What is a cocktail watch?

What is a cocktail watch?

Buffy Acacia

The Collins Dictionary defines a cocktail watch as “a women’s designer watch intended to be worn with formal evening dress as a piece of jewellery.” So that’s the end of the article, right? Well, there’s actually a lot more history behind them than that, and there are also the modern evolutions of the cocktail watch which are often overlooked. They’re certainly not exclusive to women anymore, and “formal evening dress” doesn’t get as much wear as it used to. Whether or not you enjoy colourful and strong drinks, the glamour of a good cocktail watch is sure to entice you.

Cocktail watches 1
Image courtesy of Homes & Antiques.

To start with the traditional definition, we have to look back at the very beginning of wristwatches. Long before military forces began to realise the practical advantage of wearing watches on the wrist, watch brands were producing decorative watches set into bracelets for women as far back as the early 1800s. Just like any fashion, they were expressive, hugely varied, and spread like wildfire. By the 1900s and especially the 1910s, wristwatches were an almost essential accessory. Corsets were going out of style, and women’s clothing usually didn’t have the structural rigidity (or the pockets) to comfortably support a heavy pocket watch and chain. The industrial developments and technological breakthroughs aided this movement too, as wristwatches could be made both more reliable and more affordable.

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A Patek Philippe from 1868, made for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary.

The style of the watches in the 1900s-1930s is mainly where the cocktail watch style comes from, as some women really started enjoying some freedoms. Dances, operas, and really any kind of evening event was an opportunity to put on their best outfits and socialise. Minimalism was still far off in the future, and people weren’t afraid of attracting a little bit of attention. Even though the watches themselves were small, generally no larger than 18mm wide, the cases and bracelets were designed to be as glamorous as possible. Whether it was a bracelet set with sparkling jewels or a case with ornate, fluted sides, they were statement pieces. It’s this diva-like attitude of flashiness and petite charm which really encapsulates the cocktail watch vibe of old.

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Image courtesy of Harrington & Co.

The best thing about vintage/antique cocktail watches is that they’re still out there, and a lot of them are still very wearable. You can go for a cheaper option in plated brass, something mid-range like sterling silver with marcasite, or venture into precious metals like gold and platinum with glorious gemstones, and they’re all as capable of show-stopping beauty as each other. Sure, they might be in desperate need of a service, but actually reading the time off of those tiny dials was never the priority. Plus, women’s watches are always criminally underpriced on the used market, meaning that thrifty shoppers can often find fantastic deals.

bulgari serpenti misteriosi pallini

But as we’ve established, times have changed. You can still buy those old watches if you wish, but you should also consider how the style has evolved. After WWI, men’s wristwatches did steal the limelight back. The styles became much more muted and conservative into the mid-century, but opulence is always waiting in the wings. The Bulgari Serpent Tubogas from 1948 is a perfect example of how jewellers moved away from glittering jewels and towards simple, polished metals, and then pizazz ramped up again towards the ‘70s and ‘80s to welcome back gemstones with open arms. Women’s cocktail watches of the modern era aren’t really all that different to the old ones, generally with small dials and elaborate decoration, but the introduction of men’s and gender-neutral cocktail watches has been a successful twist on the recipe in the last couple of decades.

seiko presage australasian limited edition irori moments dial close up

A modern cocktail watch definitely isn’t directly interchangeable with a dress watch, even if the case is 18k gold and set with diamonds. There needs to be some dramatic flair, some distinct character, and preferably a dash of colour. The most obvious examples for gender-neutral cocktail watches of the modern era are among the Seiko Presage Cocktail Time collection. Each of these watches is based on an actual cocktail, but the intricate and often hypnotising dials are so artfully crafted that you’re instantly pulled in. They’re elegant, alluring, and look fantastic on any wrist. Cocktail watches were also inspirational to the Baltic Prismic, offering a distinctly masculine take on art-deco sharpness, and hour markers which even resemble marcasite jewellery. One which is a less colourful take but still definitely feels cocktail-y is the recent Rolex 1908, which would easily suit someone sipping an old fashioned at a mahogany bar.