The History Of Pocket Watches

The History Of Pocket Watches

In the realm of horology, few timepieces capture the imagination quite like the pocket watch. An emblem of bygone eras, the pocket watch represents not only an evolution in technology but also in style, signalling the rise of a culture that viewed timekeeping as both a necessity and a form of art.

This article delves into the rich tapestry of pocket watches' history, tracing their journey from essential tools to cherished artefacts. Join us as we wind back the hands of time and explore the enduring charm and historical significance of these captivating timekeepers.

What Is A Pocket Watch?

A pocket watch is a portable timepiece designed to be carried in one's pocket, distinct from wristwatches or other forms of wearable timekeepers. Born out of the need for precision and portability, pocket watches hark back to a time when watchmaking was a meticulous craft, and every timepiece was a testament to the skill of its creator.

Among the defining characteristics of pocket watches are their protective coverings, often exquisitely crafted, and the sturdy chain used for secure attachment to clothing. The watch itself is typically round, with an elegant face showcasing hours, minutes, and often, seconds. Some models even include a window into the watch's inner workings, known as a skeleton dial, offering a glimpse into the intricate dance of gears and springs.

Pocket watches are also unique in the way they're read: traditionally, they're held in the palm, creating a personal, intimate interaction between the owner and the passage of time. This distinct charm sets pocket watches apart, making them more than just timepieces—they're keepsakes, steeped in history and personality.

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The First Pocket Watch

The invention of the pocket watch is largely attributed to Peter Henlein, a master locksmith from Nuremberg, Germany, around 1510​​, although it is debated that there may have been a pocket watch created even earlier than this. It is possible that in 1505, there was a watch created called the Portable Pomander Watch, also believed to have been created by Henlein.

From Bisamköpfe to Pocket Watches

Henlein’s works were typically built into "Bisamköpfe", musk-balls or pomanders, small pendant containers fashioned from precious metals for fragrances or disinfectants, now known as pomander watches. These timepieces were frequently given as gifts to influential individuals, underscoring their cultural and symbolic significance. In the centuries that followed, Henlein's early watches have been recognised and celebrated for their historical importance. For instance, in 1905, the German Watchmakers’ Association and the City of Nuremberg marked the 400th anniversary of the pocket watch's invention with an exhibition and awards in Henlein's honour.​

Early pocket watches were designed to be portable time-tellers that did not rely on a power source, powered by mainsprings and covered with a brass lid instead of a glass screen protector​​. Although the initial models were not entirely accurate, improvements such as the lever escapement and minute handle enhanced their time-telling precision​​.

Symbol Of Status & Class

The pocket watch, in its early years and beyond, was much more than a simple time-telling device; it was a symbol of status and class, marking a clear distinction between the craftsmen and members of the upper echelons of society. Early adopters of the pocket watch included historical figures such as the Duke of Modena, the Marchese di Manta, and Meshur Sheyh Dede, further reinforcing the status symbol that the pocket watch represented​​.

Possession of a pocket watch was an indication of wealth and social standing, with the type of pocket watch one owned serving as a clear indicator of their position within society. Special pockets were even incorporated into the design of jackets, vests, and shirts specifically to accommodate these timepieces. The material of the pocket watch, whether it was silver, gold, brass, or platinum, further conveyed the wealth and status of the owner​​.

However, the value of a pocket watch was not solely monetary. These timepieces were often treasured possessions, passed down through generations as family heirlooms, embodying a sense of heritage and continuity.

Evolution of Design and Functionality

Initial Designs: Mainspring-Powered Devices

The evolution of the pocket watch is a testament to the human drive for innovation and refinement. At its inception, the pocket watch was a mainspring-powered device without a glass screen protector, relying solely on a brass lid for protection​​. This early design was an attempt to create a portable timepiece that did not depend on a stationary power source, thus making timekeeping more accessible and convenient. However, these initial models were not entirely accurate in their timekeeping, a limitation that drove further advancements.

Lever Escapement: Increasing Accuracy

As the years went by, the design and functionality of the pocket watch underwent significant changes. One such advancement was the introduction of a lever escapement, invented by Thomas Mudge in 1755. This mechanism increased the accuracy of the timepiece by controlling the unwind of the mainspring. This, coupled with the addition of a minute hand, rectified the issue of inaccurate time telling that was present in the original designs​​.

Aesthetic Enhancements and Practical Improvements

Simultaneously, aesthetic enhancements also took shape. For instance, glass screen protectors were introduced in the mid-19th century, offering better visibility and protection for the watch face. Pocket watches began to feature chains, allowing them to be securely fastened to a lapel, belt loop, or waistcoat, preventing loss or theft. Additionally, they were sometimes mounted on a short leather strap or a fob, which could also provide a protective flap over their face. It was not uncommon for pocket watches to carry coats of arms or seals of special organisations, societies, or nations as decorative embellishments​.

King Charles II and the Rise of Pocket Watches

A Style Icon

King Charles II, known for his unique style, greatly impacted the evolution of timekeeping devices during his reign from 1660 to 1685. One of his significant contributions was the introduction of waistcoats around the mid-1660s, a garment innovation that had pockets specifically designed to house a timepiece. Consequently, the term 'pocket watch' emerged, and it changed the perception and usage of these objects permanently.

This sartorial innovation served not just a functional purpose but also amplified the cultural significance of pocket watches. Under Charles II's reign, these items transitioned from simple timekeeping devices to powerful symbols of status, revered and desired by the upper echelons of society. Their popularity surged not only across Europe but also extended to North America, making them a universal symbol of refinement and affluence.

