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Pocket Watches

Complicated and Elaborate, Pocket Watches Are Essential Accessories for Lovers of Nineteenth-Century Memorabilia
Nancy Wolfson
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

Sometime between 10 p.m. on April 15, 1983, and 10:30 a.m. the following morning, just steps from the Jerusalem residence of Israel's president, a window was smashed, and one or more persons lowered themselves into a corridor of the Islamic Museum. The electronic-alarm system did not work, and the two guards on duty slept as the thieves used a rather primitive device to pry open the cylinder locks on the glass cases that held a large collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pocket watches.

The crooks heisted rare books, paintings and 57 watches made by the Swiss-born watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, known as the Leonardo da Vinci of watchmaking. The stolen items were valued at more than $6 million at the time; among them was a watch commissioned for Marie Antoinette that had taken 44 years to complete. The missing watches have never resurfaced. As for the unsolved crime, there has been speculation that the thieves were hired by an overzealous collector, perhaps in the Middle East.

Collectors tend to be passionate. "Pocket watches are more than pieces of functional art," says Henry B. Fried, a leading American horologist (scientist who measures time), watchmaker and collector. "They are watches with a soul." The parts of a pocket watch are often compared to the human body, with the dial its face, the escapement (the ticking element) its heart, the movement (the mechanism as a whole) its brain and the case its skin. "It is a marriage of art and technology," remarks Osvaldo Patrizzi, director of Antiquorum, the Geneva-based auction house specializing in watches and clocks. Even the nonmaterialistic seem lured to these timekeepers in a pocket; Mohandas Gandhi's one possession was a pocket watch, which he wore tied on a string around his waist.

"A lot of collectors are gear geeks," says Vivian Swift, watch-department head at Christie's in New York. Pocket-watch collectors, however, tend to fall into two general groups: the technical--interested primarily in how they work, and the decorative--concerned more with how they look. "There are four centuries of watches out there, so most collectors specialize in a period, a particular type of watch, a single maker or in American pocket watches," notes Daryn Schnipper, head of the watch and clock department at Sotheby's in New York.

John Pierpont Morgan, who bequeathed his collection of more than 100 pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, procured sixteenth-, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century watches, many of them enamels. Napoleon almost exclusively patronized Breguet, whose eighteenth-century inventions included the self-winding watch and the tourbillion. James Ward Packard, the automobile maker from Ohio, commissioned complicated watches primarily from Patek Philippe & Co. Technical collectors may seek minute repeaters (watches that chime the hours, quarter hours and minutes on command), chronographs (stopwatches), chronometers (precision timekeepers invented to determine longitude at sea) or ultracomplicated watches (which combine such extras as a celestial chart, perpetual calendar, alarm, chimes and sunrise and sunset indication). A lot of collectors see themselves as caretakers who will ensure that these objects survive intact until they are passed along to the next generation.

Before there were pockets, watches were worn as pendants.

And their raison d'être was as talisman rather than timekeeper. "They were a symbol of the brevity of life. The watches were mechanical jewels, tiny embodiments of the decorative techniques of the time," New York antiquarian Jonathan Snellenburg explained. Formerly the watch expert at Christie's, he sells rare and unusual timepieces at A La Vieille Russie in Manhattan.

Collectors of decorative timepieces focus on the case, which may be enameled or engraved gold, silver or platinum. Enameling refers to the painstaking technique of painting on a layered vitreous coating baked onto gold. Each layer is fired in an oven. The images on enamelled cases are typically portraits or miniature reproductions of paintings. These are small-scale works of art and pricey. Others specialize in automata, or watches that have motion on the dial. The "Moses watch" is among the most unusual of these: when you press a lever, a figure of Moses on the dial appears to strike a rock and draw "water." Egyptian King Farouk I coveted erotic automata. On one of his watches, you press a button, the lid opens and you calculate the time by counting the number of sexual thrusts performed by the figures inside the watch's movement.

"Wristwatches tell time; pocket watches tell stories," Snellenburg says. The history of the pocket watch reflects that of both fashion and horology. The pendant watches of the early Renaissance were oval or egg-shaped. By 1625 the Fleet Street watchmaker John Midnall had made a timepiece with a flatter dial protected by glass for Oliver Cromwell. The custom of caching watches in pockets is credited to the Puritans, who shunned any outward show of wealth. By the early 1800s, men began securing the watches to gold chains, which were fastened to vests by inserting a T-bar with the watch's winding key into a buttonhole. Visible in the portraits painted at the time, the chains were male charm bracelets, dangling gold signet seals, keys, scissor blades and pencil cases. In the nineteenth century, the chains also held cigar clippers.

In 1809, Joséphine Bonaparte is said to have asked that a pocket watch be put on a bracelet. She wore it on one wrist and a calendar on the other, pioneering the bracelet watch for women. By the First World War, the seconds that might elapse while a soldier removed a watch from his pocket to read the time could mean the difference between life and death. The Swiss solved the problem by producing watches that could be strapped onto the soldiers' wrists. In 1917 Louis Cartier designed his famous "tank" model, a rectangular-faced wristwatch with two golden bars along the sides reminiscent of the Allies' tank tracks. Gradually, in the interest of convenience and expedience, more men adopted wristwatches for everyday use. By the 1930s, the production of the wristwatch surpassed that of the pocket watch.

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