Collecting Old Watches

Jeff Sexton

From The American Horologist magazine, March, 1938

Collecting Old Watches

MADAME DE SEVIGNE once said that she disliked watches with second-hands; "they cut up life into too small pieces." Certainly the ancients were not pestered with second-hands. Nevertheless, their consciences were of the sort that exercised themselves under the prod of substitutes of their day for the nagging timepieces of our own.

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Before ever progress had invented clock or watch, the ancient Athenians were adept in marking time by the sun. The few minutes either way of the "hour" did not trouble them and the public sundial served them sufficiently. In his "Life in Ancient Athens" T. G. Tucker says that the Athenian public sundial consisted in a vertical stall, "which threw a shadow upon a marked floor, and the time was denominated by the length of the shadow, recorded in feet." Thus a guest was invited to come to dinner when the shadow was "ten feet" or "twelve feet," as the case might be. It is recorded of one hungry and greedy person that, when invited for the hour of a twelve-foot shadow-which means the evening shadow - he measured it in the early morning and came soon after daybreak. In the better houses there was often a sort of giant hourglass, through which however, there ran water and not sand, and the progress of the day was estimated by the quantity of Water which had run through.

The clepsydra, or water-clock and the sand-clock were in general use through Greece and Rome and their colonies. They were considered an enormous improvement on the horoscopus of the Egyptians of a still earlier time, an instrument which consisted of a palm branch, broader at one end than at the other, provided with a handle and a plummet. At the broader end there was cut a slight-slit which was, in some manner, adjusted to the eye for the purpose of observing the transit of a star over the meridian, by which means the hour was fixed.

How strange seem all these cumbersome devices to us who have but to pull out our watches and tell at a glance the hour to a second. And when we reflect that the first watches were not in use until after Peter Henlein (or Hele) of Nuremberg (1480-1542) invented the first portable timekeeper. This was probably in the first decade of the 16th Century. These first timepieces by Meister Henlein were portable clocks driven by a mainspring with balance escapement, time pieces too large to be carried about the person except when suspended, as they were, from the girdle. The globular form of these "watches" occasioned the name for them of "Nuremberg Eggs". Only the rich could afford these novelty.

The word "watch" appears to be derived from an Old English word, waecce, from the word wacian, meaning to guard, to watch, and from wacan, to wake. In the earliest times the term watch shared usage with the words clock and oral ague as applied to clocks and watches alike.

The military division of the night into watches by the Greeks and by the Romans, likewise the watches on ships associated the name with the passage of time as mechanically marked at a later date by the pocket timepiece.

By the end of the 16th Century the watch had been reduced to a pocket possibility and French makers

produced timepieces quite the equal of those from the hands of the German watch-makers. It would seem, in these early pieces, that interior workmanship was not at all comparable with that bestowed upon the cases. While the exteriors of these watches were richly ornamented and executed with marvelous skill, crude enough were the interior parts in comparison.

The English were quick to take an interest in Continental watches. Queen Elizabeth had a remarkable collection of them, gifts from ambassadors and courtiers. However, popular as watches would become with persons of quality in England, we do not find record of an English watchmaker before the end of the 16th Century. While certain of the watches could be carried in the pocket, it was more common to find them suspended from neck chains. With the advent of Puritanism and its stern censure on display of any sort, the watch found refuge in the pocket, and there remained until these later years which have witnessed its journey to the wrist band. It was about the time when watches were concealed in pockets that the fob came into use. The word was derived from German, fuppe, signifying small pocket. The forms of the watches of the Elizabethan period were myriad, devised to the utmost of ingenuity as applied to design. Naturally when extravagance in dress came to be curbed, the watch became simpler in form. It remained for Thomas Tompion (1639 - 1713) to invent a dead-beat watch escapement, improved upon by George Graham (1673-1751). John Harrison (1693-1776) contributed the invention of the curb-compensation for the hairspring. In connection with the mechanical development of the watch it may be interesting to note that in 1713 the British Government offered rewards of £10,000, £15,000 and £20,000 each for timekeepers (chronometers) which would determine longitude within an error of ten, twenty and thirty geographical miles respectively. This was accomplished by John Harrison and his son in 1761. Nicholas Facio introduced Jewelled bearings in watch movements around the beginning of the 18th Century, and in the latter part of this century Thomas Mudge invented the lever escapement for watches, an adaptation of the clock dead-beat escapement already in vogue. In 1770, a Geneva watchmaker introduced the well-known engine-turning decoration for watchcases, devised to offset the appearance of scratches on plain cases. This form of decoration of the repetition of involved curved lines has maintained popularity down through our day. Finally, mention may be made of repeating watches which came into vogue with their invention in England during the last quarter of the 17th Century, during the reign of James II. It was about this time that all sorts of ingenious mechanical devices for entertainment began to make their appearance as embellishments to the watch dial.

The reader may well imagine that in the course of these several centuries an enormous number of watches have been produced, in fact an incalculable number. Fortunately for the collector, many of these have survived and it is still quite possible to form an interesting collection of "old-fashioned" watches at an outlay that is not prohibitive. Of course, old watches do not grow on hazel bushes, nor yet do they disport themselves amid the anemones of the field! Their ingathering is, of necessity, the pastime of metropolitan browsings or of foreign travel. It is not possible to tell one just where to look for old watches, but they do find their way to antique shops, curio shops and like emporiums, as well as frequently turning up in that perennially hopeful field of discovery the pawnshop.

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