Humans have developed a multitude of ways of telling the time over our history. From the basic sundial, to water clocks and hourglasses, we have proved to be rather inventive when it comes to tracking the passing of the hours, minutes and seconds. Once the mechanical timekeeper had been perfected and sufficiently miniaturised, that creativity didn’t stop. As movements got smaller, the ability to integrate them into other objects became increasingly possible.
These curiosities of the horological world, will be the focus of our article. We will be looking at the times watchmakers decided to move away from the wrist and instead pin their craftsmanship to your money, around your waistline or above your cigars. The mere existence of many of these objects would seem to defy logic. Who would need to know the time when applying lipstick? However, we think that they say something about the more fun and light-hearted side of watchmaking, displaying creativity combined with micro-mechanical skill.
A classic example of a Dunhill lighter watch, courtesy of Nicholas Wells.
Before we were surrounded by screens which were able to tell us the precise time, having small timekeepers dotted around in different objects must have proven to be very useful, especially when you were in a situation less conducive to wearing a wristwatch. Although having to remember to wind all of them, especially the concealed ones, must have proven tricky.
You’ll notice that a lot of these items date from the same period, from the later ‘20s to the early ‘40s – a period when horological indulgence and creativity seems to have been rampant, no doubt influenced by the design fervour of the Art Deco period. As the line can sometimes be blurred between what distinguishes an object from a clock or a watch, we’ve chosen to stick to objects where telling the time isn’t the primary function.
These money clips bring a new meaning to the phrase “time is money”. Adding a watch movement to a money clip might seem a tad excessive to many, yet the likes of Cartier and Omega have proven that it can be done in amazing ways. The most classic examples of these curiosities date back to the 1930s and often contained miniature movements by Jaeger-LeCoultre, a watchmaker who had mastered the art of shrinking down calibres, like no other.
Given the time period in which these were made, there are often a lot of Art Deco design cues. From the use of enamel panels, to square dials paired with dramatically angled silhouettes, they can be fairly ornate in appearance. This also often brings together characteristic dial designs from the time, which seem to have been carried-over from wristwatches that brands such as Cartier were imagining at the time. Small details, such as curled Breguet numerals and a framing minute track, bring these to life.
These clips can take many different shapes. There are examples where the watch is slightly larger, forming part of the actual clip, others where the timepiece is more discrete and can even be concealed in the spine of the clip. Despite the narrow space, the applications are multiple. While these pieces may date from the first half of the 20th century, they are not the only money clips to be linked to timepieces. In fact, the original Vacheron Constantin 222 came with a money clip in the shape of its notched bezel, although this one lacked the ability to tell the time as these examples do.
A horn money clip from Ben Clymer’s Instagram page.
As collector Edmond Saran points out in an excellent article dedicated to these, there are possible fakes out there, so caution is, as always, advised. Because the Cartier ones were often similar in design to other non-signed money clips, this presents an easy opportunity for forgers to simply add the Parisian jeweller’s name to the dial. This is why checking movement signatures and hallmarks can be of vital importance, especially considering the premium associated with these.
Not all of these were made from precious metal, as one might assume. You can find examples cast in bakelite and even horn, an example of which can be found on Ben Clymer’s Instagram page, if you scroll back far enough. These pieces seem to take on an even more ostentatious and playful purpose these days, as we slowly move towards a cashless society. Both their primary and secondary uses are called into question. This, however, almost makes them more desirable, as they become more like objet d’art, than a functional device.
Maybe one of the more unexpected items on this list to have a watch movement built into it, the key might also be one of most original and interesting. It’s hard to imagine the thought process behind commissioning such a piece, but we're glad that someone did! We were lucky enough to handle a double-signed key from Asprey and LeCoultre, that dated from around the 1930s. It housed a LeCoultre calibre 426/2 inside the head of the key, with the crown used for winding a setting on its reverse.
A curiosity that almost defies logic.
A vintage Asprey advertisement for Christmas gifts proudly displays the key, stating that it “can be cut to fit any lock.” It was made available in stainless steel, 9-carat gold and 18-carat gold. The fact that the movement was made by LeCoultre is also proudly displayed on the advertisement, demonstrating the watchmaker’s reputation at the time for miniature calibres.
An original ad from Asprey showing their key and the back of it displaying its crown, advert courtesy of Media Storehouse.
