Artifacts of the Golden Age

Part I

by Carlos Perez

July 16, 2001

In many ways we modern connoisseurs of the mechanical wristwatch live in a civilization built upon the ruins of much greater civilizations that we have now mostly forgotten. We of the Age of Copper refer to those grander times in almost mythological terms, if at all, rather than as the very real foundation upon which we all stand. A few cognoscenti amongst us deal in a
surprisingly brisk but quiet trade in objects d’art from the Age of Silver, an almost open secret whose brief public appearances are little more than curios to the majority. Occasionally within this trade appear a handful of the more obviously precious and famed remnants of the Golden Age which have been passed down to us, yet still receiving little of our attention due no doubt to the concomitantly rarefied pricing of these museum pieces. Yet for quite a long time there has been a small, very specialized trade in the less famed works of those centuries past, catering to a diverse but small clientele of varied interest in the Golden Age of personal mechanical timekeepers, the age of pocket watches.

As little valued as they generally are, most of these relics of horological antiquity probably still languish forgotten in storage in attics or hidden in boxes of inherited detritus. When found, enough make their way into the hands of dealers, auctions, and other vectors to help fuel the continuing trade between collectors. A little known venue for this trade in antiquities are periodic meetings of old horological societies of dealers, watchmakers, collectors, and historians. For this old guard the present state of watchmaking is of little interest next to the grand legacies of mechanical clocks, marine chronometers, and pocket watches. Amongst them, passing as a dignified archaeologist of time in a bazaar of precious artifacts, one finds the magnificent gold minute repeaters of yesterday fetching less than mediocre mass produced steel chronographs of today, and other incomprehensible valuations. For most of these abstract purist collectors pocket watches are things to own rather than use, object d’art whose value lies primarily in their antiquity and provenance. There are only a few who in defiance of modern custom, and in disdain of the breakneck pace of the accelerating rat race, that choose to give life once more to these ancient machines, allowing them once more to fulfill their purpose as timekeeping devices in their daily lives.

I too have been one of those few, and perhaps will become one of them again in the future. My own entry into this world began with the last great tradition of pocket watch production, and the greatest legacy of American watchmaking — the railroad watch. An inherited Illinois railroad watch initiated me into this society, where I intuitively learned the relaxed yet stately ritual of reading the watch, the elegance of the visible watch chain which is like a badge of honor, and the change in deportment and pace inherent in this all but forgotten mode. The watch itself was large and heavy, but its enigmatic full-plate movement kept time with unfailing accuracy for the years I used it — Illinois repute for quality is not without merit. But there are other manufacturers of equal or greater significance in American railroad watches: Waltham, Elgin, Hamilton, and Ball, are probably the most well known today. While the fine pocket watches that were made by these companies for the upper classes and for official railroad timekeeping are of most interest to the collector, it was mechanized mass production which democratized the pocket watch, and which was the foundation of the American watch industry. It was also their use of accurate and durable Swiss lever escapements that, combined with contemporaneous Swiss production, gave the Swiss lever escapement its present near-universality.

Yet even though we are stuck with the prosaic and ubiquitous Swiss “double roller” lever escapement in the watches of today, there is a great diversity in escapement design preceding the mid-to-late 19th century, and this is one of the great horological fascinations provided by antique watches — after all, the escapement is the heart of any timekeeping device. Despite the variety of form and complexity and finish, all of today’s mechanical watches are horologically equivalent in this most essential sense. No doubt much of the allure of the small number of co-axial lever escapement wristwatches becoming available is that there is finally something that is different at heart, even if it is still a part of the lever escapement family. Even the names of the other basic escapement families are unknown to most of us, but if we go searching for them we are led back to the antique pocket watches of England and France, which are the primary legacy of their grand, but mostly lost watchmaking traditions, back to the age of truly hand-crafted watches when famous watchmakers were actually advancing the science of horology.

