Exquisite Pocket Watches of a Bygone Time

Designed to slip into the pocket of the new waistcoats introduced by King Charles II of England, pocket watches became a luxurious accessory for correct dress after the Restoration of the British monarchy in 1660.

Prior to this, they had been heavy, drum-shaped cylinders fastened to clothing or worn on a chain around the neck.

17th Century

The French, Swiss, Dutch and Germans were the main artisans producing these beautiful watches that were essentially items of jewelry that incidentally told the time.

It wasn’t until 1680 that pocket watches introduced the minute hand and another 10 years before the second hand made an appearance.

Adorning the elaborately jeweled pocket watch below is a depiction of the young Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) on horseback.

One of the most important surviving watches of its period, it is thought to have been made as a gift for the young king.

1645. Watch. Jacques Goullons. Case and dial of enameled gold; hand of steel; movement of brass, partly gilded, and steel. metmuseum
1645. Watch. Jacques Goullons. Case and dial of enameled gold; hand of steel; movement of brass, partly gilded, and steel. metmuseum

It includes a miniature with the arms of France and Navarre and the Orders of Saint Michael and the Holy Spirit.

1645. Watch. Jacques Goullons. Case and dial of enameled gold; hand of steel; movement of brass, partly gilded, and steel. metmuseum
1645. Watch. Jacques Goullons. Case and dial of enameled gold; hand of steel; movement of brass, partly gilded, and steel. metmuseum
1645. Watch. Jacques Goullons. Case and dial of enameled gold; hand of steel; movement of brass, partly gilded, and steel. metmuseum
1645. Watch. Jacques Goullons. Case and dial of enameled gold; hand of steel; movement of brass, partly gilded, and steel. metmuseum
1645. Watch. Jacques Goullons. Case and dial of enameled gold; hand of steel; movement of brass, partly gilded, and steel. metmuseum2
1645. Watch. Jacques Goullons. Case and dial of enameled gold; hand of steel; movement of brass, partly gilded, and steel. metmuseum
1645. Watch. Jacques Goullons. Case and dial of enameled gold; hand of steel; movement of brass, partly gilded, and steel. metmuseum
1645. Watch. Jacques Goullons. Case and dial of enameled gold; hand of steel; movement of brass, partly gilded, and steel. metmuseum
1645. Watch. French, probably Paris case with Dutch, The Hague watch. Case and dial enameled gold; Movement gilded brass and steel, partly blued. metmuseum
1645. Watch. French, probably Paris case with Dutch, The Hague watch. Case and dial enameled gold; Movement gilded brass and steel, partly blued. metmuseum
1645. Case and dial painted enamel on gold with brass hand; Movement gilded brass and partly blued steel. metmuseumFrench, probably Paris
1645. Case and dial painted enamel on gold with brass hand; Movement gilded brass and partly blued steel. metmuseumFrench, probably Paris
1640. Watch. British, London. Silver gilt. metmuseum
1640. Watch. British, London. Silver gilt. metmuseum
1640. Watch. British, London. Silver gilt. metmuseum
1640. Watch. British, London. Silver gilt. metmuseum

18th Century

Britain was at the forefront of watch making in the 18th century.

Not only were half of the world’s watches made in Britain, but probably 70% of the innovation in a modern mechanical watch came from Britain.

Verge escapement in motion. Credit AlienAtSystemOriginally developed for large clocks like those of the town hall, the earlier watch mechanisms used the verge escapementverge being derived from the Latin virga for stick or rod.

An escapement is a device that transfers energy to the watch’s timekeeping element, allowing the number of oscillations to be counted.

Inherent with the verge escapement design was a high degree of friction, with no jewelling to protect the contacting surfaces from wear.

As a result, a verge watch could rarely achieve any high standard of accuracy.

How goes your watches ladies? What’s o’clock now?
First Lady: By mine full nine.
Second Lady: By mine a quarter past.

These three lines by the Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton (d. 1627) sum up the unreliability of watches, which for the most part were more useful as jewelry than as timekeepers.

But with time came improvements.

Lever escapement. Credit Mario Frasca
Lever escapement. Credit Mario Frasca

The cylinder escapement invented by English clockmaker Thomas Tompion in 1695 and perfected by another English clockmaker, George Graham, in 1726, was much thinner allowing for very slim watch designs, which became the height of fashion.

But the cylinder escapement didn’t significantly improve accuracy.

Then in 1759, along came another Englishman, Thomas Mudge, with his invention of the lever escapement—the greatest single improvement ever applied to pocket watches.

With the lever escapement, watches could keep time to within a minute a day.

1720. Watch. British, London. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1720. Watch. British, London. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1740. Watch. British, London. Enamel, silver. metmuseum
1740. Watch. British, London. Enamel, silver. metmuseum
1740. Watch. British, London. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1740. Watch. British, London. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1740. Watch. British, London. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1740. Watch. British, London. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1740. Watch. British, London. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1740. Watch. British, London. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1740. Watch. British, London. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1740. Watch. British, London. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1770. Watch. German, Dresden. Case gold, inlaid with hardstones. metmuseum
1770. Watch. German, Dresden. Case gold, inlaid with hardstones. metmuseum
1770. Watch. German, Dresden. Case gold, inlaid with hardstones. metmuseum
1770. Watch. German, Dresden. Case gold, inlaid with hardstones. metmuseum

19th  and early 20th Centuries

Although the exquisite craftsmanship of British and Swiss watchmakers dominated the first half of the 19th century, it was the Second Industrial Revolution in the latter third that catapulted America to center-stage of watch manufacturing.

