August 2022 10 Min Read

Do People Still Care About Pocket Watches?

By A Collected Man

Writing in 1665, Samuel Pepys, the famous English diarist, details his excitement upon purchasing a new pocket watch, saying: “Lord! To see how much of my own folly and childishnesse hangs upon me still that I cannot forbear carrying my watch in my hand in the coach all this afternoon, and seeing what o’clock it is one hundred times, and am apt to think with myself, how could I be so long without one…”

Pepys’ statement highlights the age of pocket watches – the 1660s were nearly 400 years ago, after all. However, his account raises a surprisingly similar complaint that most have with the technology of today, as Pepys is practically glued to his timepiece, bearing startling parallels to an individual checking their phone 100 times to see what notifications or messages they might have received.

This is mostly where any similarities between pocket watches and phones (or any other comparable device) end. In modern day, the first image that is associated with pocket watches is usually a tossup between the White Rabbit complaining about being late in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or the even more archetypal image of an older gentleman, stuck in the past, wearing a waistcoat, consulting his pocket watch for the time. This brings us to our main question, which is…

Where do Pocket Watches Fit in the Modern World?

At one point, to be a watch collector meant that you were a pocket-watch collector, rather than a wristwatch collector. Nowadays, collectors of pocket watches tend to also collect wristwatches, while those who are entering the hobby tend to start with wristwatches. It’s an intriguing evolution of the hobby, but what does this mean for pocket watches?

Rather than receding into obscurity, the pocket watch continued to be a constant presence in the sphere of watchmaking and has instead evolved into more interesting forms, continuing the tradition of unusually shaped cases and other factors. A new generation of collectors bring to the table an appreciation of vintage pieces, while innovations from brands prove that there is an appetite for unconventional, experimental pieces that showcase their work.

A student at the Finnish School of watchmaking, Kelloseppäkoulu, during a time when making a school watch was a traditional rite of passage, courtesy of Kelloseppäkoulu.

Pocket watches are still widely found within watchmaking schools, which we discuss in our examination of these institutions. To achieve a precision watchmaker’s certificate, students must make their own watch from scratch, making their own parts and creating their own designs. The form of the pocket watch is usually chosen as it provides a larger canvas for students to work on, and the pocket-watch calibres are easier and cheaper to source.

When it comes to more modern collectors of pocket watches, George Somlo, the founder of Somlo London, a dealer of rare antiques and pocket watches, describes a typical collector rather cynically. “If you’re a wealthy individual and you’ve got a huge collection of wristwatches and you want to diversify a little bit, you might say, ‘Well, this is great, I have a collection of Breguet wristwatches, but let me see how this whole company started.’” he says. “Then you might go back to Abraham-Louis Breguet from the 1700s and you might buy one.”

A Breguet pocket watch from the 1800s with a tactile outer case – this style was created so that the wearer could tell the time in the dark, or surreptitiously check the time without drawing attention to the fact that they were checking their watch. Images courtesy of Somlo London.

But perhaps not all hope is lost, as a younger generation have begun to collect pocket watches purely because they appreciate the craft and, to some extent, because they are more affordable. Arthur Pfister (@arthuroduro), a young collector and owner of more than 1.5 tons of vintage watch auction catalogues and books, says, “As a younger collector interested in vintage wristwatches, it can be kind of intimidating as everything is really pricey – especially [in] the past couple of years. However, with pocket watches, you can get some incredible pieces for around $2,000. With this you can sort of differentiate yourself from the crowd and, in a sense, you can get credit with collectors who have been out there for 20 or even 30 years by showing them something that they might not have seen before.”

The Vintage Market

When it comes to pocket watches, collectors typically lean towards more vintage pieces – and a huge variety is available to collectors, says Somlo. “You could have someone interested in precision, or those who are interested in what is famous, such as if it was made by Breguet,” he adds. “Then you’ve got the ones who collect these beautiful novel scenes – decorative pieces that might be put into a showcase.

“Another type of collector might go for the really antique things. If we examine them more closely, there is another subsection of them, because Britain was very important between the 1700s and 1800s – it was the Golden Age of Horology – so some might exclusively collect names like Thomas Tompion or George Graham. You also might come across the collector who owns more recent pieces, and will buy the more recent types of pocket watches.”