Stepping out of our time machine in the 14th century, we find that the evolution of mechanical timekeeping begins with the verge escapement in the first clocks, with timing controlled by foliot (a small swinging bar weighted at both ends). The invention of the spring in the early 15th century led to spring-powered clocks, then to smaller semi-portable clocks, and finally in the 16th century to the first watches (late 16th c. spherical watch shown below left). While foliot timing of the verge escapement would be replaced by the pendulum in verge clocks, the swinging foliot bar evolved into the balance wheel in verge watches. The fusee had also developed by 1525 in spring-driven clocks to counter the steep torque curve of early springs, and thus was a standard feature of the earliest watches. It was one of a number of tricks, including stopworks, which developed around the limitations of a spring-powered verge escapement with balance wheel, since whatever force was delivered by the mainspring directly controlled the
behavior of the balance wheel. Indeed, a watchmaker intentionally regulated the rate of timekeeping through precise control of the mainspring’s power output. Thus the effort to flatten the middle of the torque curve by fusee, and to limit the spring’s power reserve to its middle portion through set-up and stopworks. While the need for a flat torque curve is important to the isochronism of any mechanical movement, it was especially vital to the early verge.

The watches produced by an expanding specialist class of craftsmen, first in France and Germany in the 1500s, then in England and Geneva in the 1600s, followed the fashion amongst the aristocracy for wearing opulent pendants. Pendant watches where worn hung either by a ribbon or chain, from the neck or at the waist, and the gold or silver cases took many different shapes — spheres, ovals, octagons, round, etc. Due to the Baroque aesthetic in vogue during the period, the watches were elaborately decorated with engraving, jewels, and enamel work; champleve, cloissone, and painted enamel. Due to the delicacy of all this expensive decoration, a separate additional outer case, usually open-faced and made of decorated leather, precious metal, faceted rock crystal, tortoise shell or other exotic materials, came into use — a practice known as pair-casing. The gilt brass movements were richly decorated with piercing and chasing (as the owner of the watch saw the movement
every time the case was opened to wind it), though decoration was far more extensive and elaborate in English watches than in French ones. Due to the mediocre accuracy of these early verges, pendant watches only featured a single hand, and their heavily engraved metal dials were marked with hours, or hours and quarter divisions. This poor accuracy also inspired the custom of wearing two watches, partly in order to check their accuracy against each other. Early complications included hour and quarter striking, basic astronomic indications, alarms, and the first repeaters.

The single-hand verge watch with fusee set the standard for the first 250 years of watch manufacture, and within the context of watch history they might be properly termed “ancient” watches. Only a few have survived to our era as they were made only in small numbers, and the large precious metal content of pair cased verges often meant their destruction in leaner years, or the shucking of movements from their costly shells. The remaining pre-1675 watches are thus in a very literal sense “museum pieces,” maintained and displayed by professionals or through the patronage of the wealthiest private collectors. Those who can tread on this hallowed ground generally leave these watches in non-working condition,
favoring preservation over restoration. As the legacy of the genesis of mechanical watches they are irreplaceable, and only a handful, usually plain Puritan watches of the late 17th century, ever enter the open market. It is the next stage of development which allows for closer appreciation by the collector, and hands-on study by the student of horology.

This next stage was launched by the development of the balance spring between 1660 and 1675, initiating a great step forward in real timekeeping performance by allowing the watchmaker to regulate timing independent (relatively speaking) of the mainspring’s power output, and by opening the door to a new wave of escapement evolution. It also brought the problems of adjusting for positions, temperature, and other watchmaking hassles. Due to the large improvement in performance, the first two-handed watches began to appear, and while dials continued to be marked with Roman numerals for the hours, they had an additional chapter ring marked with Arabic numerals for the minutes. The first new escapement to follow the balance spring’s introduction was Thomas Thompion’s cylinder escapement in 1695, but the upgraded verge continued to be the escapement of choice through the first quarter of the 18th century.

