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Blog: Converted Wristwatches - Transitional? No.

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

First published: May 2020, last updated 15 July 2024.

I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently, but because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages the changes are not very noticeable. I decided to create this blog to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that is either completely new or I have recently changed or added to significantly.

There is a myth that men's wristwatches began as converted pocket watches, sometimes referred to as “transitional” wristwatches, and that purpose made wristwatches were only made later. This is not true.

Watch manufacturers had been making watches that could be worn on the arm or wrist for centuries; Queen Elizabeth was given one in 1571. It is true that these were mainly ladies' watches, but is it credible that an industry that knew how to make wristwatches for ladies' needed to make transitional watches for men before it could make proper wristwatches? No, it isn't.

When wristwatches were wanted, manufacturers made them - from the late nineteenth century onwards. Men's wristwatches that are not conversions exist from the early 1900s; I have a number of men's wristwatches that were made before 1910, including two that can be verified by factory records and hallmarks to have been made in 1905 or 1906. Pocket or fob watches converted into men's wristwatches were not “transitional” in any way, because they followed rather preceded these purpose made men's wristwatches. Conversions of fob watches into men's wristwatches were done at a time when the supply of new wristwatches could not keep up with a sudden increase in demand.

Purpose made ladies' wristwatches were made, and became very fashionable, during the 1880s. Purpose made men's wristwatches followed soon after. These did not become fashionable amongst the civilian population, but were worn by military men. Since the mid 1880s, a wristwatch was an essential part of an officer's kit. At first these were small fob watches in leather wristlets, but manufacturers soon started to make men's wristwatches. These had purpose designed cases, they were not simply converted fob watches. However, because civilian men did not wear wristwatches, the demand for men's wristwatches, principally from from the military, was relatively small.

During the First World War, huge numbers of new officers were commissioned, and each of them needed a wristwatch as part of his kit. When the supply of new wristwatches could not keep up with the sudden increase in demand from newly commissioned officers, small pocket or fob watches were converted into wristwatches. This is when and why conversions were done, and obviously the resulting wristwatches were not “transitional” in any way.

The section below presents logical argument and hard evidence to support that assertion. It is from my page about The First Men's Wristwatches, but I have realised that this is such an important and widely misunderstood topic that I have also given it a page of its own in the history section at Converted Wristwatches.

If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

Converted Wristwatches

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

Sometimes it is written that the first men's wristwatches were converted pocket watches, sometimes called “transitional” wristwatches. This is not correct. Although it may seem logical to assume that the wristwatch started in this way, and purpose made wristwatches were a later development, this is an assumption that is not based on any evidence and it is wrong.

There was nothing difficult about designing or making wristwatches. Ladies had been wearing watches on bracelets and as wristwatches for centuries, but before the First World War (WW1, 1914-1918), the only men who wore wristwatches were those who actually needed a wristwatch for their occupation, who were mainly army officers.

A wristwatch had been an essential part of a British Army officer's outfit since the mid 1880s.

1914: Kitchener's appeal
1914: Kitchener's appeal: Click image to enlarge

Before the war, if a civilian man wanted to have a wristwatch, he could go to a shop and buy one, but very few men did and, as a consequence, very few shops stocked men's wristwatches.

When the First World War broke out, the British Army had to be rapidly expanded. Lord Kitchener predicted a long war that would last at least three years and require a huge expansion of the army. When he issued his famous appeal “Your country needs you”, men flocked to recruiting offices to join up.

Armies need officers and, as a consequence of the expansion of the army, many new officers were commissioned, each of which needed a wristwatch. Wristwatches were not issued from army stores to officers; they had to purchase all of their own “outfit” including their uniform, sword, revolver, etc, including a wristwatch, for which they were issued an outfit allowance.

As a consequence, men's wristwatches suddenly came into high demand from newly commissioned officers. This sudden demand for wristwatches soon exhausted the limited existing stocks, and manufacturers were not initially able to make new ones quickly enough to keep up, so during the early part of the war, ladies' fob watches were converted into men's wristwatches by attaching strap lugs. Ladies' fob watches were used for this because they were the perfect size for men's wristwatches; men's pocket watches were too large to make comfortable wristwatches.

These converted wristwatches were not transitional because they did not precede purpose made wristwatches. Wristwatches existed long before the urgent needs of the First World War forced the conversion of fob watches into wristwatches. Wristwatches didn't need a transitional phase; it was a very simple idea to attach lugs to a case to take a wrist strap or a bracelet.