With a characteristic two-tone dial, it’s clear that there was some thought put into the design. While this looks like a very integrated build, you can also find models that seem more modular constructions from LeCoultre. With a clear square frame with the watch mounted inside, this model cuts a very different silhouette to the previous example. Both of these models are made possible by the advancements that LeCoultre made in their movement manufacture, shaving millimetres off both thickness and diameter. With the double-signed example able to contain 16 jewels in such a small amount of space.
Many will probably be familiar with the Ellipse lighters produced by Patek Philippe. A covetable collectable for many of the brand’s followers, they’re certainly an interesting piece of design. However, they do lack the ability to tell the time. For lighters that can keep track of that, we need to look to the likes of Cartier and Dunhill.
Mounting a watch inside a classically designed cigarette lighter can make a rather handsome addition to an object that already has plenty of design cues. There is some variation here in how these were made, given that there is a little more space to play around with when compared to the keys and money clips mentioned earlier.
Dunhill, of course known for their lighters and other smoking paraphernalia, incorporated watches using a hinged panel on the side of the lighter, allowing for easy access to the movement and crown for winding and setting. You can find these in a variety of precious metals from rose gold to sterling silver, with the possibility of engraved patterns on the case as well. The larger version of the Dunhill lighter, meant to be rested on a table, was introduced in 1928, and first appeared in their catalogue the following year. Most of these feature Swiss movements signed by Dunhill or other movement producers, such as J. Schulz or La Nationale.
Easy access to the movement of this Dunhill lighter watch, courtesy of Christies.
Cartier seems to have gone with a more mono-bloc design for their lighter watches, building the timepiece straight into the side of the case with a more traditional-looking bezel. The craftsmen at Cartier continued their usual, elaborate work on these pieces as well, applying engravings to the case and bezels or wrapping the entire thing in lacquer. Most of the examples that we were able to find date back to the ‘20s and ‘30s, similar to the money clips. At this time, it’s nice to imagine a debonair financier being able to tell the time no matter what he was doing, form paying a bill, to lighting a cigarette.
There was great creativity in the design of these lighters, especially the desktop ones, courtesy of Table Lighters.
Many of the lighters that Cartier sold with these watches inlaid might not have been fully made in a Cartier workshop according to Harry Fane, an expert and dealer in all things Cartier. “Dunhill produced many of the lighters that Cartier sold,” Fane tells us. “Just like many of these items that Cartier sold and put their name on, they would have come from third party workshops and Cartier would have added the finishing touches.” You can also see these in desktop varieties, which look more like desk clocks with the addition of a lighter, rather than the other way round.
If you weren’t able to get hold of a lighter with a watch on, but still wanted to precisely time your smoke breaks, it would seem that Cartier had you covered. Indeed, they made cigar boxes with clocks inlaid into the lid. Normally, any dial found on a cigar box would be used to indicate the internal humidity, so the addition of these clocks really helps to add another dimension to what could already be considered a fairly lavish item.
An ornate Cartier cigar box owned by Harry Fane.
The variety of designs and materials that were used for these speak to not only the creativity of the designers at Cartier, but also the appetite that must have existed at the time for these multi-functional objects. From wood veneers to silver, these boxes could also come set with stones or engraved with Art Deco designs. We even came across one that was presented at the end of a polo tournament between the United States and Argentina, detailing the three games played.
The movements in these should come as no surprise to anyone at this point, as they mainly seem to be made by LeCoultre, with whom Cartier had a long-standing relationship. In the 1920s, Louis Cartier signed a contract with Edward Jaeger to produce an exclusive range of movements for their timepieces. This joint venture would be known as the European Watch & Clock Company, which is why you can find this name engraved on some movements.
This one might catch you by surprise. Something of an oddity among oddities, the clock belt buckle has clearly not caught on in mainstream fashion today. A rather inconspicuous way to hide your timepiece, it could make checking the time appear slightly odd as you quickly glance down at your trousers.
A belt buckle watch, courtesy of Antiqurourm.
It’s believed that the first belt buckle was made by Tavannes Watch Company in 1928, for King Edward VIII. A golf enthusiast, the King was looking for a way to keep track of the time during his games. A watch would neither work on the wrist or in the pocket, as it would disturb the fluidity of a swing. To solve this, Tavannes came up with the belt buckle watch. When closed, it looks like an ordinary belt buckle, if slight bulky. But with a quick flick, the clock display opens up from a hinge at the bottom, allowing the wearer the perfect view of the time. As watches of this period didn’t have a shock-proof system, it was also more protected in the belt.
