Pocket watch collecting
Among collectors of clocks, watches and horological items, the field of pocket watches is probably the most common. The pocket watch or portable clock had its beginnings around the start of the 16th century. The first pocket watches appeared at that time, with the smaller models later being worn round the neck. Around the middle of the 17th century, these gave rise to the first genuinely usable pocket watches with verge escapements.
Another source informs us that, in the 16th century, the call for transportable clocks came from wealthy merchants who had installed their offices in coaches to carry out business and correspondence during extended journeys. According to this version, coach clocks were the first transportable mechanical chronometers, the smaller models of which gave rise to the earliest pocket watches.
Whatever the case, genuine pocket watches from the earliest days, i.e. before 1700, are very rare and practically only ever found in major collections. For the “normal” collector, clocks and watches from the early 18th century will probably be in the foreground. From this time, beautiful and decorative pocket watch movements appear in their familiar form, with verge escapement, spiral spring balance, decorative coq (balance cock or bridge), the chain-and-fusee winding system, and hour and minute hands.
Some of the cases are simple, others follow the styles of the time, such as Louis XV, Louis XVI, Empire, to name only the main ones. The cases are made of brass, usually gilded, silver or gold in one or many colours. Enamel, pearls and precious stones are often used as decoration. Cases were also made in chased silver and gold, producing a very decorative surface in stark relief.
Even at this time, 150 years before the industrial age, clockmakers and armourers specialized in the exclusive manufacture of, for example, clock hands, chains, dials, springs, etc. and even of clock shells, cases and covers. The movements provided were finally inserted in the housings by the maker of those cases.
Old watches very rarely bear signatures. Only at the end of the 17th century were bottom plates individually signed. This was gradually followed by signatures on the dials and, in some cases, even on the case or inner dust cover. Nowadays, signatures on watches are an important characteristic for collection, since they give an insight into the clockmaker and the period. Since most watches came unsigned onto the market, some caution should be exercised when buying expensive watches with respect to the retrospective signing of famous names such as Breguet, Berthoud, Le Roy etc.
A very comprehensive reference work for horological names is Tardy’s 800-page “Dictionnaire des Horlogers Français” (dictionary of French clockmakers).
For watches with striking trains, artistically open-worked cases were produced so that the sound of the chime or alarm was audible without muffling. This production technique was also used for coach clocks. These imposing coach clocks of the 17th century have a similar form to pocket watches, but with a diameter of 8 to 15 cm, and usually have striking trains and alarms. Any self-respecting collector of early pocket watches should have a coach clock in his collection. Even pocket watches of the period described here were already equipped with such technical refinements as striking trains, alarms, date and calendar details, automatic pictures, etc.
Whereas until around 1850 pocket watches were individual, usually signed, one-off pieces with winding keys, from the middle of the 19th century pocket watches were produced on an industrial scale. It is hard to describe the wealth of production which ranged from cheap timepieces to the highest quality works of art and which today are collected from every possible point of view. The golden age of technical perfection and pocket watch distribution was roughly between 1860 and 1920, with the crown winder patented and introduced by Adrien Philippe (engineer and co-founder of the famous watch manufacturers Patek, Philippe & Co in Geneva) contributing significantly to the success of pocket watches for daily use. Beautiful, collectable pocket watches continued to be produced after this time too. However, the wristwatch now started (unfortunately) to squeeze out pocket watches.
The main themes for building collections are roughly as follows:
- Decorative appearance
The “technical” group can be subdivided as follows:
- Escapements: cylinder, anchor, chronometer, duplex, comma, pin-pallet, etc. also details, such as Breguet spiral, cylindrical spiral, fine regulation, etc.
- Complexities: centre seconds, chronographs, split seconds, dead second, calendar (simple and everlasting), moon phases, equation, sunrise/sunset, etc.
- Striking trains: 1/4-repetition, minute repetition, self striking, music, etc.
- Technical refinements: 8-day movements, 24-hour dials, multiple time zones, tourbillon, power reserve indication (Up-Down), alarm, jaquemarts, “bras en l’air”, serious and less serious animated pictures, visible escapement, false pendulums, skeleton watches, sector watches, blind-mens watches, mystery watches…
- School watches: examination pieces by student journeymen and masters from horological schools.
The “brand” group needs little explanation. The main brands (for pocket watches) are mentioned here:
“Patek Philippe & Co.”, “Breguet”, “Vacheron & Constantin”, “Ulysse Nardin”, “Paul Ditisheim”, “A. Lange, Glashütte”, “IWC”, then also “Omega”, “Longines”, “Zenith”, “Tavannes”, “Cortébert”, “Revue”, “Doxa”, “Hebdomas” etc. and the American brands, such as “Elgin”, Hamilton”, “Waltham” etc. The simple “Roskopf” watches also enjoy great popularity.
Various points can be mentioned for “decorative appearance”:
- Form: open-faced or hunter-cased watches,
- Case material: gold, silver, platinum, nickel, steel, wood etc.
- Decorations: enamel, Niello, engraved, relief housing, etc.
- Style: Art Nouveau, Art Déco, typical watches, e.g. for the Chinese, Turkish, Spanish or South American markets
- Watches for special occasions: marksmen’s watches, commemorative watches, jubilee watches, freemasons’ watches, etc.
A collection of pocket watches is very fascinating and can, like a stamp collection, be accommodated in the smallest space. It can be started with little money or expense and built up over any period of time.
Pocket watches are also suitable subjects for exchange and, since they keep their value, can also be resold. Here however, as in all fields of collection, peaks also alternate with troughs. A pocket watch, however, especially a gold one, retains a certain value by virtue of its material, which cannot always be said for a postage stamp. Compared with stamps, the pocket watch also has an intrinsic life of its own, which from time to time can be reactivated by winding it up.
If the antique clock you decide to buy is defective, you need to know how much it will cost to repair them, and how much will they cost after removal of defects. Avoid pocket watch in an incomplete set.
An old clock with broken or missing parts is difficult to restore. Some parts must be hand made. Original and low-coast clocks of cheap production – is also difficult to restore. So start you collection with a pocket watch, with a standard quantity of stones. The older watch, the harder it is for them to find spare parts. Buy an inexpensive handheld movement that is in working condition, and train with him. Buy a new movement, for which it will be possible to buy spare parts, and buy a clock restoration book.
The risk of forgery is extremely low, since the technical cost would never make it worthwhile. Some wariness is appropriate for “ringers”, i.e. watches made by joining together parts from different pocket watches, e.g. case, movement and/or dial which do not belong together. A collection of branded watches, in which the movements and cases are numbered and catalogued, presents almost no risk (unless the condition is very bad).
If you are interested in buying old clocks, start by studying museum pieces. London’s museums house some fine collections. The finest English examples reside at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum has some unique clocks, too. London’s Guildhall Clock Museum is a clock-lovers dream. This small museum, located inside the Guildhall Library, features the collection of The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, a London livery company founded in 1631. It includes more than 700 clocks, watches, and marine chronometers, produced between the 15th and 20th centuries. The collection includes the work of the leading British and foreign clockmakers, among them Thomas Tompion. The museum is open on weekdays and free – a must if you are a clock fancier.
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