1810. Watch. Swiss, La Chaux-de-Fonds. Gold, glass. metmuseum
1810. Watch. Swiss, La Chaux-de-Fonds. Gold, glass. metmuseum
1819. Watch. British, London. Case of gold, enamel, and pearls, with floral design; jeweled movement, with ruby cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1819. Watch. British, London. Case of gold, enamel, and pearls, with floral design; jeweled movement, with ruby cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1820. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case of gold and enamel, with floral design. metmuseum
1820. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case of gold and enamel, with floral design. metmuseum
1820. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case of gold and enamel, with floral design. metmuseum
1820. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case of gold and enamel, with floral design. metmuseum
1820. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Gold, enamel, silver. metmuseum
1820. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Gold, enamel, silver. metmuseum
1820. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Gold, enamel, silver. metmuseum
1820. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Gold, enamel, silver. metmuseum
1820. Watch. Swiss. Case of gold and enamel, with chronoscope dial; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1820. Watch. Swiss. Case of gold and enamel, with chronoscope dial; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1820. Watch. Swiss. Case of gold and enamel, with chronoscope dial; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1820. Watch. Swiss. Case of gold and enamel, with chronoscope dial; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1822. Watch. French, Lyon. Case of gold and enamel, with floral design; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1822. Watch. French, Lyon. Case of gold and enamel, with floral design; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1822. Watch. French, Lyon. Case of gold and enamel, with floral design; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1822. Watch. French, Lyon. Case of gold and enamel, with floral design; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1825. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case of gold and enamel; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1825. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case of gold and enamel; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1825. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case of gold and enamel; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1825. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case of gold and enamel; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1830. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case of gold and enamel, with floral design; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1830. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case of gold and enamel, with floral design; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1830. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case of gold and enamel, with floral design; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1830. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case of gold and enamel, with floral design; jeweled movement, with cylinder escapement. metmuseum
1830. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1830. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1830. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1830. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Gold, enamel. metmuseum
1832. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case partly gold, enamel, and silver; Movement brass and steel with ruby. metmuseum
1832. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case partly gold, enamel, and silver; Movement brass and steel with ruby. metmuseum
1832. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case partly gold, enamel, and silver; Movement brass and steel with ruby. metmuseum
1832. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case partly gold, enamel, and silver; Movement brass and steel with ruby. metmuseum
1832. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case partly gold, enamel, and silver; Movement brass and steel with ruby. metmuseum
1832. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case partly gold, enamel, and silver; Movement brass and steel with ruby. metmuseum
1835. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Gold, enamel, silver. metmuseum
1835. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Gold, enamel, silver. metmuseum
1850. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case partly enameled gold; Dial white enamel with gold hands; Movement gilded brass and steel. metmuseum
1850. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case partly enameled gold; Dial white enamel with gold hands; Movement gilded brass and steel. metmuseum
1850. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case partly enameled gold; Dial white enamel with gold hands; Movement gilded brass and steel. metmuseum
1850. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case partly enameled gold; Dial white enamel with gold hands; Movement gilded brass and steel. metmuseum
1850. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case partly enameled gold; Dial white enamel with gold hands; Movement gilded brass and steel. metmuseum
1850. Watch. Swiss, Geneva. Case partly enameled gold; Dial white enamel with gold hands; Movement gilded brass and steel. metmuseum

Demand for pocket watches rose dramatically in the late 19th century, but Britain and Switzerland were ill-equipped to seize the opportunity.

World leadership changed hands to America, with Waltham, Massachusetts and Elgin, Illinois becoming centers of mass manufacturing using standardized parts and the latest machine tools.

The rise of railroads also spread the popularity of pocket watches and helped improve their reliability.

Attributed to one of the engineer’s watches running four minutes behind, a deadly train disaster in Kipton, Ohio in 1891, in which two trains collided at full speed, prompted new precision standards and safety inspections for Railroad pocket watches.

Colloquially called “railroad-grade pocket watches”, these precision timepieces had to meet the General Railroad Timepiece Standards adopted in 1893 by almost all railroads.

Interior of Burlington Bulldog railroad watch. Credit Kevin Trotman
Interior of Burlington Bulldog railroad watch. Credit Kevin Trotman
Vintage Elgin National Watch Co. Pocket Watch with Hunter Case and Gold Chain, Circa 1901. Credit Joe Haupt
Vintage Elgin National Watch Co. Pocket Watch with Hunter Case and Gold Chain, Circa 1901. Credit Joe Haupt
Vintage Elgin National Watch Company Pocket Watch, 17 Jewels, Lever Set, 10 K Gold Filled Open Face Case Marked 'Hamilton Keystone Watchcase, J. Boss, Railroad Model', Circa 1918. Credit Joe Haupt
Vintage Elgin National Watch Company Pocket Watch, 17 Jewels, Lever Set, 10 K Gold Filled Open Face Case Marked ‘Hamilton Keystone Watchcase, J. Boss, Railroad Model’, Circa 1918. Credit Joe Haupt

Pocket watches remained popular until World War I when officers in the field discovered that wristwatches were easier and quicker to use.

Waltham pocket watch once owned by a World War I veteran.. Credit Ross Dunn
Waltham pocket watch once owned by a World War I veteran.. Credit Ross Dunn

Popular Posts

David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.