Mappin & Webb and military watches? Hardly the kind of product you would expect to see in the elegant showcases of this venerable British institution, more renowned for its silverware and honourable role as the custodian of the Crown Jewels.
However, in addition to crafting magnificent silverware for Queen Victoria, Mappin & Webb confected articles for the men who forged the mighty British Empire, including one of the first wristwatches to accompany soldiers on to the battlefield. Once shunned by men who considered wristlets feminine trinkets and who preferred the size and weight of a pocket watch, the practicalities of wearing a wristwatch in battle would soon become apparent.
Soldiers engaged in the Boer Wars of South Africa in the late 1800s soon discovered the perils of extracting a pocket watch while mounted on a horse or loading a rifle, and devised rudimentary ways of attaching their pocket watches to more visible locations. Mappin & Webb, one of the first companies to understand the importance of wearing a timepiece on the wrist, created a “fine wristlet watch”, which was deployed at the decisive battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898.
Advertised as “Mappin’s Famed Campaign watch”, the new recruit, which was declared to be “absolutely dust and damp-proof” and fitted with a “luminous dial that shows the time on the blackest of nights”, was put to the test in the most severe desert conditions possible, as Anglo-Egyptian troops, led by General Kitchener, turned the tide on the Mahdist War.
The rigours of trench warfare in the First World War and the importance of synchronised manoeuvres proved decisive in the massive adoption of the wristwatch by soldiers across the board. Mappin’s Campaign watch would become an essential part of an officer’s kit and, as shown in an advert from the period, could be dispatched to the front line for an additional shilling. Following World War I, the wristwatch returned victorious from the battlefield bathed in a patina of masculinity that has never waned.
These new Mappin & Webb watches capture the spirit of their ancestors with a large milled, onion-shaped crown for better grip, elongated straight-sided lugs, a seconds subdial at 6 o’clock and vintage-styled numerals. The rugged steel case, with its coin edge detail, houses a mechanical automatic Swiss movement and is available in a variety of dial finishes, with a crocodile or practical NATO fabric strap.
In addition to the main collection, Mappin & Webb has created a limited edition of just 100 watches in 40mm silver cases with a creamy coloured dial and the number 12 highlighted in red - a detail that was directly inspired by military watches from the company’s archives. Historically accurate features such as the narrow lugs and vintage-style tan leather strap will delight collectors.
Working with the charity Never Such Innocence, founded by Lady Lucy French, great-granddaughter of Field Marshal Sir John French who commanded the British Expeditionary Forces from 1914-15, Mappin & Webb will donate 7% of net sales to the charity, which ensures young people nationally are inspired, informed and included in the centenary activities.