Early English & Dutch Pocket Watches

The goal of this collection of English, Dutch & Swiss pocket watches is to tell the story of early watchmaking craftsmanship through the display of watches that appealed to my historical interests, artistic eye, and of course budget. This collection began over 25 years ago, although I didn’t plan it at the time, when I met knowledgeable and friendly experts upon joining the NAWCC and held for the first time a 300 year old ticking pocket watch that was clearly a marvel of art and innovation. I was hooked.

There was significant interaction between makers working in England and the Netherlands in particular that influenced both the technical and artistic design of early balance spring watches. Only the very rich could hope to afford a watch during this period - - they were technical miracles within in a two-inch case that one could actually see, hear, handle and even smell. Watches embodied the very height of craftsmanship, fashion and artistry in the world, and additionally conveyed one’s self-regard and stature in high-society. Pure magic. (expand for additional information)

However, making a living, even during the “Golden Age of Watchmaking” (late 17th to early 18th century) was not easy. We often forget that clock and watchmakers were foremost businessmen and earning a living was difficult. Records are filled with makers going bankrupt, dying destitute, and charities established by the guild to help impoverished families of deceased makers. Clock and watchmakers normally apprenticed at 14 years old for 7 years, and then worked as a journeyman for an additional two years. Those with aspirations of owning their own business had to become free of the Clockmakers’ Company guild (normally by servitude or patrimony) before they were permitted to work in London and sign their own work. Guild rules varied by city - - there are even records of a clock and watch guild operating in colonial Philadelphia). Retirement and/or death came to most when they were in their early 50’s.

There must have been a brisk trade in tools, supplies and watch parts through bankruptcies and estates. Nothing useful would have been discarded. Makers apparently regularly bought in both finished and unfinished watches. Also component parts that included pillars, fusee stops, and balance tables. This helps explain overlapping styles and quality even when retailed by the same person. Watchmakers also wanted to attract as many potential customers as possible which required the ability to stock or order a wide range of features such as an alarm, calendar or striking, and various case materials. Cases varied from having no or little precious metal content such as pinchbeck and gilt-brass, to more expensive options that included gilt on sterling silver, sterling silver, Britannia silver, 22 carat gold, and various hand work and coverings such as gold or silver repoussé, tortoise shell, and fish skin.

To be part of this collection, the watch should foremost help tell the story of artistry and craftsmanship. The question of originality is always an interesting debate; however, restoration and replaced parts are expected. Many early watches were in service for generations, some more than 100 years, and nearly every watch has been serviced and worn parts replaced many times during its long useful life. More common repairs included replacing bent or broken hands, damaged dials, scratched or broken crystals, worn out or damaged outer cases and bows, broken fusee chains, and replacement of one or more wheels such as the contrate and/or 3rd wheel due to friction wear. Frankly, the number of watches advertised as “all original” is absurd; relatively few early surviving watches are thought to have the same components, dial, and case(s) as originally configured when it was first sold hundreds of years ago.

Indeed, nobody can attest originality with certainty and detection technology continues to improve and help identify replaced parts, some hundreds of years old, and even complete fakes that have been in prominent collections and museums for generations. That said, over restoration, over cleaning and aggressive polishing to attempt to portray a “like new” artifact is particularly problematic in my way of thinking as it unnecessarily destroys the history of the watch and therefore should be discouraged.

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