Women’s History Month: 4 Fascinating Horological Stories About Women In Watchmaking
The watch industry today would be nothing without women. There, I said it.
Just think about the workforce in any factory: the majority of every row of watchmaker’s benches you see in watch factories is “manned” by women (pun/truth intended).
But above and beyond what I estimate is more than half of the work being shouldered by female technicians and watchmakers in manufactures today, it is worth noting that historically it was women’s pragmatic fashion sense that was responsible for the wristwatch to become fashionable in the first place.
Women recognized early on how cumbersome and impractical pocket watches were – not to mention that female fashion did not include pockets 150 years and more ago. They came to this conclusion much, much earlier than Alberto Santos-Dumont, who is said to have “invented” the idea of the wristwatch for Cartier in 1904 because he found it impossible to time his exploits with a pocket watch while requiring both hands to control his flying machines.
Women had previously solved the problem of carrying time with them in the logical way that most women go about solving problems: prizing efficiency. And in this case, it meant carrying the time on an easy-to-view part of the body instead of in a pocket.
And so timekeeping moved to the wrist. To back up the origin point, the first wristwatches were made for women as early as 1812. In a story I wrote in 2014, you can read about the first wristwatches made by Breguet (1812), Patek Philippe (1876), and Hermès (1912) – all of which went to female wrists.
Recommended reading: The First Wristwatches From Breguet, Hermès And Patek Philippe Were Made . . . For Women.
The world’s first horological doctorate: Dr. Rebecca Struthers
Dr. Rebecca Struthers’ hard work, dedication, and talent has led her to accomplish a first in watchmaking: the inaugural doctorate in horology.
The first doctorate in watchmaking in the entire history of watchmaking: that’s a pretty big thing. “It’s been really overlooked as an academic subject,” says the introspective English independent watchmaker in her typical fashion.
“Being told the workshop isn’t a place for women just motivated me to prove people wrong,” she said with almost no perceptible change in emotion. This is her reality, one that she had the will to change with action and by example.
Recommended reading: Meet The Struthers: English Watchmaking The Old-Fashioned Way . . . Sort Of.
Vintage nicknaming: did the auction world miss an opportunity?
It’s been 55 years since English acting icon Vanessa Redgrave starred in the 1966 film Blowup. It seems to have escaped watch collectors’ interest that she wore a Rolex Reference 5513 Submariner with Explorer dial on a leather strap (instead of its stainless steel Oyster bracelet) over the sleeve of her shirt in the film. This combination is incredibly rare.
As Sotheby’s writes in the notes to a 2019 auction, “In the complex world of vintage Rolex, small differences, usually only noticeable under close inspection, make an enormous difference to the collectability of a watch. On some early references, including the 5513, there is a particular and important exception with an instantly recognizable feature: the Explorer dial. Only a small fraction of the Rolex Submariners from the early production, such as the References 6538, 6200, 5510, 5512, and the 5513, were fitted with this special ‘3-6-9′ dial. The ‘Explorer dial’ or ‘3-6-9 dial’ is named after its similar layout to the Explorer design as opposed to the standard Submariner dial with the usual round, baton and triangle indexes.”
As Nick Gould pointed out in his recent article, a Rolex was an interesting choice for the lead actress to wear in a 1960s film. Also, he writes, the watch’s whereabouts are currently unknown.
A missed marketing opportunity, perhaps. A question to ponder, certainly.
Radium Girls: get that glow, girl – better yet, don’t
Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in chemistry 1911 for discovering radium. The brilliant and humble Curie won two Nobel Prizes in her lifetime, each in two different scientific fields, and the Nobel prize for discovering radium was her second. Currie was both the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris (1906).
There are several scientific and glass-ceiling-breaking firsts attributed to her, but in watches it is always radium that we come back to . . . gotta get that lume, ya know?
Curie died in 1934 from aplastic anemia, which, it was believed, she contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation.
In Curie’s lifetime the effects of working with radiation were not yet entirely known, which did not serve the so-called Radium Girls very well. These were women working in dial-making factories in the United States, who were tasked with painting the numerals and other markings on watch dials with a luminous paint comprising glue, water, and radium powder.
These employees continuously reshaped the hairs of the brushes they used by putting them in their mouths throughout the workday. That did not end well.