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Before wristwatches, there were pocket watches, and while pocket watches have long been eclipsed in the market, and in the hearts of many collectors, by their wrist-worn brethren, they never went away entirely. In the 21st century, a pocket watch is a rarity that can represent many things: for a watch aficionado, it can be a proudly retrograde style statement to complement a boldly chosen ensemble, or a Holy Grail piece to proudly display at the center of a collection of wristwatches. For a watchmaker, the pocket watch’s larger dimensions can provide a playground for the most ambitious high-horological inventions and decorative artistry.
As I explore in more detail in this article, the historical figure most often credited as the inventor of the pocket watch is German clockmaker and locksmith Peter Henlein (1485-1542), who cobbled together the first so-called “clock-watches,” i.e., compact timekeepers designed to be worn on a person’s body, in his shop in Nuremberg in 1510. Essentially drum-shaped, ornamental brass boxes, with primitive, single-handed movements made of iron or steel inside, and suspended on chains draped around one’s neck, these devices were more regarded as ornamental jewelry than reliable timepieces. The drum-shaped cases eventually gave way to more smoothly rounded oval shaped ones, aka the so-called “Nuremberg eggs,” which were also worn as pendants. King Charles II of England ushered in the next major step in the evolution of watches with his introduction of the waistcoat as a fashion staple for gentlemen. Timepieces henceforth needed to be rounder and flatter in order to be stashed in the pockets of these garments, and eventually mounted on short chains or leather fobs (a word derived from the German “fuppe,” for “pocket”) rather than necklaces. This new style of portable timekeeper, outfitted with a movement that was wound and set by a key through an arbor in the caseback, proved to be both stylish and practical: tucking a watch into a pocket until one needed to check the time kept it safer from the elements than wearing it in the open.
The pocket watch, as it came to be called, became widely popular in the 18th century, eventually also becoming an expression of watchmakers’ technical mastery and artisanal expertise. These pieces accordingly became luxury items and status symbols for those that could afford them: lavish engravings and gem-settings began appearing on cases, and movements evolved in complexity and complications, with the primitive verge escapement giving way to the more advanced cylinder escapement and, ultimately, the modern lever escapement. By the 1800s, advances in manufacturing, particularly in the standardization of watch parts, finally brought pocket watches that were more accessible to the general public. After waistcoats faded as a popular garment, men wore their pocket watches with the chains attached to lapels and belt loops. Adrien Philippe’s invention of the stem-winding, stem-setting movement in 1842 (which Patek Philippe, the company he co-founded, first commercialized in the 1850s) marked the end of the old key-winding system. The demand for practical timepieces for English fox hunters, who needed a watch that enabled them to check the time in one hand while holding the reins of a horse with the other, led to the development of the hunter case, a pocket watch with a spring-hinged lid over the dial and crystal. These hunter-case watches, or “Savonnettes” (so named because when the case cover was closed, the watches resembled a bar of soap), joined the existing open-faced “Lépine” pocket watches as popular options.
Shortly after World War I, wristwatches, originally of the type worn by soldiers in the trenches due to their utilitarian practicality, began to supplant pocket watches as the go-to timepiece for men (as well as for ladies, who’d already been wearing them for decades). By the mid-20th century, pocket watches had all but disappeared from the scene, though for a while they continued to be common in time-sensitive industries like railroading, in which train conductors used precisely regulated, chronometer-quality pocket watches (like the one above) to keep track of schedules. Pocket watches had a brief resurgence in the 1970s and ‘80s in the U.S.A, when three-piece suits — i.e., suits with vests ideal for storing watches on a chain or fob — returned to prominence. As a remnant of the Victorian era, the pocket watch has also been adopted by adherents of Steampunk subculture, based around a retro-futuristic style of sci-fi that embraces elements of that 19th-century Industrial Age. In summation, pocket watches continue to occupy a decidedly small niche in a wristwatch-dominated culture, but when they do make an appearance, it's very often an indication of something special: a historical milestone being celebrated or a breakthrough horological accomplishment being showcased, for example. Here I'll spotlight an assortment of pocket watches that are historically noteworthy, technically or aesthetically intriguing, or both.
