The first wristwatches were essentially bracelets that told the time. In fact, the very first wristwatch, made in 1868 by Patek Philippe, was sold to a woman, Countess Koscowicz of Hungary, in 1876. Men came to wristwatches much later, around World War I. Until then, men mostly carried pocket watches.

By design, ladies' wristwatches were small, which meant they generally lacked the physical space inside to support features we associate with men’s wristwatches, including chronographs and chronometers. Instead, vintage and antique ladies' wristwatches were essentially functional pieces of jewelry. These petite timepieces had small dials and stretchy bands, which were sometimes as encrusted with diamonds and gemstones as the cases and covers that framed and protected the dials.

Companies that have manufactured ladies wristwatches include Bulova, Elgin, Gruen, Hamilton, Jaeger LeCoultre, Omega, Patek Philippe, Rolex, and Vacheron & Constantin. Of the jewelers who purchased watch movements from Swiss manufacturers, Tiffany & Co. and Van Cleef & Arpels were important players, but Cartier was probably the most influential.

Cartier has been making wristwatches for ladies since the mid-1890s, but it was the development of a wristwatch for aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, beginning in 1904, that would eventually lead to the Santos, a breakthrough brand for Cartier in 1911. Though designed for male pilots, these handsome wristwatches were quickly embraced by women, who were already fans of Cartier for its 1906 Tonneau.

After World War I, Cartier introduced the Tank, whose case mimicked the parallel metal tracks of the Renault tanks that had helped the Allies with the war. Again, women claimed this seemingly male object of adornment as their own, encouraged, of course, by Cartier designers, who decorated the device with diamonds and eventually elongated and curved its rectangular shape to make it more comfortable (and fashionable) on the wrist. Indeed, Cartier’s Tanks seemed to presage the Art Deco Baguette wristwatches that followed later in the 1920s, and were often difficult to make out amid their brilliant bands.


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