Five Myths About Vintage Women's Watches

Today's Guest Bum is @watchmakers.daughter from Instagram. "The hazard of being a watchmaker's kid is that you don't actually remember your first watch, but it does mean that you always had something fun to talk about at show-and-tell," she says. "I had no choice but to love watches from a young age. When I'm not hanging off the side of a bridge in my real job as a structural engineer, I enjoy finding vintage watches that the internet has forgotten."

Vintage women's La Marque

Vintage women's watches are criminally overlooked by watch collectors, writers, and dealers today. There are some elements of current fashion that inform this: the trend towards larger watches for women, the desire for a sportier aesthetic, and the fact that women proportionally make up a pretty small segment of the watch enthusiast market. But I think there are some elements of misinformation that play a part as well. People have told me that there isn't much variety in vintage women's watches, there are no tool or sports watches that were made for women, there are no technologically interesting women's watches, that women's watches have inferior specifications, and the evergreen trope that women aren't interested in watches enough to care about vintage pieces.

If it were true that women have little interest in watches, then Tudor wouldn't have a 32mm Black Bay, Zenith wouldn't have a 36mm Defy, and Breitling wouldn't have just dropped a 35mm Navitimer. The conventional wisdom has clearly got their facts wrong, so I'm going to debunk each of these myths one by one.

Vintage women's Omega Constellation

Myth #1: There isn't much variety in vintage women's watches

False. Exhibit A: My own collection. I don't claim to have a full cross-section of vintage women's watches, but as you can see from the photos here, there has long been a wide variety of styles, sizes, and genres of watches targeted at women, starting from the very first wristwatches. There are dress watches, cocktail watches, divers of every specification, field watches, sports watches, and even watches designed specifically for nurses. I don't personally have any field or nurses watches as their defining characteristic of a fully numbered dial (and a nurse's watch typically had a red seconds hand) don't interest me aesthetically, but they're definitely out there.

Vintage women's Omega Seamaster 120

Myth #2: There are no tool/sports watches that were made for women

So. Very. Wrong. Many of the brands that made the most iconic men's dive watches also produced women's models. The Zodiac Seawolf, Omega Seamaster 120, Tudor Submariner, Bulova Snorkel, Rado Captain Cook Mark 2, Doxa Sub 300, and Certina DS all had variants for women as did Seiko, Citizen ... the list goes on. I do find it interesting the Rolex never made a smaller version of the Submariner, but speculation as to the rationale of that oversight will have to wait for another time. The women's models of the above watches were different in only one way: they were smaller. The movements used kept the same timekeeping standards (we'll get into movement specifics when we bust Myth #3), the cases were made in similar shapes out of the same high-grade steel, and the bezels function in the same way. The biggest difference is that these watches were 30-50% smaller than the men's versions. To me, that's a huge achievement in micromachining and craftsmanship that doesn't get talked about nearly enough.

Vintage women's Bulova Snorkel 666

Myth #3: There are no technologically interesting women's watches

*error buzzer* Did you know that the first full rotor automatic movement released by Omega, the cal. 450, was for the Omega Ladymatic released in 1953? The first full rotor automatic for a men's watch was the cal. 470 and was released about six months later. That's right, Omega figured out how to get bi-directional winding into a 17mm movement before they put one into a men's watch. Rado had a definite "hold my beer" moment when they put a day-date movement into a 26mm watch, and Seiko developed a hi-beat chronometer grade calibre (the 1944 movement) that they put into 25-28mm watches in the late 1960s. In more recent times, the Bulova Precisionist movement is only about 25mm in diameter, making it the ideal size for a 30-36mm watch, so the 40+mm Precisionist watches Bulova also sells have the same movement, but also a massive plastic spacer to keep it in place.

Vintage women's Tissot

Myth #4: Women's watches have inferior specifications

Wrong again. As discussed when I busted Myth #3, there are many vintage women's watches that have equivalent specifications to the men's watches they were sold alongside. I think one of my favorite examples of this is the Hamilton "Milady's Watch of Accuracy," and yes, that's the actual name as first seen in the 1923 Hamilton dealer's catalog. It was a wristwatch with a Hamilton 986 movement marketed specifically for women who were interested in accurate timekeeping: "women Technicians and nurses ... girls entering schools or colleges, while Sportswomen will appreciate the smartness as well as the accuracy." The advertisement even highlighted the fact that the bracelet was detachable and therefore could be easily sterilized. The targeting of wristwatches at women really indicated a movement towards women being active outside of the home, away from the mantle or grandfather clock in the hall. The men's version, "Men's Strap Watch," used the same exact movement manufactured to the same standards. As I pointed out earlier, brands like Rolex, Omega, and Seiko were all churning out chronometer-certified movements for women's watches right alongside the men's calibres. The depth certifications for an Omega Seamaster 120 or Bulova Snorkel (120m and 666ft, respectively) were the same for both the women's and men's versions of the watch. The idea that women's watches as a whole had inferior specifications for the time is very inaccurate.

Vintage women's Omega Dynamic

Myth #5: Women aren't interested in vintage pieces

Holy sweeping generalization, Batman! Now, I can't say that I've done a scientific study on the subject, but based on my observations on Instagram, Twitter, and the watch blogosphere, I think as a proportion of watch enthusiasts as a whole, there are about equal numbers of men and women who are really into vintage pieces. There are many lady collectors I know who have vintage collections to make a grown Hodinkee fan weep, and just as many gentleman collectors who have zero interest in anything made before 1990. And that's fine. Everyone should love what they love. But stereotypes are no reason to ignore a large swath of the available vintage watches out there. Consider this a call to talk more about the place of vintage women's watches in the larger timeline of watch innovation and development in the last 100 years. 

As I've discussed, there are a lot of technical, aesthetic, and social milestones that are tied to the development of women's watches through the years and more research and thought should be put into this topic, especially if we want to continue to expand the watch enthusiast community. ⬩

Vintage women's Rado Capitan Cook

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