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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

(continued from page 1)

The wristwatch is a utilitarian object, designed to inform its wearer of the precise time at a glance. It is an outward sign, visible to the rest of the world. A pocket watch, on the other hand, is an instrument tucked discreetly away until it strikes the wearer's fancy to take it out, open it up and watch its inner workings. It invites you to delve into the mind of its maker. The fascination lies as much in how it works as in the degree to which it measures time. Prior to 1680, watches had only an hour hand; minute repeaters, which chimed the time to the nearest minute, weren't invented until the 1850s. These watches evoke an age when people seemed to have more time and when time itself was gauged in heartbeats and sunrises rather than nanoseconds.

Collectors of American pocket watches are often compared to coin or stamp collectors: they accumulate variations on a theme. The American industry produced the first truly machine-made watches. The big companies like Waltham, Hamilton, Illinois and Elgin created whole product lines of pocket watches. "They would create a basic plate layout, then vary the quality of the components like the hairsprings, balance wheels, number of jewels, amount of engraving work, hands, dial designs and cases. You could opt for either a Cadillac or a Chevrolet from the same watch company," says Donald Hoke, Ph.D., author of American Pocket Watches (Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1991, 330 pages, $79.95).

Some collectors stockpile railroad watches (developed in conjunction with the locomotive and worn by train conductors) while others choose one company and search for one of each of the serial models the company produced. Another method is to acquire an example of each of the different grades within a given model. Because these watches aren't terribly rare and are relatively available, they are generally much lower in price than the European handmade pieces. Historically, it was the American watch industry that made affordable, accurate watches available to the masses.

While the Americans were driven to produce the dollar pocket watch, Europeans struggled to uphold the artistic tradition in watchmaking. George Daniels, an horologist and author, is a twentieth-century man working at an eighteenth-century craft. He makes extraordinary pocket watches entirely by hand in a small workshop on the Isle of Man. Forming each component himself, he shapes, cuts, hardens, tempers, files and grounds the little steel springs and hand paints the dials. The gold cases are engine turned--an engraving technique done on a lathe creating the effect of subtle, symmetrical texture. Each one takes between 2,000 to 3,000 hours to complete, winding up with an output of about one watch a year. They reportedly cost more than $150,000--if you are lucky enough to be chosen by Daniels as a designated owner. The watches are highly innovative with rather austere dials and cases.

"A watch has got to look beautiful when it is finished, as if it were created rather than made," Daniels says. "I design my own escapements and invent my own mechanisms with the object of producing a watch that will run, keeping accurate time for many, many years without any service or attention."

"A good watch is forever. There is really nothing unfixable in a mechanical watch," asserts Joseph Fanelli of Fanelli Antique Timepieces in New York. While the mechanism can always be adjusted, this is not necessarily true of the case. Most experts agree that "Does it work?" is not one of the first questions to ask in evaluating a pocket watch. You should assess its condition. "Just as in real estate it's location, location, location; in watches it's condition, condition, condition," Snellenburg quips.

Determine whether there are any hairline cracks on the dial or an enamel case. Look for an even texture on an engine-turned gold case and be aware of dents or holes on an engraved metal case. Originality is key. Signatures on the movement, dial and case are often instructive. Most important is that the dial be original. Whether some small parts of the movement have been replaced is not so crucial as how well they have been replaced. Osvaldo Patrizzi explains: "It's a little like changing a wheel on a vintage car. As long as you find a wheel from that period, the car retains its value."

One way of verifying a watch's originality is to check its original certificate of sale. The existence of such a document might increase the value of the piece. All Abraham-Louis Breguet watches had certificates specifying the sale date, buyer's name and every characteristic of the watch--each complication, the materials used, and, of course, the price. When there were serial numbers on the movement, case or whole timepiece, those were recorded on the certificate.

If you buy an antique pocket watch made by a company that is still in business, such as Cartier, Vacheron & Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Tiffany or Patek Philippe, you can request such information from the company's archives. These records may be useful should a watch need repair. At Patek Philippe each caliber (the layout or design of the watch's movement) is documented with diagrams and detailed written notes by the craftsman. Says Hank Edelman, president of Patek Philippe USA: "We can identify every watch we've made since the company was founded in 1839. These records are the key to preserving and maintaining our timepieces."

Patek Philippe's ledgers include the signatures of customers like Queen Victoria, Albert Einstein and Rudyard Kipling. Knowing who owned a pocket watch may inform its pedigree, but it doesn't necessarily affect its value. Most dealers are convinced that provenance won't sell a watch. Rarity, on the other hand, will. The most expensive pocket watch ever sold was the Calibre 89, a Patek Philippe that took nine years to produce. With 33 timekeeping functions, it is the most complicated watch made to date. It has a celestial chart that tracks the movement of 2,800 stars and a calendar that will accurately record the date without adjustment until the twenty-first century, automatically compensating for months of differing lengths and leap years as well as indicating the date of Easter. It is said to have sold in 1989 for $3.2 million at auction in Geneva.

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