Ladies' wristwatches with bracelets had been specially made for aristocratic ladies for centuries, and had been made available to a wider range of customers in high street shops since the late 1880s. The advertisement reproduced here by Le Roy et Fils, the Parisian jeweller with shops in London, dates from 1887 and shows a small fob watch mounted on a registered design of bangle. Notice that although this is an open face fob watch, the dial has been rotated so that the 12 o'clock is where it should be on a wristwatch and the crown is next to the three.

Le Roy Advert for Bracelet Watches 1887
Le Roy Advert for Bracelet Watches 1887: Click image to enlarge

Although this is not exactly what we think of today as a ladies' wristwatch, Le Roy also had a large selection of bracelet watches from 10 to 100 guineas, many of which were shown in later advertisements and which were true wristwatches. It did not require an enormous leap of imagination, or a twenty or thirty year “transitional phase”, for someone to come up with the idea of attaching a leather strap instead of a bracelet.

Purpose made men's wristwatches also appeared much earlier than many people think, around 1900. There was a small demand for them from army officers and others who needed them, and there was no technical barrier to their manufacture. After all, what is the difference between ladies' wristwatches and men's wristwatches? A man's wristwatch is usually larger and plainer, more masculine, in appearance, but making wristwatches for either sex is hardly rocket science.

The wearing of a wristwatch was a matter of taste and fashion; ladies happily strapped watches to their wrists along with their bracelets, but civilian men were not used to wearing things on their wrists and didn't follow. Even though every army office wore a wristwatch, there was no demand for wristwatches from civilian men, who generally didn't wear things around their wrists. Because of this there was no mass market for men's wristwatches until the First World War, when large numbers of men joined the armies of Europe. These new recruits saw officers routinely wearing wristwatches; a practice which they quickly emulated.

So before the First World War there was also simply no need to convert pocket watches into unsatisfactory wristwatches. If a man wanted a wristwatch, he could just go out and buy one. And in fact, military officers did just that. Advertisements from the period mention that wristwatches were sold to automobilists, balloonists, horse riders, and to military men, who were the largest group of customers for them. The vast majority of civilian men didn't wear a wristwatch, because it simply wasn't seen as necessary or fashionable.

My earliest wristwatch with a verified date is an IWC Wristwatch that was made in 1906. A Calibre 64 savonnette (hunter) movement was put into a purpose made Lépine (open face) wristwatch case with fixed wire lugs, ordered from Borgel in Geneva in September that year. The IWC archives show that the case was ordered as a case for a wristwatch. This IWC wristwatch, and many other wristwatches from the pre-war period that were clearly made for men, show that purpose made men's wristwatch cases were readily available in the early 1900s, long before the war.

Converted Wristwatches Do Exist

Converted watch
Converted watch: Click image to enlarge

There undoubtedly were conversions of pocket watches into wristwatches. These are often easy to spot because they were not done by a watch manufacturer, and were often done pretty badly.

The photo here shows one such converted watch. The engraved case back, bezel, and fancy dial with pretty decoration in gold and silver outside the minute track show that it was originally made as a lady’s fob watch. The crown is missing simply because the stem is broken, nothing more significant.

The case has clear London Assay Office import hallmarks for the hallmarking year from 1911 to 1912, shown in the inset in the figure. The wonky wire lugs (the red lines are the 12 o’clock to 6 and 3 o’clock to 9 axes) show that it was converted by someone not skilled in the task, certainly not a watch manufacturer and most likely a local jeweller.

When a watch case was hallmarked, if it had wire lugs, the assay office stamped them with ‘part-marks’. On imported watches, the London Assay Office stamped the sign of Leo onto each lug. This watch's lugs are not hallmarked, further confirming that they are not original.

The case is 35mm in diameter, a good size for a man’s wristwatch. The principal defect of such converted watches is that the 12 o’clock is at the side, next to the crown, or where it would be if it were not missing from this watch. This means that when this watch is worn on the wrist, the nine is at the top of the dial. At first glance, the watch appears to be showing a time of just after ten minutes to two, but if the Roman numerals on the dial are studied, it is actually showing twenty-five minutes to ten. Did the wearer of this watch read the time using the numerals on the dial, or did he ignore them and read the time like a wristwatch in the correct orientation? Either way, it makes an unsatisfactory wristwatch and would have been changed for a purpose made one as soon as possible.

