These days, to be a ‘watch collector’ is to collect wristwatches.
However, it was not ever thus. Until the late 20th century, most ‘watch collectors’ bought pocket watches, a much older type of portable timekeeper that, developed across several centuries, tell a remarkable story of horological innovation, societal change, craftsmanship and fashion.
Some exceptional pocket watches came for sale at Bonhams (27.5% buyer’s premium) on May 11, many of them with a provenance to the collection of TP Camerer Cuss.
He was the author of several once popular books on the subject including The Country Life Book of Watches (1967) and The Camerer Cuss Book of Antique Watches (1976), in which some of the watches were pictured.
Leading the sale was a fine and rare gold, and ruby set key wind triple-case pocket watch with a shagreen outer case by Joseph Martineau (fl.1744-94). The height of luxury when it was made in London, c.1760, it is set with 441 rubies to the back and bezel of the middle case. In what Bonhams called ‘remarkable’ condition, it was last sold at auction in 1958 when it took £380 at Sotheby’s. Estimated at £20,000-30,000, it brought £38,000.
Martineau is recorded as working in London from 1744-94, first at Orange Street and then later at St Martin’s Court.
Sold towards the top end of expectations at £17,000 was a rare silver and leather key-wind pair case pocket watch with a pinwork case, c.1670.
It is signed for William Snow in Marlebrough [sic], thought to be the son of Nicholas Snow of nearby Salisbury who in his will stated “my working tooles belonging to my trade shall be kept and preserved for the use and benefit of my said sonne William Snowe”.
The accuracy and performance of watches greatly improved when the movements were made with four, rather than three-wheel trains, and this is an early example. Purchased from Dennis Brown, c.1947, it was illustrated in FJ Britten’s Old Clocks and Watches and Their Makers (1956).
Another member of the Snow family made the earliest watch in the collection: a silver key-wind pair-case ‘Puritan’ pocket watch of a type fashionable between 1630-60. The movement carries the name John Snow me Fecit.
A quirky feature to the dial is a rock crystal ‘glass’ that is held in place by tags around the underside of the bezel. It sold at the lower end of a £12,000-15,000 estimate.
It is doubtless an indication of the market health that most of the Camerer Cuss watches in this sale were hammered at the reserve. The collecting pool is no longer deep.
The same sum of £12,000 was bid for a gold key-wind pair-case pocket watch by royal clockmaker Justin Vulliamy, c.1778-80. The blue, red and white enamelled coronet and the cypher PW suggest it was made for George IV when he was Prince of Wales. Engraved on the movement are the letters ‘uon’, Vulliamy’s cryptic numbering code which may translate to number 347.
As George Augustus Frederick was born in 1762, the watch would have been made for him at some point in his late teens. By the age of 18 his lifestyle and extravagant living had already become an embarrassment to his family. He would give watches like this away to settle gambling debts.
The most cost-effective way to own a Thomas Tompion timekeeper is to buy one of his watches.
The example here, a quarter-repeater dated to c.1709, was one of just three watches the ‘father on English clockmaking’ made for female clients. Engraved with the cypher MM below the coronet on the 18ct gold outer case, it was made for Mary, Duchess of Montagu (1689-1751), probably as a 21st birthday present.
It had been a cutting-edge gift: one of the earliest surviving watches with jewelled bearings and diamond end stones for the balance. A watch that entered the Camerer Cuss collection in 1953, it made £20,000.
A rare large silver key-wind pair case pocket watch by Thomas Reid of Edinburgh sold at £4000.
Hallmarked 1804 to the case (making it one of the last pieces Reid made before he partnered with William Auld as Reid & Auld in 1806), the movement was of particular interest for the inclusion of a ruby roller to reduce friction. Not too many of them have survived intact.
From the same vibrant period of British watchmaking was a highly complicated 18K gold key-wind open face grande sonnerie repeater by Louis Recordon.
He was Breguet’s agent in London (he took out an English patent for self-winding watches for him in 1780) and many of his watches have Breguet touches. On this watch a small screw fixes the dial to the movement in a manner characteristic of watches by Breguet.
Camerer Cuss bought this piece from the great clock collector Lord Harris of Belmont in April 1953 for £75. Half a century later it made £10,000 via thesaleroom.com.