When considering a fine antique watch purchase, it is important to select pieces that resonate with your own particular tastes. Watch designs and complications have evolved over the centuries, migrating from the pocket to the wrist and accommodating new technologies and trends. Although these items may have changed over time, the most classic, beautifully crafted pieces have endured, and they will maintain their timelessness for generations.
With any antique watch purchase, it pays to be knowledgeable about what makes these timepieces unique and how to determine their quality. We have drawn on our own experience along with insights from our resident watch collector and enthusiast, Chris Drake, to guide you through the history and collectibility of these timeless creations.
The Lasting Allure of Watches
Watches carry a wide popular appeal. When they first arrived on the scene, they were a powerful symbol of wealth and class. This would largely remain the case until the Industrial Revolution, when they became essential tools for conducting business in a number of emerging industries, from sailing to railroading. By the 20th century, with the invention of the wristwatch, practically everyone wore one on a daily basis. Today, however, the finest examples still serve as symbols of luxury. So, to what do they owe their enduring attraction?
“The allure of antique watches is their beauty and craftsmanship combined with their mechanics,” says Drake. “For someone who might be a tinkerer with small engines or other mechanical things but also has an interest in the arts, they are the perfect combination of the two. So you've got that scientific, mechanical interest combined with the beauty, and the history and the things that we all love about art. For me, it's like a piece of art on the wall except that I can wear it on my wrist.”
Antique vs. Contemporary
There are, of course, a plethora of contemporary watches to choose from on the market, so what sets antique examples apart? It might surprise many that watches have an over 500-year-old history, with the first portable clock created in Nuremberg in 1505. It was invented by locksmith Peter Heinlein, and he was successfully producing these devices regularly by 1524. These first watches, known as pomanders, were improved upon throughout the 16th century, and they were often turned into pendants or attached to clothing, making them the first clocks to be worn.
“With antique watches, because there is such a wide variety of them available, I’m looking for artistic expression,” explains Drake. He also says you can get really creative with your antique watch collection, considering all of the notable makers, design styles and time periods these objects span.
As far as technical specs, Drake admits that due to the advances in modern watchmaking, there really isn’t anything an antique watch has that a contemporary watch doesn’t. However, he says there are some major upsides to antique watches from a craftsmanship and quality perspective. He says, “There is a ubiquity of quality in antique watches that you have to really look hard for in modern watches. It was not at all unusual to have hand-decorated movements; that was the norm, and now that's the exception. It was not at all unusual to have enamel dials; now that's the exception.”
Another important factor to consider when collecting antique watches is seeking out quality brands. “With antique watches, the holy trinity consists of the Swiss firms of Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet,” says Drake. However, there are numerous other quality makers to look out for, such as Breguet, Montandon, Picard & Cie. and Cartier.
The most basic watches only tell the time, but more advanced examples can boast a wide range of what are known as
“complications” — any function on a watch that does more than tell the time. There are a few essential categories of complications in antique watches: perpetual calendars, chronographs and repeaters.
Interesting Periods in Watchmaking
Apart from their invention in the 16th century, one of the most exciting times in watchmaking was the late 18th century. “Improvements in metallurgy and in going trains in pocket watches of that time allowed for many innovations, and they put in motion basically every modern complication seen in today’s watches," explains Drake. "You've got the invention of the tourbillon at that time, you've got invention of the perpetual calendar at that time, and you've got the invention of essentially what we would call today the grand complication — marrying the perpetual calendar and minute repeater."
In the 20th century, WWI necessitated a different kind of watch. The telephone and signal service began to play an important role in the war effort, making the ability to tell time at a glance a necessity for soldiers; thus, the wristwatch became standard issue. The trend then trickled into civilian life and became the preferred mechanical watch accessory over the previously fashionable pocket watch.