The Dying Art of Caseback Engraving

By Josh Sims

Paul Newman must have been a terrible driver. The actor and racing car enthusiast was given two watches by his wife, Joanne Woodward, both of which bore inscriptions on their casebacks. One read “Drive Carefully. Me”.  The other, more beseechingly, “Drive Very Slowly. Joanne”. Now widely shared after reaching auctions, such little missives were, of course, once between wife and husbands. To be fair to Joanne, this was all at a time when racing car drivers had a one in five chance of not finishing a race alive.

However, Newman’s watches also belong to the past by the very fact of being engraved. If engraving your pocket watch was the norm – just having a pocket watch was an expression of wealth and engraving it a further expression – the wristwatches that replaced them were, over time, much less subject to the same attention. This may have been because of the lack of “real estate’” to work with or the lack of opportunity to show off the results. Still, up until the 1970s, having a watch engraved when it was a gift – between lovers, parents and children – or to commemorate an occasion – be that a race or a retirement – was commonplace enough.

 

Possibly one of the most famous caseback engravings, from Joanne Woodward to Paul Newman, courtesy of Phillips.

 

“In earlier decades, a watch was given to mark an occasion and in fact you’d be as likely to attain your watch this way as by buying one for yourself. That watch might be the only watch you’d ever own – as such it was that much more significant,” argues Julien Schaerer, Managing Director of auction house Antiquorum Geneva. “But I think watches are given as gifts much less often now, and owning a single watch is less common too. Someone is more likely to have several watches, to trade and upgrade them more frequently. People are less attached to a single watch.”

Engraving is, sadly, almost a lost tradition. Though not entirely. If a watch in itself may lack special significance, engraving it gives it this meaning. It turns a timepiece into an heirloom, passed down through the generations, more for its attachment to an individual or individuals and less just because it happens to be a prestigious watch undergoing a change of ownership.
 

A record milestone for the King of Rock, courtesy of Phillips.

 

These engravings can also mark small stories of achievement. “To Elvis. 75 million records. RCA Victor, 12-25-60” is what the King’s record company inscribed on the back of a diamond-bezel Omega and Tiffany piece to mark his being the first artist to sell so many discs. “Million Dollar Associate” can be read on the caseback of the more than 1,000 custom Patek Philippe’s that Bernie Cornfeld, a 1960s investment broker, made for his top salespeople.

However, watch engravings can also reveal stories that are deeply personal. Some, with the benefit of hindsight, hint at just why the caseback is the perfect place for a hidden message. One such example is a Rolex Day Date owned by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the back of which reads “Jack. With love as always from Marilyn. May 29th 1962”. The watch was reportedly gifted by the actress to Kennedy on the evening that she gave that memorable rendition of “Happy Birthday” ... and was immediately given to an assistant for disposal.

 

One of the custom Patek Philippe’s that Bernie Cornfeld had made in the 1960s, courtesy of Boule Auctions.

 

Other inscriptions are a moving mark of respect between lifelong friends, the likes of Ayrton Senna’s gift of an engraved Rolex Daytona to Angelo Parrilla, the man who discovered the legendary Formula One driver-to-be when he was still karting, and who mentored him until Senna’s death in a crash in 1994. Or film director John Landis’ gift of a Cartier Tank to producer George Folsey Jnr. The inscription? “Fuck ‘em If They Can’t Take A Joke”.

Such watch engravings represent a private moment between two people, the watch becoming a worn testament to the sentiment it captures. While the brand still matters, inevitably the name attached to the watch adds appeal to such vintage pieces. “It’s all about provenance, because if a watch can be linked to a famous person, that could probably increase its value by five or ten times for sure, and the fact is that an inscription is really a very clear expression of that provenance,” explains Schaerer. “It’s one thing to prove a watch has famous provenance through some paperwork, another to have the name literally written into the watch.”

 

The work of British engraver and artist, King Nerd.

 

That, of course, can bring its own complications. Last year watch forums were abuzz with debate over whether a seller in the United States really did have a Lord Elgin Shockmaster watch given to George Harrison by the rest of The Beatles. “To George Harrison. From The Boys. 1957” reads the caseback. Pictures were found of Harrison wearing just such an Elgin. However, discussion then turned as to precisely when Harrison joined the band. Was it in December 1957, or was it actually 1958? Does it also feel credible hat the teenage boys would have pooled their limited resources to buy the new guy a watch and have it inscribed? But then the watch looked genuine. Who can tell?

"Such watch engravings represent a private moment between two people, the watch becoming a worn testament to the sentiment it captures."

