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Hidden Beauties Of Time
( Article orginally published November 1961 )
There are many trite sayings, such as "You can't judge a book by its cover," that portray the idea that first or casual glances are not sufficient to reveal the full and true qualities of something, or anything. This is all too true.
A first quick look usually sees only the superficialities and does not penetrate beyond. I, personally, know the truth of this premise. I have always formed quick impressions of people and, being a reasonable man, with perhaps, normal intelligence and honesty, I have found it necessary to revise these first impressions after closer acquaintance.
The premise, therefore, holds good with people, places, and things. The real beauties of many things may be well hidden except to those who are discerning enough to seek them.
This bit of homespun philosophy is peculiarly applicable in the matter of old time-pieces, both clocks and watches.
From the earliest days of the portable type of clocks and watches (about 1500) to the beginning of the factory-made products (about 1850), the movement of the piece was the point of greatest interest.
This mechanical marvel of wheels, pendulum, or balance which could, with increasing accuracy, measure the passing of time, held a great fascination for those who were fortunate enough to own one, and for others who did not own one.
Perhaps, the most interesting of these marvels were the small, springpowered clocks and watches which were easy to see and examine.
Those who have seen and examined the fine English (Bracket) Table clocks of the 17th and 18th centuries will readily appreciate what I mean. A great many of the movements in these clocks were embellished with beautiful and elaborate engraving all over the back plate and the pendulum.
The movement may have been housed in a plain case or a very decorative one. In either case the great effort to beautify the movement proved, beyond a doubt, that both the maker and the owner considered it to be the focal point of interest and attention.
This is further emphasized by the fact that the rear case door was fitted with clear glass so that the movement and the pendulum were, and are visible all of the time.
While on the subject of English portable clocks, there is a big question in my mind with regard to the name "Bracket Clock." In my opinion these clocks would be more properly called "Table Clocks" since most of them were made to set on a table.
There is almost a sure way to tell the intention of the maker. If the clock case is finished all around it is a Table Clock. If there is clear glass in the rear door of the case, the clock was never intended to be set on a wall bracket, which would make the back of the clock invisible.
The French made many true Bracket Clocks, with matching wall bracket to serve as the setting for the clock. The so-called English Bracket Clock does not resemble this at all.
The very earliest watches were made very decorative, both outside and inside. The cases were almost always elaborately engraved and pierced. The movement was usually engraved all over too, including the dial, which was of brass with the occasional use of gold or silver.
These early watches were made in many forms which were called "Form Watches." They appeared in forms such as crosses, skulls, tulips, etc.
Many were put into cases in which precious gems were set to complement the engraving and piercing. Later, cases were enameled and painted with miniature paintings and often encrusted with jewels.
During the second half of the 17th century and continuing well up into the 19th century, there developed a trend which was to make the cases of watches very plain, usually of perfectly smooth sterling silver, entirely devoid of engraving or any kind of decorative effect. This was particularly true of English watches and it continued throughout the period of supremacy enjoyed by the English watch-makers.
The dials of these watches were usually white porcelain with plain Roman numerals. The hands would be, most often, the simple beetle and poker type, and later, simple designs in polished brass.
This outward simplicity and plainness did not extend to the movement inside. ;Since the movement was considered to be the most important part of the watch, the maker felt free to embellish it to point up this relative importance.
The back plate of these movements is usually covered nearly all over by set-on plates which are elaborately engraved and often pierced. The balance cock of these watches is a thing of sheer beauty being usually pierced and engraved to an astonishing extent. It is said that the piercing process used in these balance cocks is a lost art.
They are in great demand today as costume jewelry. Many of these old watches have been scrapped so that milady could have a pair of earrings made from the balance cocks.
Many of the balance cocks were fitted with diamonds and rubies set in the cock in the position of an endstone. Sometimes the jewel actually acted as an endstone, but more often it was merely an added bit of decoration for the watch movement and performed no useful function. It is not unusual to find jewels set in the decorative back plates, and in other positions, for the sole purpose of adding beauty. I have a watch in my collection which has two good sized rubies set into the plate in this way. They have no part in the functioning of the movement and can only be considered as being ornamental.
Sometimes there are interesting variations in the decorative pattern. Until recently I had an 18th century watch by Rousseau which omitted the piercing in the balance cock and used, instead, a large flat blue stone over the cock. It did actually act as an endstone for the upper balance staff pivot to work against.
In carrying on this little story of the trends in the decorations of watches, it might be well to note that toward the end of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century there was a complete reversal.
It this period it was a common practice for jewelers to purchase elaborately engraved gold cases and fit them with comparatively cheap Swiss movements, for sale to the unwary at prices sometimes above the prices of high quality watches. Quite often the name of the jeweler was printed on the dial. No other information about the real maker could be found anywhere.
A very interesting type of watch the so-called "Chinese Duplex" aord it is a good example of the inner beauty of a watch which is not apparent on the outside. These watches are fascinating because of the peculiar variation of the duplex escapement which causes a sweep seconds hand to jump a full second w the dial at each movement.
These movements are most often found in plain cases;, but when the case is opened the engraving of the entire visible part of the movement fantastically beautiful. Nearly always there is a hinged bezel, with glass crystal covering the back of the momement, to protect it when the case is opened. The cases were opened often you may be sure.
Chinese Duplex watches were made in England and on the continent especially for export to the Chinese market. Not all of them got there, however, or some have come back, because they do turn up occasionally.
I find, also, that not all of the watches made for export to China were of the duplex type with the jumping seconds hand. I have one which has all of the characteristics except that it has a lever movement and the behavior of the sweep seconds hand is normal for a detached :ever escapement.
Illustration No, 1 shows the back of a Chinese Duplex watch with the case open, and some idea of the beautiful interior. The outer case of this watch is severely plain.
Illustration No. 2 shows the movement of a rather unusual French fusee and verge Calendar watch which has very elaborate engraving on the inside and a severely plain case outside. The front view of this watch is seen in my ad in this issue as No. 817.
I suppose we can close this little dissertation by quoting another saying that is the opposite of the one quoted in the beginning: "Beauty is only skin deep." Both of these sayings may well be applied to old time-pieces.