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Appeared in the annual organizer/calendar distributed to Rolls Royce owners.

Clocks, Pocket Watches, Wrist Watches:

The Industrial Revolution in Miniature

by Stephen Morrill

Ever since humans crawled out of their caves, stood on two feet, and said, "What's on my agenda today?" we've needed some way to measure time. Since man is a tool-using animal and since time-measurement required technological sophistication, we've been collecting timepieces as long as we have had them. Even today, when timepieces tend to be more utilitarian, and when the insides are comprehensible only to a computer chip designer, there's something fascinating about an older watch's Lilliputian world of whirling gears and oscillating levers. And who has not admired the clean lines and beautiful painted face of a 'grandfather' clock?


The modern mechanical timepiece came about with the Renaissance and then the Industrial Revolution. The first modern mechanical clocks date to the 13th century, overlapping the age of chivalry, though it's hard to imagine a knight looking at his pocket watch. In fact the first portable watches were designed in the 15th century. They were woefully inaccurate until better internal movements were developed around 1650.

By 1800, American clockmakers were producing quantities of clocks, mostly British designs. Because the British forbade the shipment of brass to America (too likely to be made into cannon) many early clocks were made with wooden gears. They were just as accurate—or inaccurate—and wooden-movement clocks were made until the middle of the 19th century.

Most early clocks were powered by heavy weights pulling chains over cog wheels. Not only did this require a large case but the power was very uneven. The coil-spring drive mechanism made possible smaller clocks and soon pocket watches. Some wrist watches even today are powered by coil springs.

By the time of the American Civil War, clock accuracy was improving, using a pendulum to regulate the power from a weighted chain drive. The longer the pendulum the better, giving rise to very tall 'long-case clocks'. In 1875, these new and more accurate clocks were referred to in a popular song of the day, 'My Grandfather's Clock' and they have been known as grandfather clocks since.

By now virtually any person of importance had a pocket watch and in Europe the ladies soon sported—if they were wealthy enough—wrist watches. When American men went to France in World War One, they saw at once the utility of wrist watches and brought wrist watches, and the concept of plentiful and cheap wrist watches, back to the United States.

Before launching yourself on a clock-collecting frenzy, you need to do a little background investigation. If you would not buy $700,000 of stock without checking out a company, then you should not be investing in expensive timepieces without knowing the rules:

Decide Upon A Collecting Technique
There are all sorts of timepiece collectors. The National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors has 149 chapters, most being geographic specific but many being devoted to specialized areas of watch and clock collecting. Some people collect based upon the art work of the case. Some collect military watches. Some collect electric clocks. There are devotees of 400-day clocks and others collect early American watches.

Where to start collecting? Go buy something, almost anything. Experience the thrill of the chase and the gloat of the ownership. Then refine your collection as your knowledge increases. Here are some rules:

• Educate yourself. This is half the fun and indispensable before you start to write any big checks. There are books, clubs, auctions, many places to learn more about collectible timepieces. Subscribe to auction house catalogues, they can be wonderful tools for developing your 'eye'. Sotheby's, just for example, publishes over 120 catalogues a year in the U.S. alone.

• Go to auctions. If you know your way around you could probably find bargains at the local flea market. If you want a little help, the major auctions will not only guarantee—as much as such things can be guaranteed—the authenticity and value of the items, but they often sell by sets or periods or collecting areas, making it easier for you to add to your collection in a rational manner.

• Consider collecting at the second-tier. This is popular with the deep checkbook collector. If 18th Century French mantlepiece clocks are all the rage, that means all the good ones are soon going to be out of circulation. This in turn will promote the next most popular item to the top spot. The trick is to figure out just what the second-tier is for your particular collecting area—and then buy up quality stock before your competitors make the same calculation. Hope you were right, or you have only committed a very expensive form of 'contrarian' buying.

• Contrarian buying. This technique is especially popular among collectors with enthusiasm but small budgets. Buy what no one else is buying and which is correspondingly cheap. Then hope the popularity cycle will come around to your way of thinking. This is not as silly as it sounds, given that almost every style of timepiece has had its hour; the only real question is, how long will you or your descendants have to wait? Contrarian buying is also most useful if you collect deep, not wide.

• Collect deep, not wide. A collection of individual expensive timepieces that have no relation to one another is just that and no more. But the narrower the focus of your collection—assuming that you can assemble such a narrow focus—the more valuable the collection becomes as a whole, perhaps far exceeding the total value of the individual items. This assumes, of course, that at some point you sell the collection as a whole, and don't break it up. A recent auction of a collection of 16 pocket watches made by one Danish watchmaker from 1860-1905 fetched $325,230, about $20,300 per item. Was each item in the collection worth that much individually? Probably not.

• Buy quality, not quantity. Buy one of the best timepieces that maker made, and not ten of his cheaper models. The best of any collectible will appreciate in value even in a recession, while cheaper collectibles are more subject to the ups and downs of the overall economy.

