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Artifacts of the Golden Age – Part II: Barbarians at the Gate [7/25/01]
On October 3, 2002
Artifacts of the Golden Age
Part II: Barbarians at the Gate
by Carlos Perez
July 25, 2001
Moving forward in our time machine, we step out to find ourselves immersed in a storm, a gale which screams, “Revolution!” The new wave of industrialization which had emerged around the turn of the 19th century did not touch the ancient world of
The subversion began quietly in Switzerland the 1830s. Swiss watch
For Vacheron Constantin, Leschot developed hand-operated tooling that allowed not only for more rapid manufacture of ebauches and other parts, but production at a level of precision that permitted the
While the new manufacturing methods were getting simple watches into the hands of the bourgeoisie, the particular needs of some other types of watches were defying the methods of mass production. Repeaters and
America proved to be much less resistant to the new “machine age” methodology than Switzerland, probably due to the lack of a significant
As the machine age was taking root in Switzerland and flourishing in the United States, the old guard of watchmakers in England were producing the finest timekeepers of their hand-made tradition. Pair-cased verge and duplex watches were extinct by 1850, and single-cased watches with English table roller lever escapements — the best with freesprung balances — and 3/4 plate or half-plate movements were the definitive English style. Yet despite the unquestionable fineness of these watches, the English industry began to struggle against the growing onslaught of less expensive machine-made American and Swiss watches. Overwhelmed by the same flood, French
While the old empires struggled for survival and identity, the institution of official standards for railroad watches in 1893 ushered in the most important part of the American pocket watch legacy. While some American manufacturers dabbled in high horology, it is the Railroad Approved watch which is definitively American, and the great contribution of American horology to the craft. The diversity of brands and models is an area of scholarship unto itself. Incidentally, manufacture of pocket watches in Japan, following the American industrial model, was begun by the Seikosha factory in Tokyo in 1895. Also incidental are the karrusel watches (usually with freesprung lever escapements), produced in Coventry England, as a simpler and more economic alternative to the dying art of the chronometer tourbillon. Produced for a short period starting in the mid-1890s, they were inexpensive and produced in fairly large numbers – both relatively speaking – but they were little more than a speed bump in the decline of the English pocket watch industry, which was all but dead by the end of the Great War. Some of the industry survived by entering the new field of wristwatches, but that too would be dominated by the Swiss.
The last quarter of the 19th century also saw a shift in the methods of movement decoration and finish. Matte gilding had been the standard in France since the time of Lepine and Breguet, and had become the standard in England not long thereafter. The first usage of platinum group metals for jewelry and watchcases extended into the use of rhodium plating for movements. Its harder surface gave superior protection from corrosion than gilding did, though the latter remained the more common usage for some time. At around the same time we also begin to see the first examples of the “Ctes de Genve” movement decoration which is so popular today. It is not really a product of “old-world” hand-craftsmanship in the traditional sense, but a new application of the powered lathes that were then coming into use. “Hand-applied” Ctes de Genve simply indicates that the powered lathe is guided by hand in the original manner. “Perlage” and most other ground-in decorations on plates or wheels are similarly the product of this new technology. The simple striping style of movement decoration slowly spread from Geneva to the Vallee de Joux and the rest of Switzerland, then outward to France, and Saxony. It also saw limited use in America, where elaborate patterned decoration gained wider use.
The collectors prospect for this period (1850 – 1930) is a mixed one. It is the end of diversity in escapements, really only Swiss and English levers due to the gradual disappearance of cylinders and chronometers by 1900, except for ladies fob watches which continued to use cylinder escapements for decades yet. French pocket watches are still high-quality, but in truth are a hybrid French-Swiss product more often than not. English watches are at their peak of quality in many instances, alas only in declining numbers, and are a great collectors opportunity as long as you can accept key winding and fusees from such late watches. Also rare would be the Japanese manufactured pocket watches of Seikosha and other lesser known makers. After 1895 American railroad watches reach their zenith, and are a very large category in which many collectors specialize, often focusing on a single brand. Watches from the European continent experience the split between commercial and high horology: Commercial Swiss watches are often “dirt cheap” other than for gold watches from major extant brands, and once again striking watches are quite reasonable though curiously are often more expensive than those from the preceding period (1775 – 1850). High-end astronomics like perpetual calendars and equation du temps appear to be much rarer than striking watches, and thus are generally more expensive. One point of note: The finest lever watches will be freesprung, except for most Railroad Approved watches which were often required to use regulators.
