Watches evolved from portable spring-driven clocks, which first appeared in 15th-century Europe. Watches were not widely worn in pockets until the 17th century. One account suggests that the word "watch" came from the Old English word woecce - which meant "watchman" - because town watchmen used the technology to keep track of their shifts at work. Another says that the term came from 17th-century sailors, who used the new mechanisms to time the length of their shipboard watches (duty shifts).

The concept of the wristwatch goes back to the production of the very earliest watches in the 16th century. In 1571 Elizabeth I of England received a wristwatch, described as an "armed watch", from Robert Dudley.

Military men first wore wristwatches towards the end of the 19th century, having increasingly recognized the importance of synchronizing maneuvers during war without potentially revealing plans to the enemy through signaling.

In 1904, Louis Cartier produced a wristwatch to allow his friend Alberto Santos-Dumont to check flight performance in his airship while keeping both hands on the controls as this proved difficult with a pocket watch.