Henry Graves, Jr., was a New York banker and avid watch collector who, legend has it, was engaged in a competition with fellow tycoon James Ward Packard (of Packard Motors) to become the owner of the world’s most complicated watch. In 1933, the timepiece that Graves commissioned from Patek Philippe, aptly named the Henry Graves Supercomplication, earned that distinction with its 24 complications, blowing away the 10 complications of the watch Patek had made for Packard in 1927. The array of horological functions built into the unique, gold pocket watch include Westminster chimes, perpetual calendar, sunrise and sunset times, and a celestial map of New York as seen from Graves's Fifth Avenue apartment. After Graves died in 1953, the watch changed hands several times throughout the years, and was auctioned for the first time by Sotheby’s in 1999, bought for a then-record price of $11,002,500 by Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al Thani of the Qatar Royal Family. After his death, the watch was auctioned again by Sotheby’s in 2014, sold for $24 million to an anonymous buyer and breaking another record.
With more than 275 continuous years in operation, Vacheron Constantin made lots of pocket watches before it made lots of wristwatches — including some significant timepieces for crowned heads throughout history. The most expensive one ever sold at auction was the piece the maison made for King Fuad I of Egypt, the first Egyptian monarch in the modern history of the middle eastern nation since it was granted independence by Great Britain in 1922. This historically significant and immensely complicated 18k yellow gold pocket watch was presented to King Fuad in 1929 by the country's expatriate Swiss community. Among its array of complications are two striking functions powered by two gear trains, a grande and petite sonnerie with three gongs and two hammers, a split-seconds chronograph, and a perpetual calendar with moon-phase and age of the moon indication. Behind the caseback, with a French inscription that translates "To His Majesty King Fuad I Tribute from the Swiss Community of Egypt," the movement is equipped with two barrels accessed by a single keyless winding crown, one for the gear train, the other for the additional energy required by the striking mechanism. Did I mention that this watch sold for $2.77 million at Antiquorum in 2005?
The oldest timepiece on the list — hailing from the prehistoric days before wristwatches and fetching $4.68 million in a Christie's auction in 2012 — is a rare pocket watch made circa 1814 by Abraham-Louis Breguet, the legendary inventor of the tourbillon escapement and one of history’s most influential watchmakers. The case is made of yellow gold and engraved with a unique, distinguishing number. The engine-turned dial hosts a minute track and subdials with Arabic and Roman numerals, one with yellow-gold hands, the other with blued hands, one for local time and one for mean time, and a small central sundial for the seconds. The gilded brass movement inside the 63.7mm case is actually made up of two independent mechanisms, both with their own barrels, a remarkable horological feat at the time, along with pare-chute suspension and blued Breguet free-sprung balance springs.
Tissot traces its long history back to 1853, when it was founded by the father-son team of Charles-Félicien Tissot and Charles-Émile Tissot in Switzerland’s Jura Mountains. Today part of the Swatch Group, Tissot can lay claim to several watchmaking milestones throughout its history, including the first pocket watch to display two time zones in 1853. Like all historical Swiss brands, Tissot is a producer of mostly wristwatches today, but its Double Savonnette Mechanical is a stylistic throwback to its early days while still offering the value proposition for which the brand has become renowned. The nearly 50mm-diameter case is made of palladium-coated brass, with a mineral crystal over the silvered dial, which sports retro Roman numerals, ornate openworked hands, and a period-appropriate vintage Tissot logo. The mechanical, manually wound movement inside is the ETA/Unitas 6498-1, produced by Tissot’s sister company within the Swatch Group and offering a 46-hour power reserve. Price: $1,025.