There was no need to convert this, or any other, watch into a wristwatch before the war because wristwatches, both men’s and ladies’, were readily available long before this watch was made in 1911 or 1912.

Conversion of a pocket or fob watch into a wristwatch by the simple method of attaching two wire lugs, as mockingly described by Jaquet and Chapuis in The “Invention” of the Wristwatch, does not make a satisfactory wristwatch and is not nearly as common, or as early in the history of the wristwatch, as people sometimes think.

The question is when and why were fob watches converted into wristwatches?

Before the First World War there was no need for such conversions, because ready made wristwatches were available to buy in the shops. If a man wanted a wristwatch, he could just go out and buy one, but civilian men didn't wear wristwatches so there was very little demand. But during the First World War, the sudden demand from thousands of newly commissioned officers for wristwatches quickly bought up the existing stocks and exceeded watch manufacturer's production capability to make new ones. This is when and why fob watches were converted into wristwatches.

Because the watches converted into wristwatches that can be positively dated, e.g. from hallmarks, are from the period before the First World War, sometimes long before, the mistaken assumption has been made that they were converted before the war. But there exists evidence that proves this is not the case.

The original pocket watches were, of course, made before the war, but their conversion to wristwatches was done during the war, because the supply of new men's wristwatches could not satisfy the sudden increase in demand brought about by the war.

The reality is that converted wristwatches did not precede purpose made wristwatches and were not “transitional” watches on the way to the true wristwatch.

Fob watches were converted into wristwatches during the First World War when the supply of new wristwatches could not keep up with the sudden surge in demand for wristwatches from newly commissioned officers desperate to get to the front before the war was over.

Practicality of Conversion

Before getting into the evidence of what actually happened, let's look at how easy it is to convert a pocket or fob watch into a satisfactory wristwatch. I say a “satisfactory wristwatch” because I mean a wristwatch that customers would actually want to buy from a shop, to wear and show off to their friends, not something that looks like it has been hurriedly cobbled together out of whatever was available under trying circumstances and doesn't do the job very well.

Would adding wire lugs to a fob watch make a wristwatch?

Wristwatches don't usually have a lid as a hunter watch does, because that would defeat the point of strapping the watch to a wrist – which was to make it easy to access and read the time without using both hands. If a wristwatch has a hunter lid, both hands are needed to read the time, the left to bring the watch into view, the right to open the lid. For this reason the vast majority of wristwatches are open face.

Hunter wristwatches, and demi or half hunter wristwatches with a small window in the lid, are seen from the time of the First World War, obviously with the idea that the glass would be protected from knocks in the trenches, bullets and shrapnel. But these are few and far between, because they are awkward to read and quickly annoyed their users. Sometimes they are missing the hunter lid; I wonder how many were torn off by frustrated wearers?

If a pocket watch was to be converted into a wristwatch, then it would usually be an open face pocket watch. How easy was it to make one of these into a wristwatch?

Here is a picture of a small open face Borgel pocket watch that I have rotated to bring the crown to 3 o'clock as if it were a wristwatch. A couple of problems with this as a wristwatch are immediately apparent.

Pocket watches converted to wristwatches usually show signs of all these problems. The 12 is often in the wrong place, or the dial feet have been cut off so that the dial can be rotated. The bow has been removed and the pendant and winding stem cut down, usually quite obviously. The position on the sub seconds display cannot be moved and would still appear at 9 o'clock, so often watches were chosen that have no seconds display. Nothing is done about the engraving on the back of the case, which is not a problem in itself but is a dead give away that the watch left the factory as a pocket watch.

It is in fact much more difficult to convert a pocket watch into a satisfactory wristwatch than it is to simply make a wristwatch in the first place.

Making Wristwatches

Lepine and Savonnette
Lépine and Savonnette Watches: Click image to enlarge.

The reason that it is difficult to make a satisfactory wristwatch from a pocket watch, and the key to the successful wristwatch, was the paradoxical use of savonnette (hunter) movements in Lépine (open face) cases, which at the time was very unusual.

Savonnette (hunter) watch cases, such as the one on the right in the image, have a hinged metal lid (ringed red) to protect the crystal. Savonnette (hunter) movements and dials are laid out so that the crown is at three o'clock and the small seconds at 6 o'clock. The hinge for the hunter lid is at 9 o'clock.It is easy to see how adding lugs to the case would have the basic layout of a satisfactory wristwatch.

