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Antique Watches - My Hobby

From Horology magazine, September 1937

Antique Watches 
My Hobby
By OSCAR T. LANG, Architect
(Courtesy Northwestern Architect)

COLLECTING ANTIQUE WATCHES is a fascinating hobby. There are three aspects to consider, anyone of which may attract a collector. There is their history, their mechanism, and their decoration, which is chiefly applied to the case.  Many of the early watch movements however, were lavishly engraved with beautiful and intricate designs. The collector and lover of watches has much to consider. The variety is very great, and it is this variety which gives the watch its peculiar interest.

The serious student of watches has many books to choose from, as the literature on time and timekeepers is large.  The opportunity to see actual specimens may present some difficulties, as good antique watches are scarce. Private collectors are not numerous, but some of the larger museums have nice collections.  The weight-driven clock was the first piece of automatic machinery, and made its appearance some three hundred years before the portable timepiece, or what we call a watch. This portable timekeeper was made possible by the invention of the mainspring as the motive power. Peter Henlein, a locksmith of Nuremburg, is given credit for inventing this shortly after the year 1500.

The first portable timepieces were really table clocks; and it was not until the latter half of the sixteenth century that they were small enough to be worn on the person, and then only as ornaments.  They were very costly, so only royalty or the very wealthy could afford to own them. The cases were then made in many shapes, such as the Nuremburg egg, the octagonal, the cruciform, the skull watch, and the pear shape; and they were very ornate. The movements were still crude and exceedingly poor timekeepers. It is doubtful if they kept time within two to three hours a day. For this reason sundials and sand-glasses were still In common use.

The watch began to approach accurate timekeeping with the introduction of the balance or hairspring. This was invented by Robert Hooke, an Englishman, about 1660. The first watches had only one hand-the hour hand. The minute hand was added about 1680, and the seconds hand came much later.

Watch glasses did not come into use until well after the year 1600, and jewels were not introduced until about 1705; and for a long time, only the balance pivots were jeweled.

The most vital part of any timekeeper is the escapement, and it is here that most of the improvements have been made. A vast amount of time has been spent by the most eminent watchmakers in history in devising new forms of escapements and improving those already in use. The verge escapement was the first and remained the only one in watches until about 1700. Then came the cylinder, the rack lever, the duplex, the virgule, the lever, and the chronometer escapements. These might be called historical escapements, as they were all used extensively. Many variations of the above and many new types were tried, but the designs were faulty, and they were soon discarded.

The lever escapement, invented by Thos. Mudge, London, about 1755, has supplanted all other types and is about the only escapement now used. The collection contains well over twenty-five different watch escapements, some of which are very rare.

As in any art, the art of watchmaking has its "Old Masters." I have been fortunate in securing splendid examples by many of the eminent old makers, and shall mention a few of the most famous names represented in the collection. Baltazar Martinot, Paris, circa 1675, Clockmaker to Louis XIV. Thomas Tompion, "Father of English watchmaking," London, 1638-1713. Daniel Quare, London, 1649-1724, inventor of the repeating watch. George Graham, who perfected the cylinder escapement. Thomas Mudge, inventor of the lever escapement.  John Arnold, an inventor of the chronometer escapement. A. L. Brequet, the most famous of French Masters. Fromanteel, John Ellicott, Julien LeRoy, Cabrier, McCabe, Isaac Rogers, Vulliamy, Barrauds, Barwise, Chas. Frodsham, Jules Jurgensen, Berthoud, Lepine, and Samuel Ruel are. also represented.

The early watchmakers introduced many innovations in their work and examples of the following may be found in the collection; striking watches, alarm watches, repeaters, calendar watches, musical watches, chronographs, decimal dials, day-and-night dials, revolving dials, Turkish dial, jumping hour hand, flyback calendar hands, pedometer wind, Tourbillon, flirting hour numerals, and watches with automata figures on dial which apparently strike the hours and quarter hours on small gold bells. The outside cases are also treated in various ways, such as pierced work on repeaters, enamel paintings, green leather pique work, tortoise shell covering, and many types of engraving and repousse work.