Choose Your Purchases Carefully:
Timepiece collectors need to assess the authenticity of each purchase and need to buy smart so as to create a collection whose value transcends that of the individual items. Here are some general rules to follow:

• Age: As a general rule the older the timepiece the more expensive. Hardly a surprise, and most likely intertwined with rarity and condition, below. Experts can usually assess the age of any mechanical timepiece to within 10 or 15 years, based upon details of the mechanism and of the case.

• Authenticity: The more obvious the clue, the easier to fake. Paperwork can be wholly invented. Labels that are painted on or riveted on might have been added later. Additional artistic details can be retrofitted onto an otherwise plain longcase clock to artificially increase its value. Conversion kits to convert clock movements from their original construction to something else have been around almost as long as the clocks themselves. A beginning collector is in no position to detect any but the most blatant fakery; buying from reputable dealers and having the timepiecechecked by a knowledgeable person is the best insurance.

• Married elements: Related to authenticity, many clocks have "married elements" in which the case, the dial, and the movement may come from different times, countries, or makers. Sometimes this was done to preserve an older movement by replacing the damaged case. Sometimes it was the case that was preserved and a newer and more accurate movement substituted. Most often the owner liked the case but tired of having to wind the clock so often and so installed a movement requiring less frequent maintenance, see 'conversion kits' under Authenticity, above. The marriage might be obvious or not, but one thing that is certain is that a "married" clock is virtually useless as a collectible.

• Condition: At first blush you would assume that it's better to have a watch in perfect condition, or a longcase clock with no mars on the fine wood. But time takes its toll, even on timekeepers. Wooden feet rot, paint flakes off of dial faces, cases get dented and glass broken. Almost any older watch , pocket watch or clock has had some restoration. But beware the sloppy repair job which can do more damage to the value—especially the historic value—of the item than the original damage.

• Quality: In any age, some timepieces were better-made or better decorated—and thereby more expensive—than others. Quality is not to be confused with workmanship, as defined below.

• Workmanship. Even Michelangelo's chisel slipped occasionally and the finest watchmaker has had a bad day or two. But overall, workmanship with timepieces is fairly even within a line or by a particular maker.

• Rarity: This is obvious. The one and only pocket watch produced by a company famous for making wristwatches would be worth far more than its weight in gold. One "Swatch Watch" today would be worth about as much as a—well—a swatch watch. It's precisely because most timepieces today are mass-produced that collectors tend to look to the past, when timepieces were individually crafted, for value.

• Historic Importance: The most uninteresting watch in the world would be worth more if it is connected with a famous person and/or a famous event. Be forewarned that the historic importance is often determined by the provenance, the documentation that accompanies the piece. See "Authenticity," above and remember that enough slivers of the True Cross have been sold over the centuries to build a monastery.

• Artistic details: As a broad general rule the more 'fancy' the timepiece the higher value it will command, simply because people like to look at art work. Until recent times of course, almost all clocks and watches were also regarded as art work. Some early American clock cases were severely plain but of very fine wood and with either rare American clockmakers' timepieces installed or more common British mass-produced imports. French cases of the same period matched period furniture, being quite Baroque at times. British styles fell somewhere in the middle, as befitted a Victorian society. Sometimes the art work needed to produce the cases for clocks and even pocket watches far exceeded in workmanship, detail, and sheer manpower, that needed to produce the actual mechanism.

• Popularity: What's in fashion in today's collectible market? What do you think will be in fashion tomorrow? If all you want is a fast turnover for maximum profit, the trick is to buy for peanuts today what will sell for cashews tomorrow. Most of us lack the requisite crystal ball to make that determination and all the economists in the world can't tell us what will be the most popular collectible timepieces next year.

Maintain Your Collection
Take good care of your collection. Timepieces are what museum curators call "compound" items, meaning they have parts made of very different materials, each requiring a different preservation technique. Don't preserve that wooden case with a chemical that corrodes the metal clock movement, or use a glass cleaner that rots or discolors the wood finish. Most collectors keep their smaller clocks, pocket watches and wristwatches in special cases or under glass covers to stabilize the environment.

Also keep all paperwork relating to each item in your collection. It's easy to let this slide and later find you have more items in your collection than you have paperwork to accompany them. This can lower the value of the collection.

Pay attention to sales of similar items and add that information to your paperwork against a later day when you decide to sell.

And you will sell. In addition to the thrill of the hunt and the pleasure of ownership, there is the satisfaction of selling for a good profit, or even to get the money needed to buy a different timepiece. You will find the grass is always greener over there, someone else has already taken the brown egg, and your new friend has the very clock you need to complete your collection—if only you can find someone to buy this pocket watch you have tired of. In the end, clock and watch collectors are really only baseball card traders who grew up.

— end —

Copyright, Stephen Morrill


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