As Somlo points out, pocket watches were the main form of telling time, until wristwatches were popularised by the First World War. It stands to reason that while pocket watches continued to be produced over the years, the pieces that hold the most attraction are either the very earliest ones, or those from the early 1900s.

Contemporary Watchmakers and Pocket Watches

Typically, modern pocket watches aren’t usually made for commercial reasons, but are created in order to enhance the prestige of the brand. In this context, these pocket watches aren’t typically made to be sold to the general public, and instead seek to demonstrate a range of what is possible for the craft.

Tradition

We cannot take a closer look at the topic of pocket watches without considering modern pieces made by George Daniels, Derek Pratt, Philippe Dufour, and F.P. Journe. Working with more traditional methods and applying classic aesthetics, these watchmakers sought to improve upon the work done by watchmakers of the 18th and 19th centuries, following in the footsteps of Abraham-Louis Breguet and Thomas Tompion.

While George Daniels’ wristwatches are certainly some of the most desired pieces today, over the course of his career, he created a total of 23 pocket watches. His focus only shifted towards wristwatches when creating the Millennium series alongside his then-apprentice, independent watchmaker Roger Smith. The Space Traveller II, when auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2017, was the most expensive English watch ever sold at the steep price of $4.6m (£3.6m). His contemporary, Derek Pratt, is no less impressive, as seen in his re-creation of the Harrison H4 chronometer in addition to his unusual and inventive oval pocket watches made under the Urban Jürgensen name.

The case of Philippe Dufour is particularly interesting. While he is perhaps better known now for his wristwatches, the first watch he made under his own name was a pocket watch: the Grande et Petite Sonnerie Pocket Watch No. 1. This unique watch marks the true start of Dufour’s independent manufacture, as he previously made a series of five grand sonneries for Audemars Piguet.

A similar instance can be found in the work of F.P. Journe, as his career began with creating pocket watches, in particular two important commissions from Dr. Eugene Gschwind, for whom he made a tourbillon pocket watch with remontoire, and an automatic pocket-watch chronometer. These two examples cement the status of the pocket watch as once – perhaps still – being the pinnacle of the watchmaker’s craft. It also demonstrates the evolution of the focus from pocket watches to wrist watches from the 1980s onwards.

Independents

Not all pocket watches draw upon traditional forms. Over the past few years, we have seen incredible, hyper-futuristic pocket watches bringing a new twist to the classic shape. While we have seen this done very effectively within the world of wristwatches – in tonneau, tortue or angled pieces, for example – the way that pocket watches are intended to be used limits the shapes that can be used, as the wearer needs to be able to grip it comfortably as they move it in and out of their pocket.

How Richard Mille imagines that you might wear the RM020, courtesy of Richard Mille.

We see unconventional shapes in the form of the Richard Mille tourbillon pocket watch. As stated on the Richard Mille website, the piece intends to “revisit and radically modernise the concept behind this [pocket-watch] archetype”. Here, its cuboid structure departs from the traditional idea of a pocket watch, and there is an emphasis on its inner mechanical workings.

The unique TP1 pocket watch created by Kari Voutilainen and his daughter, Venla Voutilainen, for Only Watch 2019 also subverts our expectations of a pocket watch, and was inspired by Voutilainen’s school watch with a “TV screen” style case. As Only Watch focuses on unique pieces, the Voutilainens’ decision to create the TP1 for this event highlights the fact that the pocket watch has become an interesting platform for watchmakers’ experimentation.

More unconventional shapes: the Sarpaneva Time Tramp and Urwerk UR-1001 Zeit Machine, courtesy of Sarpaneva Watches and Urwerk.

Other watchmakers such as Stepan Sarpaneva and Urwerk have also created unusual pocket watches in the form of the Time Tramp and UR-1001 Zeit Machine respectively. Both demonstrate that pocket watches are an ever-evolving form which can be made from seemingly disparate objects such as motorcycle cogs, or created to become unusually complicated, large, and aesthetically distinct.

Practically speaking, none of these watches are entirely suitable for everyday use, but each brings an intriguing aspect to the table, whether it is the aesthetics of the piece, the complications involved, or the principles and message behind the pocket watch.

