Though portable timepieces were invented 300 years before the first wristwatch, they were not as widely popular as the pocket watch. The pocket watch design demanded the use of the right hand to wind and set it and therefore influenced the orientation of the wristwatch that became the standard for timepieces in World War I and beyond.
Religion Creates Demand
In the late 15th century, the first portable timepiece, later known as the “pocket watch,” was invented in Germany by Peter Henlein. The rise of the watch was heavily influenced by the Reformation in the 16th century. Adherents of Calvinism were restricted from wearing elaborate clothing and jewelry. However, the watch was considered a useful item, creating a boon for the jewelry makers in Geneva, Switzerland, who were no longer profiting from jewelry sales.
The Watch Boom
Advances in technology, precision and design continued for the next two centuries, making Swiss watches world-renown as the gold standard of quality. Household names such as Chopard, Movado and Patek-Philippe emerged in Switzerland as well as neighboring countries. All competed to invent the most coveted timepieces. In 1810, Abraham Louis Breguet became the first documented inventor of the wristwatch prototype we know today. Though other watch companies copied and improved the wristwatch design, they were not a popular accessory.
Form and Function
Men did not commonly wear a wristwatch until more than a hundred years after Breguet’s prototype. Wristwatches became synonymous with “ladies jewelry,” and men still continued to carry loose or chain-linked timepieces. As a result, tailors began to sew a pocket on men's suit vests to conveniently house the timepiece for checking or winding, hence the term “pocket watch.” These early watches required setting and winding with an instrument, such as the key, or later, with fingers on a crown dial. As a practical consideration, winding a watch was more efficiently executed with one’s more dexterous right hand as approximately 90 percent of the population is right-handed. Therefore, suit pockets and watches were worn on the left side for storing and holding in hand.
From Breguet To Barracks
World War I marked the shift when wristwatches became a more masculine symbol of fashion. Scores of soldiers were given military-issue watches or wore their own pocket watches modified to fit the wrist, to free both of their hands for combat equipment. Pilots wore the face of their watch on the inside of their left wrist to see the time while flying, enabling the use of their right hand for panel controls. Since most of these men formerly wore pocket watches on the left, they oriented their wristwatch accordingly. Likewise, instead of using the right hand to wind the watch, it is now necessary to buckle a strap or metal bracelet.
Right Hand Watches
Due to the proliferation of watches designed to be worn on the left, those designed to be worn on the right hand are extremely rare and highly valuable to collectors. Though there are more modern watches available for the left-handed consumer, they lack demand and are manufactured less.