction houses, not just Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

With eBay, you can pretty much find whatever you want but again, it opens people up to fraud. Also, one person’s perception of “good condition” might be different from someone else’s, especially if the seller is not a specialist in that field.

Collectors Weekly: Do ladies’ wristwatches generally come with a maker’s mark?

Haines: Many do, but some of the earlier watches had no name on the dial at all. There might be a name on the movement, so we call some of these watches “generic Swiss” because companies would buy movements from Swiss makers, put them in cases, and sell them. The movement wouldn’t necessarily have any kind of marking as to who actually made it, but the watches themselves can still be really pretty.

Collectors Weekly: Were ladies’ wristwatches made by hand?

Haines: Many of them were. That’s one of the reasons why repairing these watches made 50 to 100 years ago is a dying art. It’s difficult to find someone with the skills and the parts. If you have a problem with one of these watches, you may not be able to find somebody locally to repair it for you.

The National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors has a website, NAWCC.org. It’s a great source of information for upcoming watch shows. They also have a classifieds section where you can find a watchmaker to repair something for you.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of the other things collectors should look for in ladies’ wristwatches?

Omega

This Omega from 1975 was as much a bracelet as a wristwatch. It boasted 14K yellow gold and opals throughout.

Haines: Sometimes a retailer would make a similar watch with different-colored dials. Maybe they were made in different mediums—for example, stainless steel or gold. Sometimes two-tone cases would be made in gold and stainless. Others might be made in solid gold. So, you may find different price points because the stainless one is obviously less expensive than the gold. Seemingly simple variations in the watch can affect the pricing.

Another interesting aspect of collecting watches is the paper memorabilia, which refers to the original advertising and catalogs for different watches. It’s interesting to see what something sold for at a certain time and what the company called it. Sometimes they’d have interesting sales gimmick in the ads. The ads reflect their period, so whatever is in the background of, say, a photograph of a watch, or even the font that’s used, can be interesting.

Some people only collect watch boxes. They can be very ornate and cool or just a plain old cardboard box. You can find watch boxes at yard sales, flea markets, and antiques shops, usually for $20 or less. If you have an early Bulova ladies’ watch, an Elgin, or something like that, keep your eyes open when you’re at the antique shops for the boxes that go with your watch.

Of course, if you collect new watches, you should always keep the box and paperwork that came with the watch. If you ever want to sell it, it will keep that premium with the watch.

Collectors Weekly: Do you have any advice for someone just getting interested in ladies’ wristwatches?

Haines: There are a handful of good collectors’ clubs online. I put a few of them in the back of my book. I also listed a couple of online discussion groups. For example, there is the American Watchmakers and the NAWCC. Most of the members of these groups are pretty serious collectors and dealers. They’re very knowledgeable and willing to share that knowledge.

Bulova

Don't let the plain silk cords fool you: This circa 1940 Bulova is made out of 14K pink gold, real rubies, and half a dozen good-size diamonds.

The biggest piece of advice, though, is to buy what you like. If you do that, you’ll never go wrong. Secondly, take a look at your budget before buying, and then try to find the best example you can find within that budget. You can easily and very inexpensively acquire a very large collection of watches, but if you’re going to be a collector, you’re going to want to go for the better quality.

In addition to condition and quality, you also want to look for something that’s a little harder to come by. If you have a lot of common pieces, your collection will never increase in value because there will always be so many of those models available. You want to find something with a more complicated movement, a more unusual style, and something that makes that watch stand out above the others. Within your budget, of course!

(All images from “Vintage Wristwatches” and courtesy Krause Publications)

13 comments so far

  1. Jane Posey Says:

    I just purchased a Gruen watch with a bracelet band and a green jade face. Does anyone know of this watch and when it was made.

  2. kathy perry Says:

    going through my things, i found a watch a tiny womens watch, Gruen Guildite, is what it says on the back. short oblong face. ambery face. 12 k filled bracelett w/slide. missing the stem. like to know when made and if it is worth finding a stem for it getting it repaired, although it is soo tiny. three pettle flower in pyromid stamp on bracelett. pat #2097.055
    [looks like 55}

    let me know, it came from an estate sale. thank you

  3. Reyne Haines Says:

    Hi Jane – It sounds like something that was made in the 1970s because
    of the malachite dial. I bet its awesome!

    Kathy – Without seeing your watch, it would be hard to say the value.
    However, you can call Charlie Cleves and Cleves & Lohnemann Jewelers in Kentucky. He could repair your watch and would be able to tell you
    what the cost would be for the stem.

  4. Eileen Munro Says:

    I have a ladies wristwatch that was not new when I received it more than twenty years ago. It is Swiss made, number 80458, in a round gold case, sturdy, stay bright back,3/4 inches in diameter. Words Governor and 17 jewels on face below the 12.numbers gold. Gold color expansion bracelet. Watch works well.A goldsmith told me it has l7 rubies.
    I am interested in knowing its history and value. Also where to find collectors.

  5. DIANE BELL Says:

    HI, I HAVE AN OLD LADIES MECHANICAL WATCH. THE FAST SAYS WEST 17. THE BAND AND FACE ARE ADORNED WITH BLUE AND CLEAR STONES. THE BAND HAS THREE SEPARATE STANDS EACH SIDE. WEIRD CAN NOT FIND OUT ANYTHING ABOUT IT. IT RUNS GREAT. THANKS, DIANE

  6. greg ryden Says:

    Help. Can’t find info on Longgines-wittnauer watch.Its called a cocktail watch. Looks like a bracelet,yet you push a button and uncover a watch. Thank you, Greg&rosemary

  7. bernie syms Says:

    i have a ladies uno watch it looks like gold and original strap, ithink the face is ivory and works by perpetual motion. i would love to have information about it as i cant sem to find any and if possible the value. thanks

  8. Reyne Haines Says:

    Hi everyone,

    I’m happy to help you ID your watches. Please send me photos
    to reyneh@gmail.com

    Thanks!

    Reyne

  9. Pat Says:

    I have a wristwatch that has a whitegold engraved frame, a sapphire on the stem, a spidel wristband, and the word “Pierless” on the face of the watch. I am guessing that it was a promotional gift when you bought a Pierless car.
    how can I find a value for this wristwatch and where could I sell it? It came from my grandmother, who’s husband was a bootlegger. LOL so it is an old watch.

  10. Erica Says:

    i have a 10k white gold wiendup women watch, it has Longine-Wittnauer, Geneva Montreal Ross, 17 jewels, 4llv.. 12283912.. Cant seem to find anyone to help me restore here in LA CA..

  11. mary lou Says:

    have 14kt. pink gold with diamonds and rubies Croton ladies watch. similar to first picture in this article except it has a square face, on either side of face is two rows of eight rubies and one row of four good sized diamonds. very beautiful antique watch. runs extremely well and in excellent condition. are these watches common or rare. approx. what would be a good price for a watch similar to mine.

  12. clarke huff Says:

    I have an old ladies wrist watch marked “National” on the dial with four tiny diamonds on the case. Was this watch made before Elgin began printing “Elgin” on the dials? I found this watch in a box of watch parts. It is a 17 jewel swiss movemnt. The name of the movement has been scratched out on the frame of the movement. Thank you, Clarke Huff, Cusseta Ga.

  13. Tamara Bousquet Says:

    Hello there Renye,Loved the article.I had a question I have a 1930?40 very dainty woman’s watch by a Swiss ?Company called ERAX that’s what is on the dial.I am having a great deal of trouble fining any information on it .It still keeps time it is a wind up one.I am sure it was a gift to my Grandmother from my Grandfather during WW 2.I can’t seem to see how to open the back either to see the mech for a date I could send a pic. I have seen some Men’s military ERAX and on ladies from the forties but its huge compared to mine.any help would be gratefully appreciated. Thank You Tamara


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