Few watch companies can claim as vital a role in American industrial history as Hamilton Watch Co., founded in Lancaster, PA in 1892 and now making watches in Switzerland as part of the Swatch Group. In the late 19th and early 20th Century, as railroads began connecting the far reaches of the expanding U.S.A., it was Hamilton that produced the uncommonly sturdy and precise pocket watches that railroad conductors used to keep the trains on time and on schedule. In commemoration of those historical timepieces, Hamilton introduced the Railroad Pocket Watch into its vintage-influenced American Classic collection in 2022. Limited to 917 pieces (a number representing the street address of the company’s original factory), the watch has a 50mm case made of stainless steel and a white, “enamel-like” dial with 5-minute markers in bright red along a fully graduated outer minute track. Historically inspired, black lacquered minute hands indicate the hour and minute on large Arabic numerals, while a subdial at 6 o’clock displays the running seconds independently, in the style of vintage railroad timers. The watch’s solid caseback hosts a relief engraving of a train and the words “130th Anniversary Railroad Special.” Behind that caseback beats the hand-wound, Unitas-based mechanical ETA 6497 movement, holding a 50-hour power reserve. The Railroad Pocket Watch’s 50-meter water resistant case connects to a removable metal chain and is delivered with a leather carrying pouch. Price: $1,395.
Boutique brand HYT staked out a unique place for itself in the high-end watch world with its distinctive “hydromechanical horology” system of timekeeping, in which the passing of the hours is traced not by analog hands but by the flowing of liquids, one clear, one colored, through a graduated microtube. The idiosyncratic brand’s first pocket watch, 2017’s Skull Pocket, combines this unique time display with the mechanical light source technology that it developed the previous year and melds it all together with a skull-motif dial that rivets attention with its glow-in-the-dark elements. The watch incorporates two LEDs positioned underneath the rider at 6 o’clock, activated by a generator module that converts mechanical power into electricity by pressing the button in the crown at 4:30. The electricity generated by the LEDs creates a soft blue light that interacts with the liquid in the microtubes for a fluorescent green glow in the skull-shaped hour track and the skull’s “eyes” (which serve as indicators for the running seconds on the left and the power reserve on the right). The “mouth” of the skull is formed by the movement’s vertical bellows that control the flow of liquids through the tubes. The huge 59mm case is made of titanium, with some areas coated in black PVD; it has a hinged cover that can be customized and comes mounted on a titanium chain with links inspired by the angular skull iconography of the case. Price: $115,000.
Jaquet Droz has a deep-rooted history in automata, repeating and chiming mechanisms, musical birds, and elaborately decorated pocket watches, all of which were signatures of its pioneering founder and eponym, Pierre Jaquet-Droz. The Parrot Repeater is the first of the modern brand’s Automata Collection designed in the pocket watch style and is literally a one-of-a-kind timepiece. The mother-of-pearl dial is the stage for five spectacular animations and a host of artisanal decorations. A family of macaws, parrots known for their colorful plumage, nestle amidst a lush jungle landscape rendered in miniature painting and 3D engraving; when the repeater is activated, the adult parrot on the left moves its body, the larger adult on the right wiggles its head, one of the chicks emerges from its egg, and the other hops back and forth. In the background, subtle details emerge, including a tiger pausing for a drink at an animated waterfall and another tiger crouching below the birds’ nest at 6 o’clock. The tree trunks, birds, and nest are crafted from solid gold, hand-painted, and hand-applied to the dial. The gem-set 56mm gold case uses two covers to protect the dial — one on the back, with a hand-polished, grand feu enamel painting of a macaw, the other in the front, openworked to offer a peek at the dial’s scenery through its sculpted vines and tropical foliage, all set with multicolored gemstones. The manual-wound, minute repeater movement inside this unique piece is composed of 668 pieces, including an astounding 69 jewels, and stores a power reserve of 48 hours.
Longines was founded in 1832 in the Swiss Jura town of Saint-Imier by Auguste Agassiz and two partners. Agassiz’s nephew, an enterprising economist named Ernest Françillon, took over the company shortly thereafter, moving all of the company’s various watchmaking crafts into one building and producing the early hand-held chronographs that established Longines’ longstanding reputation for sports timing innovation, particularly for equestrian sports. (Longines remains the official timer for events like the Kentucky Derby and the Breeder’s Cup.) The Longines Equestrian Pocket Watch Jockey 1878, released in 2016, is a contemporary replica of one of the first chronograph watches ever produced by the company and pays tribute to its equestrian roots. The 55mm case is made of rose gold — a rarity for modern, value-oriented Longines — and includes a vintage-style, large onion crown at 12 o’clock that houses a chronograph pusher, just as the original steel-cased watch did. The expansive white dial hosts slim Roman numerals, blued steel Breguet-style minute and hour hands, a slender, ball-counterweight seconds hand and a running seconds subdial with its own railway track border at 6 o’clock. The manually wound, ETA-based Longines Caliber L790.2 caliber ticks inside, behind a solid caseback engraved with the image of a horse and rider.