Lépine (open face or crystal) watches, such as the one on the left in the image, have no lid. Their movements and dials are laid out so that the crown is at 12 o'clock and the small seconds is at 6 o'clock. This design was created in the eighteenth century by Jean Antoine Lépine to make watches slimmer, but is also has the advantage that it is easy to see the dial and hands; there is no need to open a lid to read the time.

The principal reason for wearing a wristwatch was to make it easy to read the time. If the wristwatch had an open face, this could be done with minimum effort just by looking at the wrist, which could be done while holding things in both hands e.g. the reins of a horse in one hand and a revolver in the other. However, if the wristwatch was fitted with a hunter lid, both hands were needed to read the time; the wrist with the watch and the opposite hand have to be brought together to open the lid. If a demi hunter lid with a small window in the middle was fitted, the accuracy of reading was severely reduced. These practical considerations meant that an open face Lépine case was needed.

However, if a Lépine movement was used and the lugs were soldered onto the case so that the crown was on the side, where it was most convenient, the 12 would also be on the side, next to the crown, and the small seconds would be on the opposite side of the dial. This made it very awkward to read the time, and is the principal problem that most conversions suffer from. It was obvious that the 12 o'clock should really be at the top of the dial when viewed on the wrist, where the upper part of the strap would be attached. A movement that had exactly this layout, with the crown at the 3 o'clock position and the small seconds at 6 o'clock, already existed; a savonnette movement.

The key to the successful wristwatch was therefore to fit a savonnette movement into an open face Lépine case.

IWC Fournitures 1917: Cal. 63 Lépine (open face) versus Cal. 64 savonnette (hunter) et (and) Montres Bracelet (open face wristwatches) movements.

For more details about the difference between Lépine and savonnette movements and cases, see Savonnette vs. Lépine.

Instead of going to the unnecessary trouble of converting pocket watches, a manufacturer wishing to make wristwatches would take small savonnette movements that they were already making and put them into purpose made open face cases with short pendants and lugs for a strap and, hey presto, wristwatches! Was putting a savonnette movement into an open face case that had been purpose made with lugs to take a wrist strap and without a pendant and bow really a form of conversion? No, of course it wasn't.

This use of savonnette movements in open face cases, which for centuries had been called Lépine cases, gave rise to a new terminology. This is shown in the image here taken from an IWC catalogue of spares (fournitures) published in 1917. The calibre 63 on the left is described as a Lépine,naturally enough, but note that the calibre 64 on the right is described as a “savonnette et montres bracelet”, a “savonnette movement for hunter cases and for open face wristwatches.

The paradoxical combination of a savonnette (hunter) movements in Lépine (open face) cases is why early wristwatches have the number 12 picked out in colour. Because they were open face they looked at first glance like a Lépine watch adopted for wrist wear, but the savonnette movement meant that the 12 was in a different place to where it could be found on a normal Lépine watch and a red or blue 12 was used draw attention to this.

Evidence from the First World War

Longines 2241923Face
Longines No. 2,241,923: Click image to enlarge.

So when were the conversions of pocket watches into the converted wristwatches that one sees today actually carried out?

Available evidence indicates that these conversions were done during the early years of the First World War. Since the late nineteenth century an officer in the British Army had been expected to wear a wristwatch. During the First World War, as the army expanded, many new officers were commissioned, and each one used his outfit or kit allowance to purchase his kit for the front; uniform, sword, revolver, etc. - and a wristwatch.

At the start of the war there was such a demand from newly commissioned officers for wristwatches that the supply of new wristwatches couldn't keep up. At this time, fob watches were converted into wristwatches for officers determined to kit up and get to the front before the fighting was over, which in 1914 it was expected to be by Christmas.

I have the Longines trench watch shown in the image here. It's a nice size for a man's wristwatch, 35 millimetres across the silver Borgel screw case, not including the wire lugs or the crown, and the dial has the skeleton numerals and hands with radium luminous paint that were so necessary in a trench watch. The movement is a Longines calibre 13.67 Lépine with 18 jewels.

The Longines serial number of the watch is 2,241,923, which dates the movement to 1909. The Borgel case has London Assay Office import hallmarks for sterling silver with the date letter “n” of 1908 to 1909 – remember that date letter punches were used over two calendar years. So the watch was made and cased in 1909.

