Jonathan Snellenburg is the Director of Watches and Clocks for Bonhams New York. Snellenburg holds a Ph.D. in geochemistry, did post-doctoral work in extraterrestrial geology at the American Museum of Natural History, and graded diamonds as a gemologist for the Gemological Institute of America. Recently we spoke with Snellenburg about the impact of culture and technology on the evolution of timepieces, as well as the opportunities for novice and seasoned collectors alike.
I grew up outside of Philadelphia. I didn’t have any particular interest in clocks or watches as a kid; that came after I started working at Christie’s East, where I ran the Jewelry and Silver Departments. When I arrived, I found watches basically sitting on my desk, so I began studying them, cataloging them, and doing watch sales.
I don’t collect watches myself; I have more than enough clocks and watches that pass through my hands. It’s my own sort of virtual collection. I’m not an active collector of anything other than those that perhaps I am unable to sell.
I’m more interested in the social history of timekeeping, how clocks and watches came to prominence during the 18th century and how they evolved from being luxury goods to almost commodities. The Industrial Revolution reduced the cost of making clocks and watches, which made them accessible to the public in general and caused their popularity to grow. I think that people don’t necessarily realize that the ability to own a watch or a clock at a modest price is really something that didn’t happen until perhaps the middle of the 19th century, certainly with watches that were being produced in Switzerland and in America.
At the beginning of the 18th century, people basically told time by the sun, the moon, the changing seasons. By the end of the 18th century, telling time by looking at a clock was firmly established in Europe and America. With that came a demand for timepieces that could be purchased at a modest price. In America, the Willard family outside of Boston began producing longcase clocks at a reasonable price. In France, Frédéric Japy invented machinery that allowed the rapid production of watch and clock movements. The development of the clock industry in the Connecticut River Valley in Thomasville was another milestone.
On the evolution of watch technology:
The very first watches and clocks with verge escapements were basically machines constructed of wheels and springs between two plates separated by pillars. This was the form of a watch—basically a sandwich of gears and wheels between two plates. This continued well into the 18th century until the time of Lépine and Breguet.
My father can still remember how wristwatches were not considered terribly manly.
The evolution of watches has been more about refinement, I would say, than innovation. The components, layout, and design of watches evolved. But the basic principle of a watch escapement which divides time up into various small bits as it ticks remained unchanged until the advent of battery-powered timekeeping.
The first escapement was the verge, which had a wheel known as a crown wheel because of its shape, which was positioned vertically inside the movement. This forced watches to be a certain thickness. During the 18th century, the verge was slowly replaced by escapements that kept all the wheels in the same plane. In fact, the cylinder escapement, which was well known during the 19th century, was originally called the horizontal escapement. Later on, thanks to the work of Breguet and others, the lever escapement was developed—the lever is the watch equivalent of the anchor escapement in clocks.
If you look at the history of watches, you’ll find that watches up until the end of the 17th century were not particularly good timekeepers. The invention of the balance spring helped watches become popular because now they could be both items of jewelry as well as practical timekeepers. Until the notion of telling time by a watch or a clock became firmly established, the watch symbolized the brevity of human life. It was also a symbol of human vanity—you can see this in paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries.
On watches as decorative objects:
At first, watches were very highly decorated, often with allegorical scenes that involved how one should live a proper life. The watches of the 17th century came into existence at about the same time as a technique of painting and coloring with enamels was developed in France. The technique was basically taken from the Italian glassmakers and popularized in 1612 by an Italian named Antonio Neri. He wrote a book on how to prepare various colored glasses using mineral colors as additives. Once you had the glass finally ground, you could produce pigments which, when fired, gave you the brilliant colors. Being fairly large and having smooth surfaces, watchcases were an ideal medium for this art.
Watchcases came to be highly decorated, either in enamel or gold, and jeweled. In fact, Martin Bailey, who wrote the first real modern treatise on watches, calls the 17th century the great age of decoration. It wasn’t until the timekeeping aspects of watches improved toward the end of the 18th century that you begin to see the severely plain style of watch that’s common today.
On the evolution of the pocket watch:
Early watches evolved from small table clocks. Watches developed in the beginning of the 16th century evolved from small German and French drum-shaped canisters. Clocks went in one direction and evolved into their unique mechanical form. In watches, miniaturization was paramount.
Despite miniaturization, early watches required a fairly thick case. The names suggest their bulk. The French watches of the late 17th, early 18th century, were referred to as onignons or onions. English watches in the early 19th century were called turnips.
Until the verge escapement was replaced by various horizontal escapements like the cylinder and the lever, pocket watches were fairly thick. They were also expensive and delicate and had to be carried with some care, either in a pocket or, in the case of ladies’ watches, pinned to a lapel. It wasn’t really until more reliable watches with more robust watch movements were developed toward the end of the 19th century, and until there was a clear need for watches to be more accessible for, say, military officers, that the wristwatch was developed.
On the first wristwatches:
The first wristwatches were referred to as bracelet watches. My father, who was born toward the beginning of the 20th century, can still remember how wristwatches were not considered terribly manly, that a true gentleman would always carry a pocket watch. There’s a famous diagram published by the Swiss watch industry that shows it wasn’t until the 1930s that the production of wristwatches outstripped the production of pocket watches.
Some of the first wristwatches were ladies’ wristwatches. Many were, for all intents and purposes, lapel watches that had lugs put on them to turn the case into something that could be worn around the wrist.
On the French memorial clocks for George Washington:
In the middle of the 18th century, Parisian clockmakers developed a round movement that became more or less the standard. And as people were beginning to put clocks into their homes and shift from the notion of telling time by the sun and natural phenomena, many of these clocks became very highly decorative bits of sculpture. Because the simple movement could be fitted by means of one or two screws into a case, the French were able to develop a marvelous array of bronze decorative clocks both for the wall and mantel.
By the end of the century, it was possible for someone to order a clock to their specifications. This, apparently, is what happened with the Washington clock, which consisted of a small statue of Washington bidding farewell to his officers and standing next to a plinth with a quotation from the eulogy delivered by Henry Lee—“First in the Hearts of His Countrymen.” This was a memorial in the sense that the sculpture evoked the kind of memorial sculpture that would’ve been produced for a famous man, but it also demonstrated the virtuosity of the French clockmakers, who produced a variety of cases and decorative clocks that became extremely popular in the 19th century. It was through this kind of innovation that the clock became part of interior decoration in the 19th century.
On the transition from longcase to mantel clocks:
The longcase clock at the end of the 17th century came at the time when home furnishings, particularly in England and France, were evolving from rather less-elegant forms from the Renaissance to forms of furniture that we’re very familiar with—the chest with drawers, the commode. All were developed in the end of the 17th century. The arrival of the weight-driven longcase clock, with its long pendulum, revolutionized how clocks and their cases had to be designed. The design of longcase clocks drew on the furniture forms of the period. Almost from the very beginning, the form evolved in response to changes in fashion, moving from olive wood marquetry clocks to the age of walnut in England to the use of elaborate brass and pewter inlays in France.
Later, in the 18th century, the same form of longcase clock continued to be made, but now it was made in mahogany. You can see how this clock was adapted and made familiar by its relation to the furniture of the period. Thus, a highly technical object (a clock with a movement) became a familiar object in homes. As clock springs become more easy to make, the spring-driven mantel-type clock appeared.
Gradually the longcase clocks slipped into the background and became more your grandfather’s clock, which is how it got that name. The shelf clocks of the Connecticut River Valley, the French decorative clocks of bronze and marble, and the portico clocks of the early 19th century became the fashionable clocks of the period. Again, it was an evolution. And with the lowering of prices of these particular clocks, more and more of them appeared in homes—the clock became a part of our everyday lives. Almost until the end of the 19th century, you could open a Sears catalog and buy a very nice Ansonia or Gilbert mantel clock for just a few dollars.
With manufacturing methods improving, prices came down, and more and more people had access to the clocks. At the time of the Civil War in America, the same thing happened with pocket watches. It started up around Boston. Howard and Waltham developed machinery that brought the price down to where the average consumer could afford to have one.
On the Swiss watch makers:
Watch makers in general are not as well documented as you would like them to be, and watch collecting, up until a generation or so ago, was really confined to much earlier watches. It has only been since the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s that people have begun to appreciate the wonderful 19th-century watches that were made in Switzerland.
The Swiss also mechanized and improved the techniques of watchmaking. One maker who comes to mind, although he is a Frenchman, was Adrien Philippe, whose name lives on today as part of Patek Philippe. He is credited with bringing the keyless winding system into prominence. In fact, he published a book, I think it was in 1863, on how to make keyless watches. As an appendix to that book, he also wrote about how important it was to bring the Swiss watchmaking industry into the industrial age, to be able to produce precise, finely made watches in quantity. Abraham-Louis Breguet was another important innovator. Their names have been kept alive through the fine quality wristwatches that are being made today.
On the differences between collectors and watch markets:
The motives that get someone interested in pocket watches are probably quite different from those of a wristwatch collector. Wristwatch collecting, which really began in the 1980s, has revitalized the whole field of watch collecting. The kind of watch that you’re now seeing at watch auctions today is quite different from what you would see a generation ago.
