Girard-Perregaux of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland did not make the world’s first wristwatch—that honor goes to Patek Philippe. But in 1880, the firm did introduce the world’s first production wristwatch. The occasion was an order from the Imperial German Navy, which purchased 2,000 of the timepieces for its officers. The watch had a four-by-four metal grille, which obscured the watch face but protected it from damage when worn in the field.
Unfortunately, the late 19th century was still the age of the pocket watch, which meant that Girard-Perregaux would not make serious inroads again in the wristwatch market until after World War I. In fact, sales of Girard-Perregaux wristwatches lagged behind the company’s pocket watches until 1930. In the 1930s, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was an important customer.
The middle part of the 20th century was good to Girard-Perregaux, as well as collectors of their vintage wristwatches. In 1940, for example, the manufacturer introduced the handsome, water-resistant Sea Hawk, whose clean, round face was uncluttered by numerals except for a discreet 2, 4, 8, 10, and 12.
In 1945, Girard-Perregaux made a small, rectangular Art Deco styled mechanical wristwatch, whose frame was made of steel and yellow gold, and whose second hand was housed in a small box in the 6 position. Fifty years later, this same watch was redesigned slightly and reissued as the Vintage 1945.
By the 1950s, self-winding Gyromatic, 17-jewel wristwatches were the workhorses of the Girard-Perregaux line. They were designed with simple round or square faces in metals ranging from polished stainless steel to gold. During this same era, the firm produced hard-working chronographs with 30-minute and 12-hour counters along with fancier models such as the Mysterieuse, a minimalist creation whose hour and minute “hands” were fixed on smaller discs that rotated within the wristwatch’s round face.
In 1966, the Gyromatic family upgraded to high-frequency movements, which were reliable performers, and by 1969, production of quartz wristwatches began. The following year, Girard-Perregaux's new line of quartz wristwatches was released. One of the most interesting models was the 1971 Elcron, whose hi-tech face resembled a computer circuit board. By 1972, the frequency of a Girard-Perregaux watch’s oscillator (32,768 hz) became the industry standard.
Other Girard-Perregaux wristwatches prized by collectors include the Laureato from 1975, which had a quartz movement and an octagonal bezel. And in 1980, the company produced a wristwatch version of its 1889 three-gold-bridge Tourbillon pocket watch, which was so ahead of its time that it was banned from competitive exhibition in 1900.