The Lesser George Watch and the English Order of the Garter

King Charles II's influence extended beyond fashion. His revitalisation of the English Order of the Garter, after his restoration in 1660, further emphasised the prestige associated with pocket watches. The Lesser George watch, a timepiece bearing the design of Saint George, the patron saint of the Order, was introduced in the late 17th century. Bestowed upon knights within the Order, this watch, laden with symbolic significance, represented the intersection of timekeeping, artistry, and chivalric honour.

Changing Trends in Wearing Pocket Watches

Early Styles and Symbolism

Over the centuries, the methods of wearing pocket watches have evolved significantly. In the 15th and 16th centuries, during the time of their inception, pocket watches were worn around the neck like pendants, or attached to clothing, serving not only as timekeeping instruments but also as symbols of wealth and status​​.

The subsequent centuries saw pocket watches become increasingly common, leading to special pockets being tailored into men's vests and jackets to accommodate them as explored previously. Chains were attached to secure them to a lapel, belt loop, or waistcoat, while some were mounted on a short leather strap or fob, providing a protective flap over the face of the watch and serving as decorative elements​​.

From Wristwatches to a Pocket Watch Resurgence

However, the advent of wristwatches in the early 20th century marked a significant shift in professional dress, leading to a decline in pocket watch usage. Despite this, the 1970s and 1980s saw a resurgence of pocket watches as a fashion statement, suggesting a renewed appreciation for their historical and aesthetic appeal.

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Types and Functionality of Pocket Watches

Pocket watches come in various types, each distinguished by its design and features.

Open-Face Pocket Watches

Open-face pocket watches, for instance, do not have a cover, allowing easy reading of time.

Full Hunter Pocket Watches

Full hunter pocket watches are characterised by a metal cover that protects the watch face. This cover usually opens by pressing a button at the top of the stem, adding a classic touch to the timepiece.

Double Hunter Pocket Watches

Double hunter pocket watches are an elaboration of the full hunter style, featuring covers on both the front and back. These are typically used by those who like to view the watch's internal mechanisms without risking damage to the face.

Half Hunter Pocket Watches

Half hunter watches, on the other hand, have a cover with a glass panel or hole, enabling the user to read the time without opening the watch. Each type of pocket watch offers a unique blend of functionality and aesthetic appeal, ensuring there is a style to suit everyone's taste.

Notable Pocket Watches

In the world of horology, there are several notable pocket watches that have stood the test of time and continue to captivate enthusiasts and collectors alike. Notable brands like Patek Philippe and Breguet have produced iconic models that hold immense historical and collector value.

Patek Philippe Calibre 89

Patek Philippe, a brand synonymous with exceptional craftsmanship, boasts a rich heritage of pocket watches. One notable model is the Patek Philippe Calibre 89, often regarded as one of the most complicated (and expensive) pocket watches ever created. Released in 1989 to commemorate the brand's 150th anniversary, the Calibre 89 features a staggering 33 complications, including a perpetual calendar, moon phase display, and a celestial chart. This extraordinary timepiece showcases Patek Philippe's technical prowess and remains a coveted treasure among collectors.

Breguet Classique Grandes Complications

Breguet, renowned for its innovation and elegance, has also crafted remarkable pocket watches that continue to enthral enthusiasts. The Breguet Classique Grandes Complications is a notable example. This exquisite timepiece showcases Breguet's expertise in intricate complications. It features a tourbillon, minute repeater, perpetual calendar, and moon phase display. With its distinctive Breguet-style hands and elegant guilloché dial, the Classique Grandes Complications epitomizes the brand's commitment to timeless beauty and technical mastery.

Rolex Prince

In addition to the esteemed brands mentioned, Rolex, a name synonymous with luxury watches, has also produced notable pocket watches that hold significant historical and collector value. One exceptional example is the Rolex Prince, a rectangular pocket watch that debuted in the 1920s. The Rolex Prince was renowned for its precision timekeeping, thanks to its dual-time display and highly accurate movement. With its elegant design and innovative features, the Rolex Prince quickly became a symbol of refinement and technical excellence. Today, vintage Rolex Prince pocket watches are highly sought-after by collectors, not only for their historical significance but also for their exceptional craftsmanship and enduring style.

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Buying a Pocket Watch

When purchasing a pocket watch, there are several factors to consider. Firstly, explore the range of models and options available to find one that aligns with your preferences and desired features. Pay close attention to the authenticity of the timepiece, ensuring that it comes with proper documentation and certifications from the manufacturer or a trusted expert.

On top of this, assess the condition of the pocket watch, taking note of any potential wear or restoration. Finally, it is crucial to inquire about the watch's maintenance history and understand the necessary care and servicing required to preserve its longevity. By considering these factors, you can make an informed and confident purchase of a pocket watch that brings both historical significance and enduring beauty to your collection.

Invest In A Pocket Watch Today!

The historical journey of pocket watches has been a testament to the ingenuity and artistry of horologists throughout the centuries. From their humble beginnings as portable time-tellers to becoming cherished symbols of status and refinement, pocket watches have left an indelible mark on our culture. Their enduring appeal lies not only in their precise timekeeping but also in their exquisite craftsmanship and timeless elegance.

If you’re interested in investing in vintage pieces, we offer a range of popular luxury brands like Breguet, Patek Philippe, Rolex and more at Watch Centre. Watch Centre is based on London’s Bond Street and is a trusted pre-owned and vintage jewellery supplier where you will find a range of stunning vintage timepieces.

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