However, it doesn't look like a Longines wristwatch that was made in 1909. For one thing, it has simple fixed wire lugs instead of the characteristic hinged “swinging” lugs that were usual for Longines wristwatches made at the time. Secondly, the dial has skeletonised numerals and hands with radium luminous paint. Luminous dials were not used when this watch was made in 1909. There is no seconds indication on the dial; Longines wristwatches made at the time usually had small seconds indications at 6 o'clock, so this is also odd.

The secret is revealed by Longines records, which record that this wristwatch was invoiced and sent to Baume & Co. in London on 12 March 1915. Why did this watch, which had been made in 1909, remain in Longines inventory at the factory in St. Imier until 1915, some six years later?

Horological Journal October 1916
Horological Journal October 1916: Click image to enlarge

The answer lies in the sudden overwhelming demand for wristwatches from newly commissioned officers getting kitted out for the front in the First World War. The quotation from the Horological Journal of October 1916 shown in the image here confirms that so great was the demand for wristwatches that manufacturers were compelled to convert ladies' watches into military timepieces.

Note that this doesn't say that all wristwatches were being made from converted ladies watches; it says that the demand was such that manufacturers were converting ladies' watches into military timepieces in addition to the wristwatches they were making.

Because these conversions were done by watch manufacturers themselves, they were not the makeshift conversion from a fob watch into a wristwatch that is often seen today and recognised as a conversion. Factory conversions are much harder, sometimes impossible, to recognise as such. The reason that ladies' watches were used was because their movements, at 12 or 13 lignes, were the right size to make men's wristwatches. Sometimes these movements hadn't even been cased, meaning that they were just bare movements, not watches for either sex. When an uncased movement was put into a wristwatch case that wasn't even a conversion; it was simply assembling a wristwatch.

Factory conversions were done properly, which meant not only adding strap lugs and removing the pendant from a Lépine open face fob watch but also, most importantly, replacing the dial with one in the correct orientation for a wristwatch, so that the 12 was in the right place at the top of the dial and the 3 next to the crown.

The principal feature of Longines No. 2,241,923 shown in the photograph that would have not been found on a Longines wristwatch made in 1909; the luminous dial and hands, show that this watch started life in 1909 as a small open face pendant or fob watch that was converted into a wristwatch, a trench watch with a luminous dial, at the Longines factory in 1915.

the First World War created a huge demand for wristwatches. Initially Longines was able to fill orders with purpose made wristwatches, but by 1915 demand was outstripping supply. Thirteen ligne open face fob watches were a suitable size for wristwatches, so fob watches like number 2,241,923 were drawn from stock and converted to wristwatches by removing the bow and cutting down the pendant, soldering wire lugs to the case and fitting a new luminous dial and hands.

Because the movement is a Lépine, the small seconds on the new dial would have been at 9 o’clock, so instead of putting a samll seconds dial at this unusual position, which would have looked a bit amateur, the arbor of the fourth wheel was shortened and the seconds indication omitted from the dial. This was not ideal, a small seconds indication was useful to reassure an officer that his trench watch was working when it could not be heard ticking due to the noise of gunfire, but needs must and the demand for wristwatches was great.

This watch is clear evidence that conversions of pocket watches into wristwatches took place during the First World War due to the sudden overwhelming demand by new officer's for trench watches, which demand was soon followed by newly enlisted men of other ranks. Many conversions were performed by jewellers and are easily spotted. This conversion was more competently done at the Longines factory and is not so easy to spot, but Longines archives are an invaluable record and show without doubt what actually happened.

Further proof of this is that many converted pocket watches bear British import hallmarks. Whatever the hallmark date, import hallmarks show that the watch was imported after 1 June 1907 when import hallmarking of watch cases began. But my 1906 IWC wristwatch, which has no hallmarks because it was imported in January 1907, shows that purpose made men's wristwatches were being made before these later imports were converted into wristwatches. Since purpose made wristwatches were available, why would anyone go to the trouble before the war of making an unsatisfactory wristwatch by adding strap lugs to a fob watch? Especially at a time when there was very little demand for men's wristwatches at all.

The evidence shows that wristwatches made from converted pocket watches did not precede purpose made wristwatches. Conversions of pocket watches into wristwatches were done during the early stages of the First World War, when the supply of wristwatches could not keep up with the demands of newly commissioned officers urgently getting together their outfit so that they could get to the front.

If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated June 2024. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.