Verg(e)ing on the under-valued

To my mind, any reputable watch collection should include at least one verge fusee pocketwatch, not only because it is a representation of the evolution to the watch that we wear on our wrist today, but for the exquisite intricacy of the movement and the enchanting impossible-to-look-away-from craftsmanship of the case and dial. There is something positively enchanting about an early verge fusee that evokes the beginning of watch making as it evolved from the clockmaker’s craft to where it could be held as a portable timepiece in the palm of a hand, and that hand more often than not belonging to a gentleman of some social standing.

William Mason, London a silver pair case Verge watch circa 1750

In today’s watch collecting world dominated by post-war wristwatches from the super brands, pocketwatches have been relegated to the status of the also-ran, and to escape the melting pot, in the words of one London dealer, “must have something that sets them apart to make them saleable.” Enter the verge fusee, a pocketwatch which encapsulates moments of startling horological innovation and jaw dropping workmanship.

Verge escapements were used from the 14th Century through to the mid-19th Century in clocks and pocketwatches. The pairing of the verge escapement (the mechanism that controls the gear train to advance at regular intervals, or ‘tick’) with a fusee (from the French fusée, wire wound around a spindle) was groundbreaking because it made possible the development of all-mechanical clocks. This spelled the end of having to measure time by continuous processes such the flow of liquid, such as water, mercury, or even sand through the hourglass, which dated from the Middle Ages.

The verge fusee movement ran on coiled springs, coupled with a grooved cone wound with a tiny chain, which coiled around another post in a pulley system. Inspired by the winches and counter balances of the rigging of sailing ships, this method was used to refine the timekeeping of the movement by regulating the speed at which the mainspring unwinds.

M Storr, London a gold pair case Verge watch mid 18th century

And if these movements with their air of mystery about them were not captivating enough, the pair cases that housed them and often sold separately were similarly enchanting. This bifurcation of the horological profession resulted in many watches which bear the name of one maker on the movement and a different one on the case or dial. Case making was a respected craft all of its own, hand crafted in gold and precious metals with wonderful repousse decoration, jewelled and enamelled. The dials, typically gold or silver champleve, were equally refined in skill and artistry. 

Consequently, when considering a pocketwatch to add to a collection that sits apart from the commonplace, patently obvious is the ingenious horological innovation and remarkable workmanship of the verge fusee, a pocketwatch that not only tells the time, but the history of time as well.    

PATRICIA KONTOS / Senior Jewels & Timepieces Specialist

March 2023