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Is time up for the pocket watch?

by Michael Weare
4 April, 2011
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About the author

Michael Weare has been a professional writer for 30 years, writing about Japanese technology, German and Italian cars, British tailoring and Swiss watches. Michael manages the editorial content of Click Tempus and will be keeping the magazine fresh and informative with regular features, as well as bringing great writers to the magazine. Email: michael@clicktempus.com

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Pocket watch past

One of the earliest references of a ‘pocket clock’ was in November 1492 when Italian clockmaker Bartholomew Manfredi wrote to the Marchese di Mantova Federico Gonzaga offering him a better one than that made for the Duke of Modena.

Demand for pocket watches started in Italy and Germany and slowly spread through Europe throughout the 16th century. The minute hand started to appear on watches only in the late 17th century, until then you had to make do with just knowing the hour.

Until the second half of the 18th century pocket watches were highly prized items, out of reach for all but the gentry. Newspaper advertisements offering rewards for the return of a stolen pocket watch were a regular listing in the classifieds of the journals of the day. Sometimes the reward could be as much as five guineas, which could feed a family for a month.

18ct solid gold and platinum pocket watch circa 1800s. US$35,000

18ct solid gold and platinum pocket watch circa 1800s

The development of the lever escapement by the English horologist Thomas Mudge in or before 1755 is considered the single greatest development for the pocket watch enabling the watch to remain accurate to within a minute a day. His invention remains a feature in almost every pocket watch made up to and including the present day. Throughout the 18th and much of the 19th century the English were leading the world in clock making, but as with so many inventions, they were superseded by the Americans from the later 19th to early 20th century and then the Swiss from that time onwards. However the efficiency of American mass production techniques forced the Swiss to abandon the mass market themselves and focus purely on the higher end of the market.

By 1865 the American Watch Company, later known as Waltham, were turning out 50,000 pocket watches a year, each of them reliable to within 30 seconds a week. The rise of the railroad, and the famous train crash on the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway on April 19th 1891, – caused because a railman’s watch had stopped for four minutes – prompted the standardisation of the pocket watch for use on the railroads.

The watch had to be ‘open faced, size 16 or 18, have a minimum of 17 jewels, adjusted to at least five positions, keep time accurately to within 30 seconds a week, adjusted to temps of 34 °F (1 °C) to 100 °F (38 °C), have a double roller, steel escape wheel, lever set, regulator, winding stem at 12 o’clock, and have bold black Arabic numerals on a white dial, with black hands.’

From the Railway Special to the extra special, pocket watches come in an infinite variety

Pocketwatch

Throughout America and Europe the 19th century was the golden age of the pocket watch, and you could take your pick from a vast array of fancy or non fancy designs. The most popular styles were the full hunter, with a spring hinged circular lid or cover. The open face watch, which as the name suggests, was open faced with no cover, and the semi-Hunter which has a cover but the cover contains a see through window to read the watch without having to open it. Skeletonised pocket watches enabled you to view the inner workings of the movement.

The watch chain could be ornate too, in gold or silver, and often engraved with the name of your gentleman’s club on the fob or a family motto, a dedication or a coat of arms on the inside of the cover. Reliable, elegant, robust they remain beautiful items both to look at and to hold.

So why did they go out of fashion? The demise of the pocket watch can be blamed squarely on the First World War. Army captains began to recognise that fiddling with a pocket watch with shells flying overhead was a very real health hazard, whereas a quick glance at the wrist was much safer. Until that time wristwatches were strictly for the girls.

Pocket watch present

By the end of WWI more and more wristwatches began to appear, although the pocket watch remained the standard timekeeping device for railroad/railway men for some considerable time both in America and throughout much of Europe.

Another factor which hastened the demise of the pocket watch was the fact that Switzerland enjoyed an unfair advantage in the development of accurate and excellent quality wristwatches by remaining neutral throughout not one but two world wars. Throughout World War II they were the sole Western country dedicated to making watches and not war. However several Swiss watch manufactures continue to make pocket watches right up to the present.

Despite valiant attempts to revive the pocket watch in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the pocket watch as a means of on-the-move time telling was essentially redundant after the Second World War. The world had moved on, and the pocket watch increasingly became a collector’s item.

Ironically, modern technology in the form of the mobile phone and the i-pod has reinvented the concept of a 21st century pocket watch and has threatened the popularity of the wrist watch. Several dedicated i-pod and cellphone users rely on the phone in their pocket for the time and don’t bother wearing a watch.

A pocket watch for the 21st century

Mobile phone

So is the pocket watch dead and buried?

Not by a long way.

Once again the pocket watch is starting to make a significant comeback due to the increasingly mainstream trend of Steampunk. Steampunk presents an alternative path to modernisation whereby the Victorian reliance upon all things steam driven and clockwork powered remains the status quo even for modern accessories such as motorcycles and computers.

A brass Steampunk mechanical pocket watch

Steampunk mechanical pocket watch

Steampunk aficionados have made pocket watches so popular that several watch manufactures have started to make them again.

The film star Johnny Depp is also partly responsible for a popular revival. His own interest in pocket watches was aroused by appearing in several period movies including Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Sweeney Todd which featured them.

Johnny Depp: Pocket watch revivalist

Johnny Depp

Being both a movie star and a fashion icon his interest in turn created a fresh demand for pocket watches – suddenly they’re are cool again, and several reliable, good quality timepieces can now be found online from dealers and also on Ebay.

There are also several different types of low cost quartz pocket watches available, even though a quartz pocket watch is a complete anachronism.

If you’re going to collect pocket watches for investment, look for timepieces in precious metals with good quality mechanical movements. There are still several excellent pieces from America, England, Switzerland and Germany and much of the joy is in simply seeking them out.

What do you think?

What do you think? Is time up for the pocketwatch? Do you agree or disagree? Join in the discussion below

Michael Weare | Website

Michael Weare has been a professional writer for 30 years, writing about Japanese technology, German and Italian cars, British tailoring and Swiss watches. Michael manages the editorial content of Click Tempus and will be keeping the magazine fresh and informative with regular features, as well as bringing great writers to the magazine. Email: michael@clicktempus.com

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