Whenever we read books or watch movies about the first world wars, we often hear about how these conflicts mobilized the entirety of the countries involved. This is not exclusive to soldiers and/or governments, but the civilian populations and industries as well. This has been the case for thousands of years. It seemed that World War II was the last conflict that required this kind of unilateral mobilization. In this article, we’re going to discuss the mobilization of watch brands during such conflicts, mostly during World War I and II, and how it impacted the brands themselves. Moreover, we’ll discuss further instances during which brands were mobilized to support a war and what happens in modern conflicts.
Historical Context & General Thoughts
Not too long ago, I read a book about the history of warfare which explained that for a very long time, and in many parts of the world, armies were made up of civilians that fought other civilian armies from nearby city-states. Think of the Roman Empire and how in antiquity, it was cities that fought each other and not countries. This means that everything was about supporting the war, from metal production of armors and weapons to food supply management of soldiers. When armies started to be made up of professional soldiers, nothing changed. Most technological advances were born from the necessity of gaining advantage over the enemy, and all financial resources were allocated to wars.
I know, I have a talent for simplifying extensive and complex historical facts!
During World War I and II, entire nations were mobilized to support the conflicts. While soldiers were fighting, women and children worked in factories or in the fields to make weapons, vehicles, and the food necessary to feed soldiers. Doctors, scientists, and engineers refocused their work on supporting the war effort, and most able men had to fight. All industries were also repurposed to support wars, from car manufactures to various types of metallurgic manufactures and, yes, watchmakers. Some of the brands we now cherish and wear and/or use, had a dark history. Have you heard of Hugo Boss? During WWII, Boss made uniforms for the Nazi and SS. Have you heard of Ford? During WWII, Ford made military vehicles.
Watch Manufacturing During World War I & II
While doing research for the articles I’ve written on the Dirty Dozen, the Type A-11, and the various pilot and field watches of World War II, I was surprised—not to say a little shocked—to learn that all watch brands at the time were making timepieces to support the war. While Seiko was making watches for Japanese soldiers and Elgin, Waltham, and Bulova for American soldiers, Switzerland was busy making watches for everyone. Brands such as Eterna, Longines, Omega and Buren were manufacturing watches for both the Allied and Axis forces. Switzerland was neutral during the war and as such, made watches for both sides.
This means that watch brands, some of which had started making military watches during World War I, stopped production of all civilian watches to make timepieces for soldiers. A few weeks back, I wrote an article about the Hamilton Lexington which was advertised as being a military watch made for civilians, although only officers would wear it. As indicated in my write up on the Type A-11, the major players in the American watch manufacturing industry focused on making field and pilot watches. In other words, the newest technologies developed to make accurate and reliable watches were repurposed for war, meaning that watchmakers and artisans stopped making everyday and luxurious watches to make purpose-built, robust watches.
Watch Manufacturing After World War II
In my article on modern Benrus military recreations, we saw that the brand switched from making everyday and unique-looking, elegant, and technologically advanced watches to purpose-driven timekeeping devices following strict U.S. Government-issued mil-specs. Benrus, like other watchmakers, started issuing watches for U.S. soldiers involved in the Korean and Vietnam wars, each time making them better and more modern due to the requirements of modern warfare. Military watches after World War II, therefore, became more intricate and even more reliable. However, brands were making military watches alongside civilian models, something that is rarely the case nowadays.
To make a very long story short, let’s say that today’s manufacturing of military watches has become more specialized and handled by specific brands in the likes of Marathon and C.W.C., amongst a few others. With a few exceptions, Swiss and Japanese brands no longer manufacture watches for the military. With that said, we could see the Tudor FXD Marine Nationale as indeed being produced for the military, however they come across (at least to me) as being timepieces that honor a tradition of supporting the military, more than making a dedicated watch for them.
The key difference between now and a few decades ago is that any watch made to specs for the military is also available for civilians. Something that wasn’t the case starting in the 1940s and roughly throughout the 1980s.
WarTime Mobilization Impact on Watch Brands
Many, if not most of the brands that made watches for soldiers were changed forever. That is, at least, true of any brand that survived the Quartz Revolution, which isn’t the case for many brands that did manufacture military timepieces. A few of the 12 brands that made the Dirty Dozen closed their doors, and you probably already know that Elgin and Waltham also closed their doors. Bulova survived the Quartz Revolution by becoming extremely inventive (they created the first Accutron in 1960). Brands such as Longines, Omega, Jaeger LeCoultre, and IWC were already so well-established that they plowed through the crisis of the 1970s/early 1980s.
Brands such as Benrus, on the other end of the spectrum, refocused the development of new technologies for military watches to support the many wars the United States were involved in. Global warfare opened up new opportunities for developing new models as the militaries of the world became more specialized and more sophisticated. Rolex, for its part, forged a reputation for making capable tool watches right after the end of World War II: most models from the 1940s/early 1950s through the 1980s being advanced tool watches. It wasn’t until later that Rolex became a more luxurious brand. As always, Rolex is a bit of the exception to the rule here.
Since the dawn of time, wars have mobilized entire nations. Historically, all industries and able people had to fight or manufacture goods to support conflicts. As far as watches go, World War I and World War II constituted the times during which watch brands refocused their entire manufacturing powers to make watches for the military. One could argue that this enabled many Swiss brands to survive the Quartz Revolution, as they had ties with governments who commissioned them to manufacture mil-spec models throughout the 1980s. This was the case, as we saw, with the Type A-11, the Dirty Dozen, and later with the Benrus Type I & II and the DTU/2A.Featured image: www.60clicks.com