The Watches Illustrated

No. 1. Very early and rare round watch in Canister or drum shaped bronze case, 1 1/2 in. in diameter. The lid is pierced to show the position of the original steel hour hand without opening the lid. There are knobs at each hour to feel the time at night. Probably of German make, circa 1575. Has Catgut movement.

No.2. "Nuremberg Egg" bronze watch case, circa 1600-1625. 1 1/2 x 1 7/8" oval. Front and black covers have excellent engravings, and the sides are handsomely pierced. French type of design.

No.3. Octagonal shaped bronze watch case. German type of about 1620. 1 7/8" across. Back and sides have beautiful engraving and pierced ornament. The face has a beveled crystal.

No.4. Large alarm watch in silver case. 2 1/2" diameter and about 1 1/2" thick. French type of dial with enamel plaques for numerals. The hour hand is attached to a revolving disc, and the small hand is for setting the alarm. The movement is in good running order. The watch is signed "Lazare Lacovier" and was made about 1680.

No.5. Watch with four cases, outer case 2 5/8" diameter and of silver with Niello ornament. This watch was made by Ralph Gout, London, about 1800, for the Turkish market, and the dial has Turkish numerals. The second case is covered with tortoise shell pique work.

No.6. Silver pair case (two cases).  Watch made about 1760 by John Wilter, London. The outer case is fine repousse work by the celebrated silversmith "D. Cochin." 

No.7. Fine calendar watch by "Lepine," a celebrated French maker, about 1770. The silver case is 2 1/2" in diameter, but quite thin. There is a sweep seconds hand. The upper half of the dial has the days of the month with the rare type fly-back calendar hand.

No.8. English pair case calendar watch by E. Harrison, circa 1770. Outer case of tortoise shell, and the inner case, silver. The enamel dial has two circles, one for the hour hand only, and the other for the calendar hand. The minute hand is at the center as usual.

No.9. Swiss automata quarter hour repeating watch with gold figures on dial. These figures appear to strike on small gold bells, but in reality the hours and quarter hours are struck on concealed gongs. Made about 1810.

No. 10. A "jumping-hour" hand watch made by Gregson, Paris, about 1790. The upper half of the dial has the twelve numerals, and the lower half, a pretty painting. The hour hand requires twelve hours to move half-way around dial and .iumps to I after reaching XII. This was done so no numerals would interfere with the enamel painting. 

No. 11 French or Swiss pendulum watch in silver case. The dial is also of small numeral circle below center of dial. The upper half is pierced to show the "pendulum" balance.

No. 12. A stem wind "tourbillon" in 2" diameter case. The "tourbillon" is an arrangement whereby the whole escapement revolves, and was invented to overcome position errors. The lower half of dial is open to permit the escapement to be seen.

No. 13. Large gilt metal watch signed "F. L. Loremier." Has two rows of stones both on dial side and back, with excellent enamel painting of a lady on the back.


No. 14. Back view of a watch signed "Ls. Duchene, Geneva," and made about 1790. The back is in black enamel with gold stars and ornament in silver and green stones.

No. 15. Gold pair case repeating watch made about 1770 by Geo. Lindsay, "Servant to ye Prince of Wales," and watchmaker to George III of England.  Both cases are exquisitely pierced and engraved. This watch has a pulse piece to count the beats of the quarter repeater, so that one may "feel" the time, as well as see and hear it.

No. 16. Fine example of French work, circa of 1720. Alarm watch signed "D. Pillon, a Paris." The design and execution of the silversmith work on the two cases is notable. Both cases are pierced to emit the sound from the alarm. The watch is in good working order.


No. 17 and No. 18. These illustrations are given to show the large amount of ornamentation bestowed on the early watch movements. No. 17 is by the famous "Baltazar Martinot, a Paris," and made about 1680. No. 18 is signed "J. Batiste Prevost," and shows French work, circa 1720.





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