Nearly everyone is familiar with the wrist watch and the pocket watch. The latter has been around for many centuries, the former for almost exactly one century. (Several companies created on-demand small watches for the wrist or the finger for women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it wasn’t until World War 1 that they achieved popularity among men.)
Today, wrist watches comprise 99 percent of the watch market – pocket watches are still manufactured, but in small quantities for special markets.
There is another kind of watch, however. Starting around the 1910s, manufacturers began experimenting with the notion of combining a pocket watch and a wrist watch into one timepiece by encasing the watch dial and movement into metals such as silver, gold, platinum, and steel in such a way that the dial could not be seen until opened by its wearer through a catch or other device. Thus the watch could be transported in a pocket, briefcase, golf bag, or purse, without exposing its crystal.
These watches, never mass produced, and often created only as a one-off on special order, were known by various names: They were most often called travel watches, sports watches, golf watches, and purse watches. The latter name has become their most common nickname in recent times, but the term is misapplied; Movado made a series of Ermeto watches primarily (but not exclusively) for women that became known as purse watches, but eventually all these watches were categorized as purse watches despite the fact that the majority of them were actually made for men.
Many of these travel watches were created by outstanding companies ranging from Cartier to Rolex to Omega, which advertised them as being perfect for the golfer who wanted to know the time but didn’t want to be handicapped with a large watch around his wrist; these watches could attach to the golf bag for convenience.
Most of the watches also had a feature, such as a small metal stand or a flat back, that allowed them to sit on a desk or night-table and be viewed as though they were a clock. Some even had alarms, although this was rare, occurring mostly in the Movado and in the Invicta lines.
Never mass produced, these travel, sport, and purse watches were popular throughout the 1930s into the early 1950s, when they began to disappear, doomed to extinction by the more convenient battery-operated travel clocks. Along the way dozens of companies manufactured them, some like Rolex on a watch-by-watch basis; others, like Tavannes or Cyma, much more frequently. Cyma, Tavannes, Longines, Driva, and Tissot often created the movements for other companies to use in their travel watches, especially Cartier, which relied heavily on these manufacturers. Other companies such as Vacheron Constantin and Gubelin, created beautiful and unique models – many with individual features such as separate winding crowns, hidden catches, or sliding cases, while even some of the American companies, including Elgin and Benrus, created a few models.
Today these travel watches are hard to find in excellent condition. They are priced relatively cheaply compared to other vintage watches considering the amount of work that went into them, as well as some excellent movements. Lower-priced models on eBay can sell for as little as $200. The high end – items such as a mint Rolex Sporting Prince – can cost up to $8000. And a few special-order travel watches, especially heavily jeweled ones made for or by brands such as Audemars or Vacheron, can command considerably more.