British Museum blog

Through time: the history behind your watch

detail of watchDavid Thompson, former Curator of Horology, British Museum

Do you own a watch? What does your watch look like? Is it a traditional mechanical watch made by one of the leading Swiss watch manufacturers or is it perhaps a cheap everyday item which you use just to tell the time? There is no doubt that even today, where smartphones have become a popular way of keeping time; watches are still very personal items. For many they are birthday, Christmas or anniversary presents. For others they have been specifically chosen as suitable for the owner to wear and to show to others. A person’s watch might equally have been chosen to suit a particular fashion, or in time-honoured tradition might be a retirement gift donated by work colleagues. For everyone they are an elegant combination of technology, design and decoration.

MS Gilt-brass tambour cased watch

MS Gilt-brass tambour cased watch. South Germany, around 1560

Anonymous gold and niello cased cylinder watch with digital dial and en-suite chain and key

Anonymous gold and niello cased cylinder watch with digital dial and en-suite chain and key, Geneva, Switzerland, around 1830

Louis Vautier gold and enamel cased verge watch. Blois, France, around 1630–38

Louis Vautier gold and enamel cased verge watch. Blois, France, around 1630–38

How many people, however, have any knowledge of the history behind the watch they wear? Few people probably realise that this innocent machine has a history of more than five hundred years since its first appearance at the beginning of the 16th century in South Germany. At the beginning, and for the first two centuries, watches were inaccurate timekeepers worn as items of fashion or as demonstrations of wealth. Just as today, fashions changed and watches became obsolete unless they were handed down as heirlooms from generation to generation. Then, in about 1660, the pocket in clothing came into existence and the pocket watch became an item of everyday wear. Just a little later, the introduction of the balance spring or hair spring made the watch a far more accurate and reliable machine making it an essential asset for organising the day. That is for those who could afford them, for it was not until the last years of the 19th century that cheap affordable watches became available for those with less money to spend – this thanks to the ingenious efforts in America and Switzerland which enabled watches to be machine manufactured in huge numbers at low cost.

Robert H. Ingersoll & Bro wristwatch. USA, 1915

Robert H. Ingersoll & Bro wristwatch. USA, 1915

Over the centuries, fashions changed and the technology in the watch improved making it ever more accurate and reliable. Towards the end of the 19th century, the wrist watch appeared and following the First World War, became the normal way for the watch to be worn, although to this day, there are still a few stalwarts who insist on wearing a pocket watch. In more recent times, the introduction of quartz technology has made the watch a very precise machine. Today, a radio-controlled watch has, in theory, the same accuracy as the atomic clocks used to determine the international time standard – one second in 300 million years – assuming the batteries last that long.

An interesting reference to opulent watches comes from the inventories of Queen Elizabeth I:

Item. A watch of agate made like an egg garnished with gold. Item. a little watch of crystal slightly garnished with gold with her majesty’s picture in it.
Item. a little watch of gold enamelled with sundry colours on both sides alike.

Sadly no examples of these jewelled watches are known to survive today, but there is no doubt that someone somewhere is wearing a modern watch which might have a similar description.

If you own a watch, make sure you look after it, as it will serve you well, and when you look at it bear in mind the amazing history behind it.

Ingersoll Ltd pin pallet lever watch. Ystradgynlais and London, 1952

Ingersoll Ltd pin pallet lever watch. Ystradgynlais and London, 1952

A new edition of David Thompsons’ Watches is available online from the British Museum shop at £16.99, Members’ price £15.29. The book explores the history of watches, based on the British Museum’s extensive watch collection which spans over 500 years. All the major makers of Europe and America are represented. Examples included range from 16th-century early stackfreed watches to modern 19th- and 20th-century watches made by companies such as Waterbury and Ingersoll.

Clocks and Watches (Room 38–39), The Sir Harry and Lady Djanogly Gallery

Animation: How does a mechanical watch work?

Filed under: Collection, Room 38-39 Clocks and Watches Gallery, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,261 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Beatrix Potter was born #onthisday in 1866. Here are some of her flopsy bunnies! 🐰
#BeatrixPotter Made in AD 700, the exquisite Hunterston brooch was found at Hunterston, Ayrshire during the 1830s. It is a highly accomplished casting of silver, richly mounted with gold, silver and amber decoration. It is sumptuously decorated with animals executed in gold wire and granules, called filigree. In the centre of the brooch is a cross flanking a golden ‘Glory’ representing the risen Christ #MedievalMonday
The Hunterston brooch will feature in our forthcoming #Celts exhibition, on loan from @nationalmuseumsscotland. Encounter an African contribution to the global carnival tradition through contemporary artist @zakove’s Moko Jumbie sculptures in the Great Court. These spectacular 7-metre-high male and female figures in striking black and gold costumes are inspired by aspects of African masquerade. #ZakOve
Find out more about our #Africa season this summer with events and displays at www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/celebrating_africa.aspx The spectacular Sutton Hoo treasure was discovered #onthisday‬ in 1939!
This is a purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Wealth, and its public display, was probably used to establish status in early Anglo-Saxon society much as it is today. This purse lid from Sutton Hoo is the richest of its kind yet found.
The lid was made to cover a leather pouch containing gold coins. It hung by three hinged straps from the waist belt, and was fastened by a gold buckle. The lid had totally decayed but was probably made of whalebone – a precious material in early Anglo-Saxon England. Seven gold, garnet cloisonné and millefiori glass plaques were set into it. These are made with a combination of very large garnets and small ones, deliberately used to pick out details of the imagery.
Purse lid. Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century AD. From Mound 1, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, England.
#SuttonHoo #AngloSaxon The spectacular Sutton Hoo treasure was discovered #onthisday‬ in 1939!
Mrs Edith Pretty, a landowner at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, asked archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate the largest of many Anglo-Saxon burial mounds on her property. Inside, he made one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries of all time. Beneath the mound was the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship. At its centre was a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: Byzantine silverware, sumptuous gold jewellery, a lavish feasting set, and most famously, an ornate iron helmet. The ship buried at Sutton Hoo is the largest Anglo-Saxon ship yet unearthed.
You can see the treasure from Sutton Hoo on display in Room 41.
#SuttonHoo #AngloSaxon The Arch of Constantine in #Rome was completed #onthisday in 315, drawn here by Canaletto.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,261 other followers

%d bloggers like this: