The human lust for one-upmanship has always been a primary driver of fashion, and this is the case, it would seem, with the pocket watch. In November 1462, Italian clockmaker Bartholomew Manfredi – a man not exactly overburdened with modesty – wrote a letter to the Federico Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua offering him a “pocket clock” that would make any timepiece belonging to the Duke of Modena look like some florin-a dozen bauble.
Fast-forward five-and-a-half centuries and contemporary dandies’ zealous desire to trump their peers in new and imaginative ways is seeing the pocket watch enjoy a resurgence. It’s the latest twist in the item’s rollercoaster history, which goes back to mechanical engineers’ ever-more innovative exploitation, in the late-15th century, of spring devices. Most notable was the invention of the mainspring, which allowed German inventor Peter Henlein to create pioneering timepieces that were not powered by weights and gravity.
The earliest portable watches were worn as a pendant on a chain around the neck, while the introduction of screws in the 1550s enabled developers to ditch cumbersome egg-shaped designs in favour of the flattened shape we recognise today. The next major development was the introduction of the waistcoat as a symbol of stately virility in the court of Charles II in the 17th century. This, combined with greater durability thanks to the introduction of glass and accuracy due to the invention of the lever escapement, resulted in the pocket watch’s popularisation across Europe and North America.
The industrial revolution saw mass-production democratise ownership of pocket watches – by 1865, the American Watch Company could manufacture more than 50,000 reliable watches a year. And, having been developed by and for the loftier echelons of the European class systems, they became a staple accessory for the working class.
The main catalyst for the watches moving from the pocket to the wrist was practical necessity in military scenarios – meaning that wristwatches join Ray-Ban Aviators and gabardine trench coats as sartorial staples of the modern, peacetime flâneur that were born of conflict. Napoleon often lamented having to regularly fumble in his pocket during battle, and some historians believe that strapping small clocks to the arm was probably was conceived during the Boer War. Most observers agree, though, that wristwatches being used to coordinate precision attacks became common practice during the First World War.
By now, when it came to wristwatch versus pocket watch, men of ordinary means faced a one-or-the-other scenario. In most cases the wrist option prevailed, for a plethora of reasons – the main one being, perhaps, that a glance at a raised wrist is so much less time consuming for the busy urban protagonist than delving around in one’s pocket whenever one needs to know the hour.
So why the resurgence in interest in pocket watches a century on from the conflict that sent them teetering around the brink of obsolescence? Rebecca Struthers, co-founder and Managing Director of watchmaking studio Struthers London, points to the fact that the watch market is currently more accessible than ever before. “Because of this, many of us own a number of watches for different occasions now,” she says. “For men in particular, aside from your wedding band, a watch is likely to be the only other piece of jewellery you’ll regularly wear so the variety of mixing it up by wearing the time in a different way is appealing. Plus, you can get a heck of a lot of watch for the money with a pocket watch, and the history of some of these pieces is fascinating. They may end up spending a lot of time in drawers in between the changes in fashion but pocket watches are a pleasure to own, not just wear.”
Adrian Hailwood, Director at Fellows Auctioneers, meanwhile, considers the pocket watch revival to be part of a broader yen for a bygone age, precipitated by the vast popularity of TV hits such as Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders. “Hipsters sporting beards not seen since the Industrial Revolution need a Victorian timepiece to match their waistcoat and whiskers,” he says. “Even the likes of [Kaiser Chiefs front man] Ricky Wilson sporting a waistcoat and watch chain on The Voice has helped to promote the look.” Similarly, it certainly didn’t hurt the popularity of pocket watches when David Beckham wore one from Patek Philippe, lent to him by George Somlo from Somlo Antiques, at the latest Royal wedding.
For Aleksandar Cvetkovic of The Rake magazine, the pocket watch revival is a simple matter of debonair elegance and novelty factor. “A delicate silver chain snaking down from a buttonhole into a waistcoat pocket seems to say ‘I know how to dress’, and slipping a watch out of one’s pocket with a flourish to check the time is equally satisfying,” he says. “A pocket watch also makes for a talking point – it’s a comparatively rare choice of accessory and consequently brings with it welcome connotations of exclusivity and taste. Men who care about their attire are constantly trying to out-dress one another and the simple fact is that a pocket watch with a chain is more visible and more individualistic than a wristwatch.”
