Pocket Watches

Complicated and Elaborate, Pocket Watches Are Essential Accessories for Lovers of Nineteenth-Century Memorabilia
| By Nancy Wolfson | From 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.

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.

The Marie Antoinette watch stolen from the Islamic museum was the most complicated watch of its time. Its plates, bridges and wheels were gold and every possible surface was jewelled with sapphires. Completed in 1827 and acknowledged as Breguet's masterpiece, the watch was a manifestation of the state of horological science at that time. Sir David Salomons, Breguet's biographer, was the last legitimate owner of the Marie Antoinette piece. "To carry a fine Breguet watch is to feel that you have the brains of a genius in your pocket," he once said.

Carrying a pocket watch is more than a fashion. It is a ritual. Taking it out of your pocket, setting the hands, winding it up, listening to the chimes and watching it work "is more amusing than glancing at something strapped to your wrist," says Daniels. "One's got to pass the time somehow, doesn't one?"

Nancy Wolfson is a free lance writer who lives in New York City.

A Guide for the Potential Collector


Subscribe to the catalogs that give a detailed description of each piece for sale, including any defects and an estimated price. Go to the presale public exhibition where you can handle the watches and query the experts. Track market prices by obtaining an after-sale price list, comparing these numbers with catalog estimates.

1, rue du Mont-Blanc, 1201 Geneva Switzerland
Phone: 41-22-738-0222 Fax: 41-22-738-0171
Also offers a catalog of books on horology

Christie, Manson & Woods International Inc.
502 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10022
Catalog subscriptions: Phone: (800) 395-6300,(212) 546-1000 Fax: (212) 980-8163

1334 York Avenue, New York, New York 10021
Catalog subscriptions: Phone: (800) 444-3709, (212) 606-7162 Fax: (212) 606-7014


American Clock & Watch Museum
100 Maple Street, Bristol, Connecticut 06010
Phone: (203) 583-6070 Fax: (203) 583-1862

Musee de L'Horlogerie
15, route de Maagnou, 1208, Geneva, Switzerland
Phone: 22-736-7412 Fax: 22-786-7454

The Time Museum
7801 E. State St. P.O. Box 5285, Rockford, Illinois 61125-0285
Phone: (815) 398-6000 Fax: (815) 398-4700


January 17-29: "The Legendary Watches of Patek Philippe" at the Sid Richardson Collection of Western Art, Fort Worth, Texas.
For more information: (817) 332-6554.
More than 200 Patek Philippe models, including the 1926 pocket watch commissioned by James Ward Packard, an 1851 enamel brooch-watch owned by Queen Victoria, five new pocket watches decorated with reproductions of paintings by American artists Remington and Russell and a clock with original enamel art.


National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors
514 Poplar Street, Columbia, Pennsylvania 17512
Phone: (717) 684-8261 Fax: (717) 684-0878
An international organization of more than 38,000 members that publishes a bimonthly bulletin and an advertising mart.


Guided by Henry B. Fried, a leading American horologist, a trip to the Nordic countries is planned for June.
For more information, contact Nick Larescu: (800) 262-4284.


Revolution in Time by David Landes
(Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1985, 502 pages, $12.95)

Watch and Clockmakers of the World by G. H. Bailey
(NAG Press, London, 1982, 388 pages, $37.50)


Jonathan Snellenburg Timepieces

Rare and unusual items of horological interest.
Jonathan Snellenburg's collection can be viewed at A La Vieille Russie, 781 Fifth Ave., New York, New York, 10022
Phone: (212) 752-1727

Time Will Tell Unlimited Inc.

962 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10021
Phone: (212) 861-2663 Fax: (212) 288-4069