Why do we wear wristwatches?

The Golden Age of the Wristwatch

The 20th century was the golden era of the wristwatch. Mass production made them affordable for average people, and the First World War made them acceptable for men as well as women.

By the latter part of the 20th century, a watch was considered an essential part of the wardrobe for men and women. Many people had multiple watches: utilitarian models for sports and leisure; stylish models for business wear; and high-fashion, expensive styles for dress. For ladies, watches were available with interchangeable bands of colors and styles.

Good watches became status symbols. Watches were favorite graduation presents. Often, an expensive gold watch was the standard retirement gift. Men, especially, bought fine watches to bequeath as family heirlooms.

Electronic watches that never needed winding were developed, and quartz movements made such watches so inexpensive by the 1970s, that some makers of fine watches went out of business. Popular digital watches such as Timex and Casio can cost just a few dollars. Fashion watches such as Swatch are popular and sell for under $100. Bulova still makes affordable watches, and Seiko, Citizen and Fossil watches start at around $100. On the higher end of the scale, Tissot and Lucien Picard watches run in the hundreds.

By the latter 20th century, no fashionable man would feel fully dressed without a respectable watch on his wrist. But watchmakers courted a market among people who treasure fine watches, and in the second decade of the 21st century, highly crafted mechanical watches are still selling for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Complicated watches with special mechanical features such as showing moon phases or tiny music boxes can sell for five or even six figures. And expensive ladies' watches decorated with jewels go back to the origin of the wristwatch as ornaments for wealthy women.

Among the leading fine watches today are names from wristwatch history such as Cartier and Patek Philippe. Rolex is probably the best-known higher-end watch. The Rolex Day-Date watch has been the choice of many American presidents. Some other luxury brands costing in the thousands -– in some cases, many thousands -- are Omega, Breitling, IWC , Panerai, Zenith, Jaeger LeCoultre and Vacheron Constantin.

But early in the 21st century, a growing technology began to threaten wristwatches. Are cell phones making watches obsolete? Keep reading for some answers.