Which brings us to the question of how to wear one. Perhaps one deterrent for the more circumspect dandy is the number of questions a pocket watch raises: which pocket to keep it in alone is something of a quagmire. Tradition dictates the waistcoat pocket of the three-piece suit, but noted British horologist George Daniels, no less, often opted for the top pocket. For Hailwood, either is fine as long as you obey a few basic thumb rules. “If you don’t wear a waistcoat, then the top pocket of a jacket is fine – just make sure you have a discrete button or bar for the end of the fob chain,” he says. Struthers, meanwhile, would like to bowl us a googly on this subject: “I’m going to be really awkward and throw front trouser pocket with a chain to a belt loop, frontier style, into the mix,” she says.
When it comes to choices of accessories, Cvetkovic advises a contemporary, single Albert chain with a small fob. “Twin Albert chains can start to look OTT on a small guy, and a little antiquated or even ostentatious,” he says. “Once a watch chain starts to become a quivering mass of silver or gold jangling across your belly, it can start to lose the desired sense of sophistication or understatement.” An Albert chain offers not just charm but also investment potential – hence Hailwood’s advice that one should match the metal and carat when it comes to chains so the bow does not get worn. “There are so many styles [of chains] and they are a pleasure to own and even collect,” adds Struthers. “And if you have an early key-wound watch, antique winding keys can make great accessories for an Albert chain. They can be styled as anything from pistols to horse legs or pointing human hands.”
For Cvetkovic, even the fob is to be seen as a highly desirable accessory. “They can be a wonderfully expressive little piece of jewellery,” he says. “You can find anything from antique mouldings of lions or birds, to engraved coats of arms, or mounted precious stones to hang from your watch chain. Fobs like this can be a great way to put on a subtle bit of bling yet retain an aristocratic air, and show some personality in a way that is still a thousand times more tasteful than the novelty Union flag cufflink.”
Hailwood, meanwhile, points out that carrying cases are more a necessity than an accessory. “For delicate, slim or complicated pieces that you want to wear every day, bespoke leather slip-cases are available,” he says. “For something more robust such as a military watch, try a leather lariat attached to your belt and carry it in your trouser pocket. This is anachronistic fashion anyway so the idea of a rule is ludicrous.”
Right to buy
If how to wear and accessorise a pocket watch raises a plethora of questions, don’t expect things to get any easier when it comes to deciding which one to buy. Struthers refers to the Waltham Riverside Maximus as “the Rolls Royce of American watchmaking”, adding that, “it equally matches the quality of period Patek and Vacheron but they’re yet to achieve the recognition they really deserve. Gold train wheels, precision regulation, Breguet overcoils, diamond end stones, heavily jewelled and beautifully engraved – they really are stunning watches to own, very reliable and certainly haven’t reached their full investment potential.”
The Watch Club in London’s Royal Arcade is a good place to start if you’re after a vintage piece, while auctions held by the likes of Fellows and Bonhams often see pre-owned models come under the hammer. Hailwood sounds a note of warning to those tempted to take the plunge with a second-hand pocket watch, though: “Beware – the servicing costs of a bargain pocket watch can be eye-watering, as the parts will often have to be made by hand,” he says.
For those opting for a brand new model, the aptly named Dandy Pocket Watch by Chaumet is a truly elegant beast, with its fine-brushed steel case and rhodium-plated numerals, while Bell & Ross’s PW1 offers a nod to the compact timekeepers used in the earliest years of aviation. Longines and Breguet both have classically elegant offerings in the form of the Equestrian Lépine (which is based on a 1927 model) and the Classique Grande Complication respectively.
If you want to opt for something a bit more avant-garde, Hermès’ Arceau Pocket Chevaux Sauvages is a stunning model, with its enamel dial and crystal front lid, engraved with a horse motif. If something with hardcore technical ingenuity rocks your boat, Urwerk’s own nickname for its UR-1001 pocket watch – “Zeit Device Über Complication” – speaks volumes, while Richard Mille’s RM 020 is the first pocket watch ever to have a baseplate made of carbon nanofiber used to manufacture US Air Force jets.
“Mechanical timekeepers of all types are for people who love horology; nonetheless they are also personal items that say a lot about the owner, their taste, discretion, knowledge and refinement,” Mille himself tells Revolution, adding that, “a pocket watch is a perfectly valid choice for 21st -century people, especially those who do not make a habit of following the crowd”. We’ll certainly take the word of the living embodiment of horological originality.