“The fact is that anyone can take a caseback and inscribe whatever they want on the back,” says Chris Clark, a vintage watch dealer who’s handled a few engraved pieces in the past. “Some inscriptions are expressions of deep feeling between people, and it can bother me when heirs sell these incredibly personal pieces, that sat day after day next to the skin. But then you also get less personal kind of inscription too.”

 

The Tank gifted by John Landis, featuring an engraving that gets straight to the point.

 

Even the engravings on vintage watches for which the rationale has long been lost – “To Dr. E.J. T. Thompson from the Staff Mental Health Services 28.5.58” – add a certain romance, a touch a mystery, a sense of the object as having history. Or at least one might think so. Actually, the appeal of a more everyday engraved caseback divides vintage watch collectors.

According to Schaerer, some of his clients simply won’t bid on a watch with an inscription. “They don’t want the watch to be connected to some anonymous person, or they feel it raises too many stupid questions from their friends, or it makes it obvious that the piece is second hand. There’s a lot of psychology at play here,” he suggests. They might alternatively look at whether an inscription can be removed, which can be tricky with older pieces on which the caseback may be quite thin.

Then there are those occasions when, well, the inscription isn’t quite the kind of thing that one wants to celebrate. Provenance can be bad, as well as good. Schaerer notes the problems Antiquorum has had in the past attempting to deal with great watches from a certain time and place, specifically those inscribed with references to the Third Reich. “They may be historically interesting, but they’re so controversial that they make the watches unsellable,” he says.

 

A recently discovered movie classic, etched by Brando himself, courtesy of Phillips.

 

Over more recent decades, watchmakers have recognised that their customers are now less likely to have a caseback engraved. However, they also think that leaving the rear of a watch untouched is a missed opportunity. They have increasingly added their own engraving – the likes of Omega’s seahorse – seeing the caseback as an opportunity for some extra brand building, or to highlight a limited edition. It’s also the recognition that a caseback should be highlighted in some cases, rather than being something hidden. It’s the more traditional alternative to the exhibition back, the rise of which has also diminished the chance to engrave.

“You have to remember that a watch’s primary role is one of functionality. It’s a timing instrument, which is why the front of a timepiece is generally reserved for that purpose,” argues Petros Protopapas, head of brand heritage at Omega. “Of course, you can still be creative and add unique touches on the front, but in terms of additional wording and decoration, that’s where engraving the caseback becomes so useful. It adds to the storytelling and aesthetics of a timepiece. An engraved caseback can often add an emotional connection for a customer. If it’s related to one of their passions, such as space exploration, for example, or if it features a specific name or date, it makes the watch even more special.”

 

A gift between a brother and sister-in-law to commemorate a very long walk, courtesy of Christie's.

 

Yet, however rare they may be these days, surely, it’s the intimate nature of a personalised caseback engraving that really resonates? Some of the most affecting caseback engravings are among the most rudimentary, scratched out by the owner’s own hand – as with Marlon Brando hewing his name out of the rear of the Rolex GMT-Master he insisted on wearing for the filming of Apocalypse Now. Despite the director saying that his character wouldn’t be the kind to wear a Rolex, Brando countered that if the audience was looking at his watch, he wouldn’t be doing a good job of acting. Likewise, there’s the Cartier Tank given by Prince Stanislaw Radziwill to his sister-in-law Jackie Onassis, to commemorate a 50-mile beach walk they had completed in 1963. It states the time they set off, 2.05am, and the time they finished, 9.35pm. 

Years later, there also still survives a niche, but buoyant, world of next level caseback engravings, which truly showcases the skill. For example, David Sheehan is a California-based watch engraver who has engraved watches on commission several clients. His idea of engraving tends to be of the entire watch, and the results can be rather dramatic – even given the complexities of and special tools required to cut into stainless steel without it chipping. His work has included engravings featuring classic motifs the likes of scrolls and running leaves, but also that reflect the owner’s interest in, say, Americana, dragons, or Japanese tattoo art.

 

An individual design carried out by King Nerd.

 

“There are clients who want the engraving because it makes the watch meaningful to them, but they also want it to give them what you might call a ‘four table’ watch – one that attracts people’s attention from four tables away,” laughs Sheehan. “But just as many others just want the back done, which can be a relief because sometimes I feel bad cutting into such great looking watches. Sometimes that’s just a name in a particular script, maybe some logo, or more complex work with gold inlay. Others are more adventurous – they want a skull or, as I did recently, a bear.

“The thing is that an engraving on the caseback is private – you know it’s there but nobody else does,” adds Sheehan. “For these people they’re just waiting for the right occasion to show the right person what they have hidden away.”


Older Post Newer Post