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Know Your Watch: A Short History of Pocket Watches

September 22, 2014.

Pocket watch in the hand

During this Know Your Watch series we've dissected the history of many of horology's greatest turning points; how watch straps came to be, the history of digital watches and an overview of how our favourite accessory came to be wrist-mounted. It makes sense, therefore, that we sort of fill in the blanks and offer a quick history of how pocket watches were not only the first portable watches to be commonly worn, but they were also the direct pre-cursor to the wristwatches we know and love.

From clocks to... eggs.

The earliest recorded reference to a watch that was stored in someone's pocket dates back to 1462, though the device is actually referred to as a "pocket clock" which goes someway to explain how pocket watches directly descended from the larger clocks that were popular at the time (among those who could afford them).

In a trend that sort of replicates the progress of digital technology these days, clockmakers spent much of the 1500s going to great lengths to try and reduce the size of clock mechanisms so that they could indeed be "wearable", because this is what people wanted.

Nuremburg Egg Pocket Watch

One of the most famous of these horologists was Peter Henlein of Nuremburg, Germany.

Though he first trained as a locksmith, he eventually transferred his attentions and skills to clock-making. Or more specifically the manufacturing of "Taschenuhren" or "pocket watches". His larger spring-based clocks were already popular with nobility, but soon the smaller models he crafted were in demand and the need to make them smaller and smaller - so that they could be carried in a pocket by a metal chain or fabric thread attached to clothing - drove him to make these watches not only more portable, but also beautiful to look at. They were therefore designed in numerous styles, shapes and sizes. It is because of this ornamental quality, as well as the fact it was still impossible to make the watch even nearly flat, that these ornamental watches became known as Nuremburg Eggs.

It's worth noting that most of these early watches were only given an hour hand; the minute hand being introduced in the 17th century. Another interesting development was that until the early 1600s these watches were cased in a shell that opened up because the hands and watch face wasn't covered in glass.

History of Pocket Watches

The rise and rise of pocket watches

For four hundred years, pocket watches were the way to tell the time. If you could afford one, of course. While many of the first Nuremburg Eggs were worn proudly as pendants, and despite there being reports of royalty, like Queen Elizabeth I, receiving bracelet mounted watches as gifts, pocket watches, and indeed pockets themselves, were not necessarily something to always be seen. Most pockets were sewn into the interior layers of clothing belonging to both men and women and so their watches were also hidden.

Women's petticoats did the job of hiding their pockets and these sewn in areas were designed to carry more than just a pendant or pocket watch but also other items such as needlework, books and currency. It's interesting to note that hand-held or drawstring purse bags - the first handbags, if you will - weren't a popular accessory for women until the 17th century, though men were seen with them much earlier.Pocket Watches

But back to pocket watches. As fashion changed and a more tailored look became popular, pockets and pocket watches became more accepted on the outside of ones clothes. By the late 17th century it was common to see watches tucked into much smaller pockets on the front of waistcoats. It wasn't long before they were regarded as a must-have accessory among the artistocracy of Europe. This was when the term "watch fob" was believed to have been coined. Referring to the chain or ribbon that attaches a watch to the clothing, the word fob is believed to have come from the word "Fuppe" or "Fobke" two words that mean pocket in German dialect.

While men continued to wear pocket watches until the First World War, women were a lot slower to adapt this trend, and they continued to wear pendant watches until the late 19th century when jewellery watches became more popular. But even then it was a trend reserved for only the most noble classes.

Short History of Pocket Watches

Pocket watches actually did become more affordable and the working- and middle class man may have been able to afford one by the mid-19th century. One of the key innovations that changed this was the use of interchangeable parts that could be replaced and repaired. As it coincided with the industrial revolution and experimentation with mass production, the price of watches reduced significantly in the USA and most of Europe.

Of course, the history of the pocket watch is also somewhat shaded by tragedy as the unreliability of early models in the 1800s led to a very famous train crash which was caused by one of the two train engineer's watch being four minutes too slow. Nine people died. As something of a silver lining to this sad story, the disaster prompted a huge effort by railroad officials in the US to improve reliability of pocket watches.

From pocket to wrist... What next for pocket watches?

As we explain in this post, the move from pocket to wrist occurred out of a very urgent and practical need. During the First World War, pocket watches were deemed clumsy and a time-consuming way to tell time in a combat situation. Thus by the time Europe was at war again in 1939, military watches had moved to the wrist.

Although this new revelatory way to tell time did mean pocket watches fell out of favour, it didn't mean the end of them.

Even in the peak years of the "new" wristwatch, pocket watches continued to hold their appeal as was visible in cult movies and characters of the last 60 years.

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Agatha Christie's Poirot always had a fob watch, and in the 1968 movie, Steve McQueen is seen wearing a similar chain style pocket watch. James Dean's initialed pocket watch sold for $42,000 last year and even today, actor Johnny Depp is regularly seen with the chain of a watch tucked into his pocket.

In fact, the future looks bright for pocket watches, with more and more interesting pocket watch designs appearing on the market thanks to brands like Lexon, MMT and ZIIIRO.

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We can't wait to see the next generation of pocket watches!

(And if you've bought a pocket watch from us, don't forget to take a photo of it and use the hashtag #twistedtimeselfie on Twitter or Instagram. You could win a £50 voucher from us!)

Additional photos by Paul HudsonLauren Hammond.

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