Fashionable Practicality: Timex and the History of Women’s Watches


In the 19th century, while men furrowed their brows at the idea of strapping a small clock to their wrists instead of keeping one in their pockets, trailblazing women were going full speed ahead into the future. The history of women’s watches is a remarkable story of royalty, athleticism, art, and independence – one that sees the pendulum swing from fashionable excess to straightforward utilitarianism and settles at a perfectly balanced point in the middle.

While postwar designers and artists were exploring new, freer ways of living, Timex was disrupting the watch market with fashionable yet practical designs for women from all walks of life.

“Timex disrupted the watch market with fashionable yet practical designs for women.”

Royal origins 
Pocket watches were the go-to way of telling time in the 1800s and were used largely by businessmen. In 1810, however, Caroline Murat, the Queen of Naples and sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, had Abraham-Louis Breguet handcraft her an ornate, elegant bracelet inlaid with a small clock. Her decadent accessory is today regarded as the first wristwatch in history.

The trend caught on among royal circles, with high society women coveting sophisticated “bracelet watches” for their wrists, including Countess Koscowicz of Hungary. These watches were not very mechanically accurate but were aesthetically pleasing. Wristwatches were largely seen as a women’s accessory, but ensuing global conflict would cause that to change.

War and timepiece
As global war rocked the beginning of the 20th century, generals searched for new ways to enhance military efficiency. One of their methods was having soldiers use wristwatches instead of pocket watches, with it being far simpler and faster for soldiers to check the time on their wrists than dig into their fatigues.

In 1918, Timex converted a women’s pocket watch into its first wristwatch by adding strap lugs and rotating the face to put the crown at 3 o’clock rather than 12 o’clock. This model was the first wristwatch issued by the U.S. military.

While it would still be a few decades before everyday men warmed up to the idea of wearing such a “female” accessory in the street, the women’s watch market was expanding. Swiss designers started introducing gem-adorned watches that they marketed as must-have jewelry.

A practical approach
Soon, however, watches were no longer about jewel count – they were increasingly about practicality. Perhaps the most famous female watch-wearer of the Roaring ’20s was the bold and courageous Mercedes Gleitze, who swam the English Channel wearing a weatherproof watch on her wrist. A photograph of her wading through cold ocean waters surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd spread around the world, giving watches a new sporty and independent reputation.

We now arrive at a point where women’s watches tended toward two extremes – as either an expensive item of jewelry or a strictly utilitarian piece. But as the middle of the century approached, and women’s liberation movements were picking up steam, why couldn’t the mid-century modern woman have a wristwatch that served both functions?

“By the 1950s, all women could have a great-looking, high-quality watch of their own.”

A disruption in the market
The watchmakers at Timex saw a gap in the market for creating watches that were both fashionable and practical as well as accessible to the everyday woman. Timex turned heads with timepieces that were stylish, durable, and built with accurate mechanics.

By the 1950s, all women could have a great-looking, high-quality watch of their own. The postwar era, with its newfound sense of freedom shaped by experimental artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, saw society as a whole adopt an unrestrained understanding of time. And it’s no coincidence that this shift in attitude was happening just as the wristwatch was becoming mainstream. Society was exerting a new type of control over the passing minutes and hours.

With its smaller movements, Timex began manufacturing slim women’s watches for the first time. These timepieces boasted an elegant style but also the famous Timex durability. In a market of luxury Swiss imports, the lower price point of Timex watches meant that a woman could own several timepieces to accessorize different outfits and occasions for the price of one “jewel” watch. Timex watches were also popular “milestone” gifts for women graduating college and starting careers.

And in 1984, Timex invented the sports watch with the Timex Triathlon. The company released the original men’s and women’s models at the same time, and the innovative timepiece was used by female athletes with the same adventurous drive and fearless spirit as Mercedes Gleitze.

Since then, Timex’s accessible women’s watches have continued to see success, with watches that offer women fashionable and dependable timepieces.

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