Where have all the watches gone?

The noble wristwatch – once an indispensable sign of maturity and status as well as a functional timepiece – is vanishing from wrists, victim to a digital revolution that has placed quartz display clocks in everything from cell phones to pagers to laptop computers.

The slow disappearance of wristwatches leaves people unable to mark the time with a simple glance at their wrists, and may herald the passing of an era.

"I’ll tell you why I don’t wear a watch," said Macintosh computer consultant Adam Wunn. "I don’t need one. I’ve got a clock on my cell phone and that’s all I need."

It’s a safe bet that others are thinking the same thing, for a recent screening of several classes at Portland State revealed a wristwatch-wearing rate of only 8-10 percent.

Only 100 years or so ago, most men carried pocket watches, while women often wore watch face brooches. Eventually women began wearing wristlets, early bracelet-style wristwatches.

Although first disdained by men, it wasn’t long before the wristwatch was the preferred means of wearing a personal timepiece. This change was fomented by World War I, with soldiers finding the wristwatch an improvement over the cumbersome, easy to lose pocket watch.

The early- to mid-1900s were a boom time for watchmakers and watch repairmen.

"Back then we had several full-time watchmakers that worked on fine watches," said Alice Johnson, owner of Portland’s Wm. R. Johnson Jewelers. "You had to go to school and pass state boards to do watch repair."

Receiving a wristwatch traditionally came to mark important rites or events. The high school graduate, the Bar Mitzvah boy, the new bride or the retiree were often gifted with fine watches, usually made of precious metals and engraved with personal messages.

"Times have changed. Today’s kids have gone through a jillion watches," Johnson said. "We’re a throwaway society. A watch isn’t a present anymore. A car is."

Johnson suggests that in today’s economic times, people may also be less willing to spend money on something that is so easily lost, broken or stolen.

Wristwatches have always played a role in the business world. At one time the railroads-the lifeblood of the young and increasingly industrialized United States-ran on a schedule driven first by pocket watches and later by Accutrons, wristwatches that used tuning fork mechanisms and that were felt to be among the most accurate timepieces ever made.

As technology improved and the country was launched into the digital age, miniature clocks began popping up everywhere, including on cellular phones, pagers, PDAs and laptops.

The recent explosion in cell phone ownership has led many to abandon their wristwatches and rely exclusively on digital timekeeping.

If these trends continue, the wristwatch may increasingly lose its functional importance, becoming a relic of modern culture.

In the meantime, many continue to see the wristwatch as an important accessory. "I’ve broken two watches in the last year and can’t afford to replace the last one. I carry a cell phone, but I prefer the ease of looking at my wrist instead of having to dig my cell phone out of my back pack," said PSU student Olivia Koivisto.

Johnson adds that many people continue to buy watches for themselves or as gifts. Expensive watches remain something of a status symbol, especially the legendary Rolex, a fixture of the Fortune 500 set.

Still, with the trend toward high-tech, digital timekeeping, the future of the classic mechanical wristwatch is uncertain.

"Our watch repairmen only work as needed now, and no one’s following in their footsteps," said Johnson. "We’re going to come to a time where all those watches are still with us but there’s no one left to repair them. All those watches."