Strange perhaps, but one of the most important elements contributing to watch evolution was fashion, and the next basic shift in watch design followed a change in dress by the aristocracy. Sometime during the 16th century the waistcoat had developed as an undergarment, a vest worn beneath an Elizabethan gentleman’s doublet — and as an undergarment it also remained hidden through the 17th century. It was King Louis XIV of France – a leading consumer of pendant watches – who dictated 17th century fashion for all of Europe, and after his death in 1715 there was naturally a great shift. The Georgian period, so named for a succession of three English kings (1714 to 1795), saw the waistcoat emerge as an accepted part of a gentleman’s outerwear (with a frockcoat of course). The exposed waistcoat, now with pockets, became the new home of the gentlemans watch, now for the first time a “pocket watch.” The ladies watch would remain a pendant until the age of the wristwatch. The external change in watches following this change of couture was as dramatic as the internal changes to come. The white enamel dial with black numerals supplanted the engraved metal dial, and more complex enamel dials. While the outer cases became ever more elaborate (as shown), watch cases themselves became simpler as painted enamel casebacks came into vogue. Discounting the opulent outer case, the early 18th century pocket watch is essentially recognizable as such — ancient watches often look like ornate Renaissance instruments, mysterious and alien.

Movement decoration in England was reaching its peak at this time, encompassing plates and pillars completely with deep scrollwork and integrated sculptural designs. In France it was an afterthought, limited to a small portion of the top plate — usually just the balance cock. While an English invention, the cylinder escapement gained adherents in France until it displaced the verge as the escapement of choice, eventually doing likewise in Geneva and Switzerland. The duplex escapement invented in France in 1720 in turn became popular in England as a high-quality alternative to the verge, which otherwise continued to be the mainstay of English watchmaking. This was only the beginning of the split that separated French and English watchmaking: Jean-Antoine Lepine’s work in the development of watches better suited to pocket carry resulted in his exploitation of the cylinder escapement to create thin, fully-bridged movements by 1760. Due to advances in spring metallurgy he dispensed with the bulk and complexity of the fusee, using a “going barrel” to power the gear train directly. He also invented the floating mainspring barrel which helped push the limits of thinness further. He then single-cased his unadorned thin movements as the extra bulk of a pair-case was unnecessary within the safety of a waistcoat pocket. Single-cased watches look similar to the open-faced pair-case watches, just smaller and thinner with a relatively larger dial area. This new mode in movement design and finish, and case design, induced a paradigm shift in French watchmaking, marking the twilight of the full-plate movement and pair-case in France.

While the 17th century had seen both England and France become the primary centers of horological development and manufacture, it was this that finally caused a parting of ways between the philosophies and ideals of French and English watchmaking by the close of the 18th. France continued to pursue thinner and smaller watches, while England continued to use and refine their large and robust full-plate movements with fusees. Yet the English way did not reflect stagnation, for in the 1780s John Harrison’s H4 and H5 full-plate verge marine timekeepers would set an unprecedented standard of accuracy in portable timekeeping. Marine chronometers of all nationalities for centuries to come would retain the full-plate design for its performance advantages, where naturally thinness was not an issue. The collectors outlook for antique watches made between 1675 and 1775 is far better than the two preceding centuries, but these watches are still fairly expensive though not unattainable, and watches known to be made by famous horologists will often be considered museum pieces and priced accordingly. The collector will be faced with the difficult decision of preservation vs. restoration, especially with the finer pieces. Harrison’s H4 for example, as a museum piece is preserved in non-working condition. Still there could be nothing finer for the antiquarian horologist than seeing a 250 year old watch tick away the time.

