History of Timepieces An Overview of Pocket Watches

With the release of Vacheron Constantin’s most complicated watch, which turned out to be a pocket watch, we were inspired to take a closer look at the long history of pocket watches and how they evolved into the modern day wristwatch.  The Smithsonian has even called the pocket watch the “World’s First Wearable Tech Game Changer.”

An Introduction

Pocket watches have been an important part of modern civilization and developments in the watch world. Ever since the 16th century, they have been an integral part of male fashion. These small, round timepieces represented portable clocks and were a status symbol until mass production became easy.

Man Holding a Pocket Watch c1560s

Man Holding A Watch by Maso di San Friano; Renaissance Period.

Early Years

By the late 1400s and early 1500s, mechanical engineering had reached the point where simple spring devices, mainsprings, could be made. German inventor Peter Henlein was able to create a watch that did not require falling weights to power the movement. These early pocket watches were in fact worn as pendants on a chain.

They were egg-shaped and bulky as the front of the case was rounded to protect the dials before crystals were added. These covers were sometimes even decorated with grill-work so the time could be read without opening the case. The introduction of screws in the 1550’s allowed for the change to the modern flat shape that we know pocket watches to have. This enabled a brass lid to be attached, protecting the dial from outside damage. Being a transition between clocks and wristwatches, the early pocket watches only featured an hour hand.

Charles II of England

Charles II is thought to be the originator of wearing a pocket watch in a pocket for men, while women continued to wear them on chains around the neck. Charles II introduced waistcoats in 1675, forever changing the shape of these early watches and how they were worn. By this point also, glass had been introduced to cover and protect the watch face.

The shape evolved and was flattened to fit within a pocket of a vest. All sharp edges were removed to avoid cutting the fabric and losing the watch. At this time, watches were still wound by turning a key; self winding movements came some time later.  Until the late 1700s, watches were considered luxury items reserved for the elite.

Hunter Casing on a Pocket Watch

Advancements in Technology

These early pocket watches did not keep time accurately, they typically ended up losing several hours during one day. The important advancement of the lever escapement changed accuracy, enabling watches to only lose one or two minutes through one day. This escapement also allowed for the minute hand to be introduced into pocket watches.

By the 1820s, levers were standard in clock and watch mechanics. Standardized parts were introduced in the late 1850s allowing for watches to be mass produced and available to everyone. These watches were durable and accurate but also affordable. The American Waltham Watch Company could produce more than 50 thousand reliable watches, kicking off the manufacturing effort.

Types of Pocket Watches

Open Face Watches

These watches lack the metal cover to protect the crystal. The winding stem is found at 12 o’clock with a sub-second dial found at 6 o’clock. Open-faced watches were required for railroad service to quickly and easily read the time.

Open Faced Pocket Watch

Hunter-Case Watches

This type of watch featured a spring-hinged metal cover that closes to protect the dial and crystal. Antique versions feature the hinges at 9 o’clock and the crown at 3 o’clock. Modern versions are rotated and feature the hinge at 6 o’clock and crown at 12 o’clock. These cases were also able to be engraved and you can find many different motifs created.

Double-Hunter Watches

Very similar to the Hunter-Case, these watches also featured a hinged back case that opened up so the mechanical movements could be viewed. These watches have their hinges at 6 o’clock so both sides could be opened and the watch can easily stand up on its own.

Types of Pocket Watch Movements

Key Wind

The first pocket watches from the 16th century all the way through to the mid 19th century all featured key wind movements.  These pocket watches required a key to wind and set the time.  Typically one would remove the case back and put the key in a special setting that would be connected to the winding mechanism.

The same key was used when the time needed to be set. One would put the key into the setting mechanism which would be attached to the minute wheel to turn the hands. Some watches didn’t feature the setting mechanism in the back. This type would have required the removal of the crystal and bezel.

Key Wound Vintage Pocket Watch

Stem Wind

Much like modern day wristwatches, later versions of the pocket watch featured the stem-wind.  This was invented by Adrien Philippe in the mid 1840s and commercialized by Patek Philippe in the 1850s.  In some watches, the time could also be set by using the stem.  Another common way to set the time was using a lever-set.  This version pulls out the lever, allowing the crown to be turned to set the time.  Once finished, the lever would be pushed back and the crystal and bezel would be closed.  Lever-set time made accidental time changes impossible.

Modern Day

Advancements in the standardization of time by time zones and the need of precise time measurements were important during the turn of the 20th century. The famous Ohio train wreck in 1891 happened due to two train engineers with watches 4 minutes out of sync.

World War I brought around a decline in pocket watch style and use.  Soldiers needed to have their hands free so designers took to attaching a strap to a pocket watch to be worn on the wrist. Because so many men were wearing these new styles of watches, also known as trench watches, they became popular and changed the watch world.

Men in the 1920’s also typically wore three-piece suits which still allowed men to keep the pocket watch in the vest pocket. The 1970s and 1980s also brought around a resurgence of three-piece suits and a small number of pocket watches. Even today, there are still people who wear pocket watches. The steampunk movement embraces the arts and fashions of the Victorian era, including pocket watches.  Some dapper gentlemen today are wearing the fashionable three-piece suit and accessorizing with pocket watches.

Vacheron Constantin ref. 57260

Also known as the “Most Complicated Watch in the World,” this watch was released on September 17th, 2015, celebrating 260 years of Vachron Constantin.  As you probably already know, if you pay attention to anything in the watch world, this watch boasts 57 complications.  That’s 24 more than the previous record holder!  This watch is a true masterpiece with more than 2,800 parts.

Vacheron Constantin ref 57620

Not only is this watch the most complicated, it is also an engineering marvel.  It is built using micro-mechanical engineering.  It features intricate gears and parts all intertwined together to make an advanced, technical watch.  The 2,800 parts that make up the 57 complications all fit into a 100mm case (nearly 6 inches tall!) and weighs 960 grams (that’s just over two pounds!).   Read about all the unique features and characteristics of this watch over on iW Magazine’s closer look at the Vacheron Constantin ref. 57260. See what that watch world has to say about this complicated watch in the video below.

About Emily Smith
Newbie to watches but a quick learner. She loves the history of watches and loves learning how they work. She prefers Rolex and Omega watches but is learning the history behind other brands. Her watch of choice right now is her vintage Omega Ladymatic that is a mere 19mm. She has her eye on a few others including the Plum dial Rolex Oyster Perpetual 36mm and a Patek Twenty ~4 (4910/10 A011). While she enjoys the look of vintage watches, she is excited to learn about new models and build her collection.

Watches you may be interested in:

Leave a Reply