Watch auctions today are very heavily weighted towards wristwatches, both vintage watches and luxury watches that are being produced by the best companies. There is also an appreciation for the mechanical watch that was made in the 20th century until it was rendered obsolete by battery-operated watches. It probably wasn’t until that transition had taken place that people realized what they were losing in the way of mechanical watches. And even though today a mechanical watch has been supplanted by either a battery-operated watch or some other form of personal electronics, they are still wonderful mechanical works of art and can be appreciated as such, even though they may not be the most practical way of telling time.
It really wasn’t until mechanical pocket watches became obsolete that people began collecting them. So it was with the wristwatch. As the mechanical wristwatch was supplanted by other means of timekeeping, people began to collect them.
Rolex is a good example in the sense that it was a company that designed watches that were practical for people who were performing a specific task, be they pilots, divers, or whatever. It was very much the goal of that company to produce watches that were robust and could be used in adverse conditions that made the watch so popular. And indeed, the sports watches of Rolex are very much collected.
On military and sports watches:
It’s generally agreed that military officers were the first group of people to begin wearing wristwatches. At the end of the 19th century, you will find specifically designed military watches. One of the most interesting ones that I ran across was a chronograph that had a scale calibrated to tell the difference in time between when you saw the flash of a piece of field artillery and when you heard the report. This helped the wearer know approximately how far away the guns were. The idea of coordinating military operations according to a specific time developed toward the end of the 19th century, and came to its own gruesome conclusion in World War I.
Wrist chronographs appeared much later than pocket chronographs because of difficulties in making them, but, again, technology drove the watchmaking. Take the automobile racing at the beginning of the 20th century. From that sport came the notion of having a stopwatch to time races. The sports watch was born out of that sort of technological development.
On collecting watches and clocks:
A watch or clock is part style and part mechanics. In the end, people gravitate toward the watches they find attractive. When someone asks me what sort of watch or clock they should buy, I always tell them to buy something of good quality, of course, but to also recognize the fact that they are going to be looking at that clock on the mantel or the watch on their wrist many times a day. If it isn’t attractive, no matter how mechanically sophisticated the item is, it really is not going to be satisfying.
This is true for anyone in the market for a timepiece, not just beginning collectors. A watch is something that you look at. Yes, it provides useful information in terms of giving you the time, but it also gives you pleasure to look at it. And as with any decorative object, part of the benefit of owning it is that pleasure.
I think people start to collect anything because they’re intrigued. My advice is to study the subject as much as you possibly can. There are now many good new books from the past 10 or 15 years on various kinds of wristwatches and watches. Those are a good place to start. There are websites devoted to watches and watch collecting. With the Internet, there is just a huge amount of information that’s become available over the past few years. I think the collector who is well informed is going to be the most successful and get the most satisfaction out of it.
There are differences, of course. Again, it depends on what is perceived by collectors as being desirable. Price is driven by appearance but also the complexity of the watch, its complications. In general, the more functions a watch is able to perform, the more expensive the watch is.
There is also the matter of style. For example, there are many Rolex watches of modest value, but the sports models are particularly sought after, and their value is many times that of what is essentially, in mechanical terms, the same watch. But because of the innovative design or the story associated with it, collectors find those much more desirable and the price is consequently higher.
For the beginning collector, I think the first prerequisite is to find something that fascinates you about a particular watch or a particular group of watches and pursue that. It’s an intellectual as well as an inquisitive process.
On appraising for the Antiques Roadshow:
I have seen a lot of marvelous pieces at those shows. But much of the watches that have survived to today were only made in the past hundred years. So, in the scheme of things, there really are very few watches that are truly collectible. Consider the fact that Waltham or Elgin both made in excess of 50 million watches. Watches have always been a prized possession, so they tend to survive. I don’t think anyone really throws away a watch. The vast majority of material that exists today has sentimental value. It’s rare to find something whose value is completely unknown to the owner.
I think that there are still great opportunities in watch collecting. As with almost any collecting field, there are a few highly desirable pieces that command both the price and the publicity. But, as I said, there are many watches out there, and they all have very interesting stories or interesting complications. An example of something which is of relatively modest value is the American railroad watch, which came into being as transportation improved and it became necessary to accurately time the schedules of passenger trains going across the country. This type of watch served a particular need at a particular time, and was an area of active innovation on the part of American watch companies.
Similarly there are Swiss watches of the 19th century, particularly the repeating watches and the chronographs, which exist in a bewildering variety and are worthy of being collected, even if they’re not signed by Patek Philippe or some other famous brand. The quality is there.
(All images in this article courtesy Bonhams.)