Doctor’s watches brought about a design innovation that’s just what the doctor ordered…even if they didn’t know it at the time.
Want to tell the difference between a casual watch geek and a serious gearhead? Ask them to recommend a doctor’s watch. If their response is along the lines of “How should I know what kind of watch doctors like to wear?” then it’s time to look elsewhere for horological insights. On the other hand, if they start by asking if you’d prefer a dedicated second hand subdial or the more conventional 3-handed model, you know you’re in the presence of someone who is way more “connoisseur” than “casual” when it comes to watches.
CREATED FOR PEOPLE WITH THEIR FINGERS ON THE PULSE
Before fitness trackers like Fitbit made our bodies a a 24/7 datafest, the only things a healthcare professional needed to get a sense of their patient’s basic well-being was their finger and a watch. Their finger was needed to find the patient’s pulse (usually on the wrist, but sometimes on the neck) and the watch was needed to monitor elapsed time (usually 60 seconds) while also counting heartbeats. As wristwatches back in the day didn’t have a second hand, doctors weren’t comfortable trusting the wristwatches available to them and instead opted for wall clocks or pocket watches—two solutions that, while accurate, were hardly portable or convenient.
That all changed in 1928, when Rolex and Gruen released timepieces that addressed this issue and in the process created the watch we now know as the Doctor’s Watch.
TWO BRANDS, TWO SOLUTIONS, ONE DESIGN THAT GOT THEM THERE
Keeping with their pragmatic culture, Rolex launched the Prince—a rectangular-shaped timepiece t’s own subdial. On the other side of the Atlantic, the folks at Gruen released the Techni-Quadron. Like it’s transatlantic counterpart, the Techni-Quadron featured a rectangular case with a separate, dedicated subdial for the second hand.
Contrary to popular belief, both brands opting for a rectangular case had nothing to do with movement limitations and everything to do with rectangular cases being en vogue in the late 20s. As both companies realized the medical community would be more likely to embrace a watch that they actually enjoyed wearing (even when not saving lives), both Rolex and Gruen went with a popular and more mainstream case design.
WATCHES THAT STARTED (AND SHARED) A MOVEMENT
More than sharing a launch date, Rolex and Gruen also shared something more meaningful: the Swiss-made Aegler Calibre 877 movement. Back in the latter half of the roaring 20s, Aegler was a well-regarded watch movement supplier that was owned by both Rolex and Gruen (today, it’s part of the Rolex brand portfolio). Oddly enough, Aegler’s engineers weren’t thinking doctors when they first designed the 877; to the Aegler team, the 877 was simply about showcasing their ability to engineer a movement with industry-leading precision and performance.
Did they succeed? Considering its 58-hour power reserve, and the fact it was the first movement to achieve COSC certification without adjustment, the answer is a resounding yes.
The best way to show both split-second accuracy and a robust power reserve is by showing off the second hand, so Aegler’s marketing team looked for groups who’d appreciate a design that put the second hand first. What made this move particularly interesting was the fact that most watches at the time didn’t even have second hands. Why? Unlike today’s fashion-forward and tech-focused usage, watches were simply used to tell the time (and keep the wearer on time) in the 20s and second hands were considered overkill by most people. But beyond that, adding a second hand would have impacted the power reserve and, in certain cases, the accuracy of the watch. With nothing to gain and performance to lose, many watch manufacturers ignored second hands without a second thought.
Despite this mindset—which didn’t really change until 1948, when Zenith introduced an accurate three-handed (hours, minutes and seconds) “stacked” movement—Aegler’s design team realized that prominent, easy-to-read second hands could be just what the doctor ordered. As Rolex and Gruen had a “gentleman’s agreement” in terms of the market (Rolex owned Europe, while Gruen focused on North American), Aegler had no problem sharing their vision with both companies—which begat the Prince and Techni-Quadron.
Which, thanks to robust sales, begat the category still known as “The Doctor’s Watch”. Does that mean that any watch with a dedicated subdial for the second hand can be classified as a doctors watch? Technically, yes. Does that mean that if a doctor uses a regular 3-handed watch to monitor a patient’s pulse, they’re in violation of their Hippocratic oath and are flushing years of training down the drain? Hardly.
While Doctor’s Watches are no longer the lifesaver and horological marvel they were back in 1928, the design elements they inspired are still the “go to” for any watch brand looking to create timepieces with a retro or classic feel.