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Antique Pocket Watches

Personal clocks, as the first watches were called, were worn as pendants and first appeared in the 16th century.

Pocket watches in the modern shape appeared after 1660 when waistcoats became fashionable. Early watches only had an hour hand. Up to the late 18th century, all watches were high-end luxury items and their gold and silver cases were often enamelled and highly decorated inside and out. Their movements were elaborately pierced.

Up to the 1830s most watches used a verge mechanism (or movement) with a fusée to improve accuracy. The fusée is believed to have been invented by Leonardo da Vinci and was an attempt to regulate the power in the mainspring, so that the watch could run at the same speed as the spring wound down. A mainspring tends to give less power as it winds down, so the fusée equalized the power by changing the gearing. In a typical fusée movement a fine chain wound onto a stepped or tapered cone (the fusée) which turns the hands. As the spring unwinds, the chain is unwound from the fusée onto a ‘drum’. The drum is driven by the watch spring. At first (when the spring is fully wound) it has to pull the chain from the smallest part of the tapered cone which requires more effort. As the spring unwinds, the chain is pulled from a wider part of the fusée which requires less effort and so on. This variation allows the hands to be turned at a relatively constant speed.

Fusée-verge watches (often pair-cased) were thick and the parts were prone to rapid wear. They were not very accurate, especially when the parts began to wear, often gaining rapidly. From the 1830s a lever movement took over which allowed slimmer designs with greater accuracy. The fusée-lever movement was in general use until the 1880s and was still being used up to 1905 but towards the end of the 19th century watches using a steel hairspring and balance wheel (first shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851) became more popular.

From the early 20th century, a keyless or top-winding movement took over, using a knurled knob at the top of the watch. Up to the First World War (1914-18), a thumb-nail lever had to be held down on these watches before the hands could be adjusted using the same knob but, in later versions, the winding knob was pulled out to turn the hands. In the 1920s & 30s, pocket watches, often gold plated, became popular among all sections of society - many were presented to soldiers returning from the First World War.

Wrist watches were worn by ladies after 1900 but did not become popular among men until the Second World War (1939-45). The earliest wrist watches for men (during in the First World War) were adaptations of the smaller ladies' pocket watches with an extra loop soldered onto the bottom for the strap. Waistcoats, most jackets and even denim jeans have a small watch pocket (often used for a small mobile phone or credit card wallet nowadays!).

On June 30, 2019