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From earliest childhood men have always loved mechanical toys, and a watch has something of the attraction of a living creature about it; it almost seems to possess life and to constitute itself a companion. It is, moreover, a thing of intrinsic beauty in itself.
There are infinite varieties of watches, hence there have been many collectors, and there are few things more delightful to possess.
It is practically hopeless to try and obtain a watch by the man who is said to have originated watch-making, Henlein (1480-1542), and one of whose production belonged to Martin Luther. I did see one once in Vienna, but the signature was undoubtedly a forgery, and I believe that one of the earliest known dated watches is one of 1505. The earliest watches were really table clocks, and they stood upon a table, desk, or prie-ieu, and were not carried on the person. When, later on, they came to be worn, it was openly, not in the pocket, but swung from a chatelaine or chain; the use of the pocket having probably been introduced by the Puritans, whose dislike of display induced them to conceal their time-keepers from the public gaze.
Our word "fob" comes from the Low German fubbe, a pocket. When Shakespeare speaks of Jacques and says, "He drew a dial from his poke," he certainly does not speak of a pocket watch, but probably of some kind of portable sundial with a compass attached to it, because, if a watch in that day had been worn, it would be round the neck on a chatelaine, or set in a ring or bracelet. Malvolio speaks about winding up a watch, and Sebastian, in "The Tempest," says, "winding up the watch of his wit"; but these were table clocks, such as the one given to Elizabeth, and made by Bartholomew Nusam, and the one given to Queen Mary in 1556, and made by Nicholas Urseau.
These earlier watches were not always square. Some, especially those made for the heads of monastic houses, were cross-shaped; many of the Continental ones were in the shape of an egg; others represented a skull, while rock-crystal and various other precious materials were used in forming their cases. In the time of Louis XIII many were beautifully decorated in enamel, especially by artists who lived round about Blois, and these enamel watches are rare treasures which collectors are eager to obtain. What we know as pair-case watches came in about 1640, when the outer case was sometimes of fish-skin, tortoiseshell, gold or leather, and chased and otherwise ornamented, while the inner watch was kept plain and severe in character. Some of these pair-case watches contain what are known as watch-papers, delightful little advertisements, printed on circular papers, to fit inside the outer case.
The introduction of a hand to denote the seconds and also the use of two hands on the watch instead of one, belongs to a period of about 1670. The earliest watches are German, and following them came the clever French mechanics, but in England we had a very famous school of watchmakers, from the time of Charles I, commencing, as regards really notable people, with Edward East, who was well at work in about 1635, and who was followed by one of the greatest English watchmakers, Tompion; and he by Graham and Quare. These three men represent the very best of English workmanship. There were a few notable men of even earlier date than this. For instance, William Anthony was clockmaker to Henry VIII ; there is a fine clock in existence bearing his initials and dated 1571. Bartholomew Nusam, who worked for Elizabeth, was probably a Yorkshireman. David Ramsay, who made for James I, was a Scotsman; but others who preceded East were of foreign extraction, although many of them came over to England and settled in this country. East was a Quaker, and many of the best English watchmakers belonged to that faith for example, Quare, Tompion, Graham and Peckover were all Quakers. When Charles I played games in the Mall, the prizes for the competitions were very often what were called "Easts," meaning thereby a watch with its chain complete, made by Edward East, who resided near to the Tennis Court and then removed to Fleet Street, where we find him living in 1635. He was one of the ten persons named in the original charter of the Clockmakers' Company, and to the records of that Company we owe a great deal of information concerning English watch and clock makers.
Amongst watchmakers perhaps the very greatest of all was Louis Breguet, whose period was from 1747 to 1823, and no watchmaker ever exceeded him in originality or in skill. Almost all his watches are different from one another, and the dials are so beautiful that each watch is an artistic joy. Breguet loved to make complicated watches -those that would show the days of the month and the week, that would have, perhaps, two complete movements, or would be self-winding, the spring moving up and down when the watch was worn and the watch being wound up after its wearer had walked for about fifteen minutes. Repeating watches were a great joy to Breguet. Sometimes they repeated in different methods the hour when the face was upwards, and the date when the face was downwards, and the sound is derived from one, or even from two or three, different gongs.
The centenary of Breguet will be celebrated in Paris this year, and it is anticipated that an unrivalled collection of his watches will be exhibited on that occasion. One English collector, and he is the supreme authority on Breguet and on his watches, anticipates being able to show over a hundred of the most perfect examples of the work of this very ingenious craftsman. Breguet worked for Louis XV and Marie Antoinette. He once helped Marat to escape from an awkward situation, and Marat gave him a pass across the Channel in 1793. He stayed in England for two years and worked for George III, then went back again to Paris, found his factory had been burnt to the ground, rebuilt it, and for thirty years continued to produce the finest watches that have ever been seen. Fortunately, Breguet's papers and books are still in existence, and as he numbered all his watches the history of almost every one can be ascertained, even to the extent of knowing when the watch was returned to the maker for repair or alteration. No one quite knows how he compounded the silver that he used on the dials of his finest watches. There is a peculiar grey tint about the silver that is very attractive. Breguet's watches have frequently been forged and copied, and the collector needs to be on his guard lest he should be taken in by a comparatively modern forgery. Once the beauty of a Breguet watch, however, is appreciated, a genuine movement is quickly detected, and there are certain peculiarities about the works and the signature on the dial with which Breguet collectors are well acquainted. A great many fine Breguets have got out of sight, and perchance some of them will be discovered now that people are beginning to talk about the coming commemoration and about the fine exhibition there will be of the works of Breguet, his son, and his grandson. A genuine Breguet watch is always well worth acquiring.
The business is still carried on in Paris and beautiful watches are on sale, but nothing can possibly be produced in the present day to surpass, for example, the magnificent watch Breguet made for Marie Antoinette, or those-that were almost equally important---made for Louis XVIII, the Prince Regent, Prince Demidoff, Princess Nlurat, Lord Gower, Lord Berwick, and many notable personages of his day.
The collector of watches should specialise. Some will keep to the old English pair-case watches, others seek the decorated ones of the period of Louis XIII ; others again, watches in rock-crystal, others the finest examples of the early English makers, and yet others confine their attention to choice watches by some of the modern makers-Dent, Frodsham or Smith. Then there are those who confine their attention entirely to watches by Breguet, and a very large number who just have two or three choice watches, thoroughly good timekeepers, either by first-rate English or French makers.