Watches You Should Know
These 1920s Watches Were Produced Especially for Doctors
It’s an archetypal pose for a doctor: one hand on a patient’s wrist to count the heartbeat, with eyes trained on a watch. Some of the earliest timepieces apparently built for this purpose had a significant role in the evolution of wristwatches, though they are surprisingly unknown today. This is a tale of two watches — fraternal twins separated at birth, sharing the same basic form and remarkably accurate movement.
The Rolex Prince and its more affordable American counterpart, the Gruen Techni-Quadron, both first released in 1928, are also known as “doctor’s watches.” (Ah, simpler times…when a watch’s primary purpose was as a functional tool). The doctor’s watches from Rolex and Gruen were among the first wristwatches sufficiently accurate to merit a large, usable seconds hand which, for some professions, can be quite vital. Heart rate, measured in beats per minute, is where just about any medical assessment or treatment begins. Thus, watches were developed with prominent seconds dials, independent from the main hours and minutes dial, that would be easy for doctors to read. At least, this is how the Rolex Prince and Gruen Techni-Quadron were marketed and earned their nicknames.
From the Aegler factory in Bienne, Switzerland, it was the Calibre 877 movement that made this possible and powered both watches. Aegler is now part of Rolex SA, but at the time it was an independent firm supplying both Rolex and the American company Gruen. Both companies owned shares of Aegler, with Rolex selling in Europe and elsewhere, while Gruen mainly sold in the United States to avoid direct competition. It is not clear if the engineers at Aegler began designing the 877 with doctors’ needs in mind, and it is quite possible that the “doctor’s watch” designation was a marketing contribution. Accuracy was the more likely impetus for creating the new movement, and its prominent seconds hand, a way to showcase this accuracy.
Despite a strong trend in the 1920s toward rectangular wristwatches, many of these utilized round-shaped movements — a round peg in a square hole, as it were. Further, in order to fit in rectangular cases, these movements were tiny, some about as small as the area of a fingernail. This resulted not only in unused space, but size constraints also left them unable to match the accuracy of larger pocket watch movements. The solution was a rectangular movement that would fit and fill the Rolex Prince and Gruen Techni-Quadron cases, which measured around 22mm wide and 41mm long on the wrist.
The Aegler 877 was not the first “shaped” (i.e., non-round) watch movement, but it was designed to maximize the size of critical components: A large balance wheel at one end resulted in greater accuracy, helped by steady amplitude provided by a large mainspring barrel at the other end that also allowed for a healthy 58 hours of power reserve. This was the first wristwatch movement to be officially chronometer-certified without being specifically adjusted for the trials.
Collectors often like to think of Gruen’s Techni-Quadron as the Rolex Prince’s twin, ignoring minor differences in things like dial designs. Over the years, different versions of both the Rolex Prince and Gruen Techni-Quadron were released, discontinued, and reintroduced, including a “Jump Hour” Rolex Prince in the 1930s. Gruen as a company has long since gone bust in all but rights to its name, but the Rolex Prince has returned several times, most recently being discontinued again in 2015. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, the Gruen Techni-Quadron was significantly less expensive than the Rolex Prince. Some sources put the Gruen Techni-Quadron at $60 retail in 1929, around 30% of the Rolex Prince’s price. Unsurprisingly, they are also less expensive on the current vintage market than those bearing the mighty Rolex name.
The doctor’s watches stood out partly because many wristwatches of the time were not accurate enough for a seconds hand to be relevant, or had seconds hands of only a couple millimeters in length. The larger seconds dials of the doctor’s watches might not look very big or legible from a modern perspective, but we should remember that this was a very early and still-developing watch landscape. Later watches meant for doctors, nurses, or medics offered features like a chronograph with a pulsometer scale. Today, of course, a digital oximeter clipped on a fingertip does the trick cheaply and accurately without any horology involved.
The doctor’s watches, it seems, were indeed used by and gifted to doctors. Beyond their accuracy and the utility of their large seconds hands, Gruen reinforced the message of the watch’s medical purpose by including an “expanding buckle” — much like the deployant clasps we know today, but with a slightly different use in mind. The idea was for the watch up to be worn higher on the arm, freeing up the doctor’s hands and wrists. Some Gruen advertisements from the era even show a physician and nurse with sleeves rolled up and the Gruen Techni-Quadron worn above the elbow. No luxury watch advertisement today would suggest function before fashion to that degree.