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FEATURE: A Brief History of Pocket Watches

Pocket Watch

If you have ever heard of James Dean, you will know how much of a fashion icon he was back in the day. Famed for his acting, clothing and sense of style, his effect on men’s fashion is something that is still seen to date.

One such example of this is the famed pocket watch he used to wear, believing it to be a good luck charm when performing on TV and in plays. However, in doing so, the actor unintentionally became the face of pocket watches, leading to thousands of people wanting one to become as fashionable as him.

To this day, vintage pocket watches remain as popular as ever, having come through a drop in popularity in the aftermath of World War I. But what is it about them that makes them so sought after? And where exactly have they come from? Let’s take a look.

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1462: My pocket watch > your pocket watch.

The earliest mention of a pocket watch came about in 1462, when an Italian clock-maker called Bartholomew Manfred gloated in a letter that his pocket watch was superior to that of the Duke of Modena. Talk about childish.

1510: Hello Henlein.

The early 15th century saw the birth of the very first ‘clock-watch’, courtesy of German watchmaker Peter Henlein. However, these watches looked nothing like the traditional pocket watch you’ve probably got in mind. Instead, they were large, heavy, and designed to be worn around the neck rather than in an actual pocket.

1524: Regular reproduction reins.

Fast-forwarding nearly a decade-and-a-half, Henlein’s ‘clock-watches’ started to become more and more popular and, in 1524, the Nuremberg-based watchmaker was producing them regularly. His early designs were mainspring powered and somewhat bulky. They also didn’t have a glass screen protector at the time, instead sporting a brass lid to protect the internal mechanism.

1550: Watches get screwed.

Up to the mid-15th century, Henlein’s watches had been held together using a combination of tapered pins and wedges. In 1550, that all changed for the better, following the introduction of screws. This enabled clock-watches to be formed in the more traditional rounded shape, later becoming known as Nuremberg Eggs.

1610: Time for glass.

Sixty years later, pocket watches replaced brass lids with crystal-clear glass. They also gradually became smaller and smaller in design over this time period, looking much more like the pocket watches of today’s day and age.

1675: Charles II vs. James Dean.

While James Dean may have popularised the pocket watch during his lifetime, it was actually Charles II who started the trend all the way back in 1675. Renowned for popularising the waistcoat, the British monarch’s reign saw pocket watches grow in stature, increasing demand for slender pocket-sized watches on a massive scale.

1720: Bye-bye verge, hello cylinder.

Up to the 1720s, almost all watch movements were based on the principle of verge escapement – a mechanism which controls a watch’s ability to ‘tick’. However, this method was notorious for running too fast, meaning that watches were incredibly inaccurate – often gaining an hour a day or more. That all changed following the introduction of the cylinder escapement mechanism by the French inventor Jean de Hautefeuille.

1755: Watches start to tell the time.

While cylinder escapement offered a marked improvement over verge escapement, pocket watches were still renowned for being fairly inaccurate at telling the time. Thomas Mudge’s lever escapement mechanism changed all that in 1755, and later became the staple mechanism used in pretty much all mechanical watches – even to this day.

1857: Watches becomes standardised.

Up to the mid-19th century, pocket watches were expensive to produce and were often only really worn by people who could afford them. In 1857, and following the rise of the industrial revolution, pocket watches started to be made from standardised, interchangeable parts. As a result, they became a lot cheaper, more durable and accurate, making their way across Europe to the Americas.

1865: America trump Swiss.

The standardisation of pocket watch manufacture saw the process becoming much more streamlined, with the Japy family of Schaffhausen, Switzerland leading the way in particular. That was until 1865, when the American Watch Company (later known as Waltham) started manufacturing more than 50,000 reliable watches each year, displacing the Swiss from their dominant position in the cheap watch production market. The Swiss decided to raise the quality of their products instead, establishing themselves as leaders in precise and accurate watchmaking.

1914: World War Watches take over.

The start of the first World War saw the popularity of pocket watches fade, replaced instead by an increased love for wristwatches. This trend was seen to continue over later years, with pocket watches becoming better known as family heirlooms or something to be treasured.

2019: The pocket watch is reborn.

Pocket watches have always retained a certain style and elegance about them and, in today’s day and age, with vintage all the rage, they are coming back into fashion more and more. Don’t just take my word for it – leading watch repairer W.E. Clark & Son agrees as well, believing that the quality and history that a pocket watch represents is responsible for their revival.

“Demand for pocket watches is certainly booming and has been for a number of years now. While this is often attributed to ‘vintage’ becoming trendier, our clients like the history behind pocket watches, since they are often passed down through the family.”

Whether the pocket watch will become as popular as it was before remains to be seen, but it is certainly exciting to see it coming back into fashion. With no pun intended, I guess only time will tell.

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Patrick Cremona

The author Patrick Cremona