A period beginning around 1775 marks an especially golden time within this Golden Age: The fused bimetallic temperature compensation balance wheel invented by Thomas Earnshaw in 1765 was coming into wider use, resulting in further performance gains which led to the general adoption of the seconds hand. Abraham-Louis Breguet opened his shop in Paris, and his work would affect French watchmaking as deeply as Lepine’s previous technical and design advances. The development of detent escapements between 1760 and 1780 in both France and England finally resulted in true marine chronometers, and rare but coveted pocket chronometers and chronometer tourbillons. It is in fact the age of the chronometer, where the watch became a real timekeeping instrument rather than just an affected form of adornment, and a simple and functional aesthetic of dial, case, and movement, came to define the pocket watch in all places. This is the classical zenith of the pocket watch.

Before the turn of the century in France the first sporting watch evolved with the new “hunter” style single-case, which added a solid metal cover over the fragile domed crystal, and the “half-hunter” with a porthole in the cover became an alternative by 1805. Due to these new styles, the earlier type of single-cased watches without dial covers came to be called “open faced” watches, and are also often referred to as the “Lepine style.” As a concession to protect the movement from dust, the double-bottomed single-case evolved by about 1830, around which time the Swiss began to use the Lepine style bridged-movement and single-case. Beneath a hinged outer caseback there was an inner caseback over the movement with a porthole for key winding. Still, even with double-bottoms, single-cased French and Swiss watches were half as thick as contemporary English pair-cased verges, and double-bottoms for single-cases continued to be used even after the advent of keyless winding. Double-bottomed wristwatches of our era have erroneously been described as “half-hunters” by some modern marketing hacks.

It was only after the French pocket watch had fully attained its classical form that watchmakers in England began to set aside the traditional pair-cased verge in quest of a new classical form of their own. Due to the success of the detent escapement for chronometer applications, the lever escapement first invented by Thomas Mudge (around 1755 to 1770) had received little commercial attention until the first quarter of the 19th century, when it finally came into its own after evolving beyond a plurality of experimental forms. Outside of chronometers, the English “table roller” lever escapement would become the finest timekeeper of English manufacture. More robust and accurate than the cylinder escapement, and with simpler and more stable full-plate or the new style 3/4 plate calibres, both with the tried-and-true fusee, they were a stark contrast to the far more delicate extra-thin French watches in vogue on the continent. English watches with the “new” lever escapement followed the French mode by generally dispensing with pair-cases, adopting a stolid and unadorned chronometer aesthetic on both single-case and movement, which also contrasted with the French use of guillochage or modest rocaille on their cases at that time.

For the collector, 1775 through the 1840s is the richest period in terms of a mechanical variety, whose breadth and depth I wish I could describe fully: Full-plates, 3/4 plates, 1/2 plates, and fully-bridged movements; cylinder escapements, verges, the duplex, English lever, and dozens of minor escapements and variations; pair-cases, open-faced and hunter single-cases — with or without double-bottoms. Aside from some of the more significant watches made personally by Breguet, these are the most accessible watches of the truly hand-made period, and the pinnacle of the French and English
watch making legacy. Pocket chronometers and chronometer tourbillons are prized but very delicate, but aside from these the watches of this time are the oldest that might properly be considered wearable by the pocket watch enthusiast. Repeaters had become more popular and common than
clock watches by this time, and they can be found for stunningly low prices. This alone has been enough to lure some vintage wristwatch collectors back to the era of classical pocket watches.

In Part II we will find a storm on the horizon, one as great as the quartz revolution some 130 years in the future. A storm that would mark a new beginning, and many endings as well, as the industrial revolution swept away the old elite caste of French and English
watch making.

Image Credits

Elisabeth of Austria, Queen of France (1571) by Francois Clouet

Detail from Vase of Flowers with Watch (1656) by Willem van Alest

Detail from Self-portrait (1651) by David Bailly

Detail from Maria Teresa of Spain (“with two watches”) (1652-3) by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez

English pair-cased verge (1770) and French cylinder (1830) courtesy of Pieces of Time

Copyright © Carlos A. Perez 2001

All Rights Reserved