It was hard to escape the sport of golf at the top of society in the 1930s, which meant these buckles would have come in handy, courtesy of Kingdom Golf.
Tavannes made these for many other brands, including Hermès, Cartier, Dunhill and even Jaeger-LeCoultre. Some of these were also made by Cyma, having also been made for others such as Hermès. Again, these mainly seem to be produced in the Art Deco period, meaning that you find design flourishes of the time, such as high-polish two-tone dials with Breguet hands and numerals. They’re often made in the classic metals of silver or gold and you can also find them inlaid with what appears to be lacquer.
A belt buckle watch with enamel panelling, courtesy of Christies.
Though unconfirmed, it is rumoured that this belt buckle was the inspiration for the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso wristwatch, which was born only three years later. Integrating a very similar system with a reversible case, it was designed for British officers stationed in India, often disgruntled by the damage to their wristwatch glass during polo matches. Coincidence or inspiration? No-one knows for certain, but it’s an interesting thought.
Aimed at a female audience, we’ve also come across some precious metal lipstick holders containing a miniature watch. Most of these again date from a similar period to the rest of these objects, starting in the late ‘20s and going all the way through to the ‘40s.
Revealing its hidden timepiece, a Cartier lipstick holder courtesy of invaluable.
We can see find a real diversity of design within these, being made in gold, silver and enamel, with a range of ways to build the watch into the holder. Many of them include some way of concealing the watch dial. This tradition of hiding ladies’ timepieces was quite prevalent during the era, as it was almost considered rude to check the time whilst in public or when in the company of others. While this social hang-up seems to have disappeared today, the ingenuity it spawned led to some brilliant designs.
A more rounded design from Cartier, courtesy of Christies.
Aside from these hidden square dial versions, we also see examples where the small watch is placed at the end of the tube, with a rather comforting circular bezel. A model in this design that we have found has a Cartier signed dial, with a movement made by Pery Watch Company. Based out of Biel, Switzerland, Pery was renowned for producing small ladies’ movements that often appeared in hidden timepieces.
Finally, we come to possibly the most conventional of all the items on our list, the integrated lamp clock. Perhaps the most successful design of this period came from Jaeger, who produced 8-day Luxhora table lamp clocks. With a horseshoe shaped clock holding up a lamp with a rotating shade, full of sweeping curves, this was equal parts functional and design item.
The functionality of these lamp clocks didn’t stop at just telling and illuminating the time, they often also came with alarms, making them a rather stylish addition to any bedside table. Beginning production in the 1930s, the design became popular and far more widespread. You can find examples that did away with the analogue display in favour of dual digital ones. Out of all of the objects we’ve looked at so far, this is probably one you’d imagine finding in a shop today.
The enchanting Jaeger-LeCoultre Mappemonde.
There is a rather interesting offshoot of the lamp clock that adds yet another function to this bedside item. The world-timer globe lamp clock, or as Jaeger-LeCoultre liked to call it the Mappemonde. A glass sphere covered in paper gores depicting the globe not only contains a bulb inside to illuminate the entire piece but also a clock in the base powered by Jaeger’s Cal. 201.
Able to give an approximation of the time anywhere in the world by aligning the globe with the timer below, this rather beautiful object becomes incredibly functional, especially for those of us stuck at home and needing to call people in different parts of the world.
These objects are not only multi-functional, but their additional features add a unique charm to them that is hard to find anywhere else. While we have tried to cover as many as we can here, there are countless others that we weren’t able to go over. As Fane pointed out, one of the more famous examples that Cartier produced was a paper knife that appeared on the desk of Noel Coward in a picture that featured in Le Temps de Cartier by Jader Barracca. You can also find cufflinks, inkwells, picture frames, all with the ability to tell the time, the list really does go on and on.
You can see many of these curiosities in old adverts for Asprey, especially around Christmas time when these were marketed as the perfect gift, something you would probably never buy for yourself. During the festive season many similar stores such as Cartier and Hermès would promote these novelties, combining their metal work and horological creations. These are not only great examples of ingenuity by the craftsmen that made them, but also show the importance of the mechanical timekeeper during this period. Just as smart technology is finding its way into every object in our home today, so too was the watch movement in the 1930s.