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The History of Cocktail Watches

Originating just after the turn of the 20th Century, ladies’ cocktail watches have seen a rich and glamorous history. From their secretive beginnings - in-fitting with the mysterious and stylish jazz era - to the 21st Century, cocktail watches have held a well-deserved place in jewellery boxes everywhere. As well as being beautifully designed, antique and vintage cocktail watches can tell us a bit about women’s role in high-class society and how it has evolved over the decades. Read on to find out more about the origins of the cocktail watch, and why these pieces of jewellery remain so sought-after today.

The invention of the cocktail watch

As long as there have been wristwatches, there have been cocktail watches. First created by Tiffany & Co just after the turn of the 20th Century, cocktail watches were initially designed as a subtle and secretive way for women to check the time. In this period, time-checking was deemed unladylike, and casting one’s eyes away to check a wristwatch in the middle of a conversation was considered a serious faux pas for women in civilised society. In short, it wasn’t thought necessary or relevant for women to be concerning themselves with time, schedules, and appointments at all - it was more acceptable for them to be considered exclusively as ladies of leisure.

In response to this, cocktail watches were first designed to be cleverly disguised as bracelets - the perfect way for women to keep tabs on the time while looking glamorous. To achieve this, early cocktail watches were sleek and elegant, usually crafted in white gold or platinum and ornamented with sparkling diamonds.

The all-important dial within these designs would either be so small it wasn’t immediately noticeable or hidden away behind a diamond-encrusted lid or secret panel. Their purpose - aside from telling the time - was to signify pure grandeur and luxury. Unlike inconspicuous wristwatches, cocktail watches were designed to be status symbols and talking points at parties - hence the lavishness and ornateness of antique and vintage watches.

History of the Cocktail Watch
History of the Cocktail Watch

Later, after World War II, cocktail watches and wristwatches both became more readily available as the world of luxury watches moved away from conservativism, making products more accessible to the mass market. It was during this time that cocktail watch designs started to vary more, with bright gemstones becoming a more common feature.

Thanks to this era, there is now a plethora of stunning antique and vintage cocktail watches on the market and designs to suit every style.

How, where, and when to wear cocktail watches

Cocktail watches are undoubtedly elegant, but it can be difficult to know when the most appropriate time is to wear yours. As they tend to be elaborately designed, most cocktail watches are not intended for day-to-day wear but are perfect for a high-class evening event or, naturally, cocktail hour.

Cocktail hour can be anywhere between 4pm and 6pm and it is the perfect occasion to showcase a dazzling timepiece. Often, cocktail hours take place before an important event, such as a wedding reception. Therefore, dress should always be formal and elegant.

Traditionally, the outfits worn by women at cocktail hour are expected to be glamorous and refined. Apart from one's cocktail watch, the rest of one's jewellery should be at a minimum - a simple drop necklace or a string of pearls would complement a statement cocktail watch.

In addition to silver-toned ladies watches, Art Deco style monochrome cocktail watches with high-contrast dials are popular choices also.

The anatomy of a cocktail watch

Other than the bracelet style strap, the anatomy of a cocktail watch closely resembles that of any classic wristwatch. Its features include:

Diamond Watch
Cocktail Watch
  • A face
  • Lugs
  • Hands
  • Crown
  • Dials
  • Hour makers
  • Case

The obvious difference in many cocktail watch designs is the subtle lid or secret panel which serves to hide the face.

Cocktail watches have had an interesting, and somewhat scandalous, history. Today, there are many exquisite examples available to browse within our entire collection.

Andrew Campbell started trading in antiques during the 1970s. Initially, Andrew lived in the South of England, travelling the country, searching for items of silver to buy. Andrew sold these items at various London markets and antique fairs. Over time, and through selling at a range of venues, Andrew built up a large and diverse customer base from private buyers to national and international trade customers.
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