Following their development in the 16th Century, pocket watches were the most commonly used type of watch until the rise in popularity of wrist watches after World War I. Until the late 18th Century, pocket watches were luxury items that went beyond practicality, with their beautiful craftsmanship and design giving an insight into a gentleman’s social standing.
The earliest portable clocks and pocket watches were constructed with the use of springs instead of the weights used in traditional clocks, but despite this advancement, they were still bulky in size. By the late 1500s, the pins and wedges used to hold together the watches had been replaced by screws, the early 1600s saw the introduction of glass lids, and by the 1700s, rounded, slim cases were being finely crafted in gold and precious metals. These timepieces were worn generally by the wealthy, as a status symbol. Jackets and vests had special pockets sewn into them to accommodate the timepiece.
By this time, pocket watches were being carefully crafted and detailed with jewels, diamonds, and intricate enamel work, making them very expensive. Beautiful as they were, their time keeping attributes were not always so reliable.
Until the 1720s almost all watch movements used a verge escapement (the mechanism that controls the transfer of energy from the power source to the counting mechanism) enabling the watch to ‘tick’. These movements were notorious for running too fast, causing the gain of an hour a day or more. A cylinder escapement (invented by George Graham) had begun replacing the verge escapements with some improvement to the accuracy of time keeping, however it was not until the introduction of a lever escapement and the use of three hands in the late 1700s that true accuracy was achieved. The lever mechanisms are used even to this day.
By the mid 1800s and following the industrial revolution, pocket watches were being manufactured with standardised interchangeable parts, becoming cheaper, more durable and even more accurate. Manufacture increased in America, primarily with the American Watch Company (later known as Waltham) and Elgin, temporarily displacing the Swiss from being the most dominant in the market, and causing the Swiss to raise the quality of their products to again establish themselves the leaders in precise and accurate watchmaking.
When the first world war broke out, mid-size pocket watches were often converted by the addition of lugs and a band into wearable wrist watches – known as trench watches. Returning soldiers continued wearing their watches post war, which commenced the decline in the use of pocket watches.
We’ve seen a resurgence in their popularity in periods such 1930s and 40s, and again in the later 70s, generally dictated by the fashion of the time and the popularity of a three-piece suit. Today, pocket watches are increasing in popularity once more, with the undeniable charm of some of their designs and the intricacies of their internal workings appealing to new and seasoned collectors.
Leonard Joel presents a wonderful selection of pocket watches in our Fine Jewels and Timepieces auction on Monday 21 September 2020 at 5pm.
Head of Fine Jewels & Timepieces