Why do we wear wristwatches?

Is It Time to Say Goodbye to the Wristwatch?

You'd think that wristwatches are going the way of the dodo bird, but they're actually making a comeback.
You'd think that wristwatches are going the way of the dodo bird, but they're actually making a comeback.
Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

As the second decade of the 21st century dawned, many observers started writing obituaries for the wristwatch [source: Robson]. After all, nearly every adult -- and many children -- in the world owned a cell phone, and even the most basic cell phones tell the time. Why bother with a wristwatch if all you have to do is glance at your phone? People who had come of age in the glory days of the wristwatch were often reluctant to change their dress style, but many younger people never bothered to start wearing a watch. Of course, watch sales dropped: According to consumer research firm Experian Simmons, only 42 million Americans bought watches for themselves in 2011 -- a significant decrease from the 55 million who did so in 2004 [source: Goetz].

But by early 2012, there were signs that watches might make a comeback. In an ironic twist, cell phones used as timepieces have some of the same drawbacks that made men abandon pocket watches for the wrist versions a century ago. And that's not all: There are several trends that suggest that wristwatches might not be going the way of other technological dinosaurs after all:

  • Some people find it inconvenient always to consult a phone to check the time. Sometimes – think business meetings, church, formal social settings, class rooms – it's considered inappropriate to pull out a phone. It's much easier to subtly check a wristwatch.
  • Let's face it: Some people tend to misplace their cell phones. If they always want to be able to check the time – and time is extremely important in our society – a watch strapped to the wrist is more reliable.
  • They're back in style. Watchmakers and retailers have successfully revived the notion of wristwatches as trendy accessories, including among teenagers.
  • Nostalgia is also a factor. Wristwatches now have a retro, vintage appeal, evoking memories of childhood or older relatives.
  • Watches are now collectibles. In an age of high-tech gizmos, people who can afford it often treasure the old-fashioned quality of a finely made mechanical watch. And people still like to pass high-end watches along as family heirlooms.

And finally, there are two seemingly contradictory trends helping watches survive.

On the one hand, as cell phones get ever smarter and offer such functions as calendars, calculators and stopwatches, some people are attracted to the simplicity of a nice-looking watch for the fashion or ornamental value. Remember, wristwatches started out more as jewelry than timepiece.

But on the other and, some watchmakers are going head-to-head with smart phones by making smart wristwatches. Some watches now offer global positioning. Others use Bluetooth technology to synchronize with smartphones and let a person to know with a glance at the wrist when a message or call arrives. One thing's for sure: Rumors of the wristwatch's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

For more information on the wristwatch and its history, take a look at the links on the next page.