Today, Baume & Mercier is known better for “affordable luxury,” producing elegant timepieces that only rarely venture into the highest echelons of horological complication. In the 19th Century, however, the Baume brothers who founded the company produced complicated masterpieces like minute repeaters and tourbillons. The Clifton 1830 Pocket Watch, taking its numeral from the year of the brand’s founding, is a modern tribute to those historical pieces and offers a rare five-minute repeater as its signature function. The five-minute repeater, which predates the minute repeater, audibly chimes the time with a low note for the hour, followed by a high-and-low note for each elapsed five-minute interval past the hour — a timekeeping arrangement not as precise as that of a minute repeater (which chimes hours and minutes) but more precise than that of a quarter repeater (which indicates only hours and quarter hours). Despite its inner complexity, the watch’s opaline dial has an elegantly understated look, with sword hands and applied numerals and indexes in gold to match the 18k rose gold case. Inside the case, behind a sapphire caseback, is the manually wound Caliber D73, which uses a Dubois Depraz module for its chiming functions and holds a power reserve of 46 hours. In keeping with the watch’s refinement and exclusivity (it’s limited to 30 pieces), the movement boasts skeletonized bridges with côtes de Genève finishing. It comes on a leather strap and is priced at $54,000.
Initially conceived by Bruno ("Bell") Belamich and Carlos A. ("Ross") Rosillo as a university project in 1992, Bell & Ross found its hero model in 2005 with the creation of the BR 01 Instrument, inspired by the dashboard clock in an airplane cockpit. The company, now owned by Chanel, expanded its scope afterward with its Vintage series of more traditional round-cased pieces that evoked the look and spirit of historical military and pilots’ watches from the early 20th century. The Vintage PW1 (“pocket watch one”) is Bell & Ross’ first pocket watch, drawing its inspiration from hand-held timepieces used by aviators in the 1910s, before the two World Wars established the wristwatch as the timekeeper of choice in cockpits. The watch has a polished steel case, 49 mm in diameter, with a barleycorn guilloché caseback, a galvanic black dial with a domed surface and a sunburst finish, and luminescent Arabic numerals in the recognizable Bell & Ross style. The running seconds are displayed on a subdial at 6 o’clock. The movement behind the decorated caseback is the manually winding, Unitas-based ETA 6497, a mainstay in the more affordable end of the modern pocketwatch category. The PW1’s steel fob attaches to a 30-cm steel chain; a calfskin strap with a carrying sleeve of the same leather is also an option. Price: $3,000.
Parmigiani Fleurier, the haut-de-gamme watchmaking house founded by watch-and-clock-restoration guru Michel Parmigiani, celebrated 25 years in 2021, putting a crown on its year of anniversary watchmaking achievements with La Rose Carrée, a one-of-a-kind pocket watch in a 64mm, white-gold, double hunter-style case and housing a restored vintage, high-complication movement with a minute repeater and a grande sonnerie. The movement was made by master watchmaker Louis-Elysse Piguet in the late 19th or early 20th Century and has been meticulously updated and decorated. “La Rose Carree” (or “the squared rose”) refers to the spectacular engraved pattern on both case covers, inspired by the image of withering rose petals in nature, an example of the Golden Ratio that drives so many of Parmigiani’s designs. The squared rose forms float in a watery pond, represented by the translucent blue grand feu enamel surfaces in which they are engraved. One case cover opens to reveal the painstakingly restored movement; the other opens onto the mirror-polished dial made entirely from black onyx and hosting Parmigiani’s signature Delta-shaped hands in white gold along with a small seconds subdial at 6 o’clock. The crown is set with a blue sapphire cabochon that matches the enamelled case covers and topped with an engraved bow that connects to a hand-crafted white-gold chain whose links evoke the same squared-rose motif in their styling.
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