After World War Two we find the map of watch making has changed once again, with Switzerland standing alone as watchmaker to the West. Shock resistance and improved water and dust resistance eliminated the last objections to the wristwatch, and the pocket watch was deposed from its place amongst the populace as it was excluded from consumer demand for timepieces. Most American watch manufacturers faltered in the attempt to switch from wartime production to the commercial manufacture of wristwatches. The Railroad Approved watch held on the longest, only replaced by Railroad Approved wristwatches during the 1960s. But for the majority of the populace it can be said that the pocket watch was a dead language by the 1950s. Even the waistcoat fell into decline, though it is still with us, and watch pockets disappeared from most forms of
The quartz revolution brought the brief Silver Age of mechanical wristwatches to an end, and with the obsolescence of almost all mechanical timekeeping (marine chronometers lingered until the ’80s) the pocket watch at last faced extinction, as did the entire Swiss industry when Japanese quartz came to the fore. As with those before, this revolution brought new beginnings and many endings as well.
The rebirth of the art of the pocket watch coincided with the rebirth of the mechanical wristwatch during the 1980s, in essence a continuance of the limited and low profile production of the 50s and 60s. For some manufactures the pocket watch is a living symbol of their heritage prior to the wristwatch era and the present age of quartz timekeeping, a heritage that cannot be lost or set aside even if it incurs considerable costs in present day production. Therefore it is not
The two most important manufacturers of high-grade pocket watches today are IWC and Patek Philippe. IWC continues the manufacture of two of its vintage pocket watch movement designs from 1928 and 1936, calibres 95 and 98 respectively, for its open-faced (shown above) and hunter pocket watches. They also produce four or five hunter-cased grandes complications per year, with minute repeater, chronograph, and perpetual calendar. Patek Philippe does likewise, producing simple open-faced and hunter pocket watches using its 17 ligne pocket watch calibres, some featuring power reserve indication. In addition to their high profile supercomplicated coach and pocket watches of recent years (Calibre ’89 and Star Calibre 2000), they also regularly produce grandes complications which receive no fanfare — large open-faced
Other manufactures both old and new produce pocket watches along more narrow foci. Zenith and Blancpain produce simple pocket watches, the former with power-reserve indication, the latter’s are ultrathins using a Frederic Piguet calibre. Old greats Vacheron Constantin, Breguet, Girard-Perregaux, and Audemars Piguet, intermittently produce limited edition complicated pocket watches, perhaps as they are naturally superior platforms for complication due to scale. Up until recently Audemars Piguet produced simple watches using its in-house calibre 5020. The small manufacture Parmigiani Fleurier produces opulent grandes complications evocative of A.L. Breguet’s “Marie Antoinette.” It should also be noted that many independent watchmakers also still work in the ancient format, including established names like George Daniels and up-and-coming names like F. P Journe (shown below). It is difficult to quantify the “collectors value” of these modern pieces, outside of the more obvious value of the grandes complications. The watches both simple and complicated are quite expensive relative to vintage and antique pieces which are readily available in the antiquities market, but they do allow one to buy and own new hand-finished pocket watch in the computer age; a unique experience which may be worth the steep entry fee.
There is of course no rational reason to pay attention to pocket watches, any more than there is one for mechanical wristwatches. But for most who have been drawn by the virtues of tradition and craft to the latter, the former represents a greater world yet unexplored. Of some 500 years of mechanical watch history, less than 100 of them have belonged to the newfangled wristwatch. Speaking for myself, there is a magic and grandeur to the pocket watch movement, typically 50% larger than a comparable wristwatch calibre, which is unmatched by its wristlet offspring. Indeed, it is this grandeur which in my opinion validates the massive calibre 5000 recently produced by IWC for its limited edition wristwatches. For others there will be other reasons, all valid. If one goes back to the age of handmade watches one can even learn the formality and direct connection of winding by key rather than by crown — a ritual familiar to traditional clock owners. There is a vast depth and richness of horological experience yet unplumbed, but which waits patiently for each of us should we choose to look for it. For myself, perhaps one day I too will be reunited with my lady, the pocket watch.
Thanks to Hans Zbinden, Thomas Mao, and Eugenio Demmenie.
Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Auguste Renoir
American Watch Co. hunter pocket watch (1873) by Lex Villines
Vacheron Constantin lepine pocket watch (1910) by Mike Margolis
Minute Repeater (1920) courtesy of Audemars Piguet & Cie S.A.
IWC reference 5201 courtesy of the International Watch Co. Ltd
Tourbillon pocket watch (1985) courtesy of F.P. Journe
Copyright © Carlos A. Perez 2001
All Rights Reserved