Complicated

While they are not usually made for commercial reasons, pocket watches that push the boundaries of watchmaking have been created by several well-known brands, either as private commissions or as special limited editions.

The Vacheron Constantin reference 57260 pocket watch holds the title for being the most complicated watch ever made. The piece is a private commission for a client and possesses 57 complications. It was revealed in honour of Vacheron Constantin’s 260th anniversary, in 2015. Parallels can be made between this watch and the Henry Graves Supercomplication piece created in 1925, as both were special commissions. With two dials, the reference 57260 is a real feat of watchmaking, as it also includes rare complications such as a Hebraic perpetual calendar and a business calendar (the ISO 8601, which is more commonly used in the finance sector).

One of the two complicated faces of the Vacheron Constantin 57260, currently the world’s most complicated watch, courtesy of Vacheron Constantin.

Another example of a piece made to commemorate a special occasion is the Audemars Piguet Star Wheel Two Faces pocket watch (reference 25913). We discuss the piece in more detail within our article about the Star Wheel, but it’s worth noting that in creating this piece the brand essentially returns to its roots. While it integrates the newer aspects of the Star Wheel, the wandering-hours complication can be found on vintage pocket watches.

Modern vs Classical Types of Pocket-Watch Collectors

According to Somlo, there are subtle differences between pocket-watch collectors and wristwatch collectors. While condition, rarity and provenance are valued in each, collectors will usually hold different mindsets when approaching the two forms of watches.

Somlo goes on to note: “The pocket watches [bought by modern collectors] are not the really old ones. They buy the ones from the 1900s, or, if they have very complicated wristwatches, such as those from Patek Philippe, they may believe that they want a complicated pocket watch from Patek Philippe. In this sense there is a crossover between the two types of collectors.”

In terms of younger collectors, Arthur Pfister speaks of his own experience and those of his contemporaries. “When speaking to a couple of the other younger collectors, some of them would tell me, ‘I’ve started hunting for pocket watches because it reminds me of the old days when you could dig through eBay for wristwatches,’” he says. “Nowadays it’s getting harder to find any wristwatches on eBay, but with pocket watches there’s a certain kind of nostalgia associated with them from when we started back in 2013 or 2014 and were just exploring and hunting for pieces.”

Two pocket watches from the collection of Arthur Pfister, a platinum piece with diamonds set around the edge (left), and a Longines watch in white gold (right).

Community and the way these collectors approach social media are very different too, Pfister adds. “The influence of images you see on Instagram is much bigger when it comes to wristwatches, but it’s hardly the case when it comes to pocket watches,” he says. “There might be a few posts about pocket watches here or there, but the biggest difference is that it’s really just you and what you like – not what you’ve seen on someone’s wrist that you feel you have to get.”

Wearability is an unusual but important point that also needs to be discussed in this context, as it is also what separates pocket watches from wristwatches. A wristwatch can be worn and, to some extent, displayed in public, while pocket watches have hardly been worn since waistcoats fell out of fashion. Pfister notes: “In some ways, collecting pocket watches is comparable to collecting art, because the watch stays in your house and sometimes, if you have a bit of time to yourself, you just take out the pocket watch, and you admire it for what it is. I think that’s pretty amazing.”

The Future of Pocket Watches

It seems odd to discuss the future of an object so firmly stuck in the past, but it’s clear that pocket-watch collecting is not going anywhere. There will always be a demand for them, and their age will only become a more attractive factor as time passes.

When it comes to to the more practical side of collecting, Somlo noted that compared to wristwatches “pocket watches are a much more stable market, with not as many fluctuations compared to wrist watches. We can take a look at what the price of a piece was five or 10 years ago and compare it to the current price, and it will be relatively stable.”

It is possible that, having exhausted the possibilities of wristwatches, more and more collectors may turn to pocket watches as an adjacent interest. They are part of a horological history that continues to be studied and explored as more people become interested in timepieces. However, most pocket watches are objects that deserve to be admired and appreciated in their own right – a fact that will remain unchanged with the passing of time.

Our thanks to George Somlo and Arthur Pfister for sharing with us their thoughts and a glimpse into their collections.