Antique Clocks: The Rolex Oyster and the Transition from Pocket to Wristwatches

July 21st, 2010 by

As any good horologist—a student of antique clocks and the history of timekeeping—can tell you, our relationship with time and the way we mark its passing are as flexible and transitory as any other aspect of our culture. Clocks, for example, have been in existence for a relatively short period considering the control they now exercise over our daily lives. In medieval Europe, clocks were useful to few outside of monasteries, and those clocks that did exist did not have faces, only chimes to ring the hours for ritual and prayer. In later years, clocks were designed with an hour hand that rotated around the clock face via gears turned by a slowly lowering weight. Clock faces were positioned in tall towers in order to provide room for the weights to drop. One clock at the top of a tower, inaccurate by a variance of an hour or more each day, could still adequately meet the timekeeping needs of an entire town. Galileo’s observations of pendulum movement in the late 1500’s led to smaller clocks that could eventually be placed inside of homes, at least by those wealthy enough to desire and afford them. And in the mid 1800’s, the industrial revolution brought the next rapid wave of changes to antique clocks and our dependence on timekeeping.

Mechanization and mass production began and were refined during this period. Factories rose. Lifestyles shifted away from the farm and toward standard working hours in offices and on assembly lines. Train schedules regulated commerce and industry. Timekeeping became more personal– and accuracy more important– then ever before. Enter the age of the pocket watch, a tiny clock with a minute and even a second hand that one could carry easily in one’s clothing. Pocket watches provided the ticking heartbeat of the American economy and lifestyle from the Gilded Age until the end of the 19th century, when, inevitably, they were replaced by an innovation even smaller and more convenient.

In approximately 1908, with World War I a decade away, clockmakers Hans Wildorf and Alfred Davis formed a partnership with a Swiss watchmaker who agreed to help them develop a clock mechanism small enough to wear on the wrist.

This small, wearable watch would be called the “Rolex”, a name chosen for its brevity and pronouncability in any language. The Rolex was not the first wristwatch in existence, but at the time it was the most famous on account of the durable “screw crown” mechanism that protected its gears from dust and damage. The most well known of all Rolex models would become the “Rolex Oyster”, which featured a double locking screw crown that kept the casing both airtight and watertight.  In an early marketing campaign, Wilsdorf asked the famous swimmer Mercedes Gleitze to wear an Oyster during one of her swims across the English Channel, and the campaign proved a success when the watch survived.

This success, combined with the popularity of wristwatches in general after their distribution to soldiers during the war, paved the way for the wristwatch to become the signature timepiece of the 20th century.

The history of clocks is a history of time itself, in a sense. And collecting antique clocks can be a fascinating hobby. Among collectors of antique clocks and watches, some of the most prized finds are early Rolexes and variations of the original Oyster. Santos Dumont, Patek, and Cartier are also names associated with rare early wristwatches, the most prized being ladies models as watches were first worn on the wrist by women as jewelry.

But a note for novice collectors of watches—beware! Keep in mind that watches, even more so than other antique clocks, are easy to counterfeit. Common forms of counterfeit work are wedded watches or “frankenwatches”, in which one or more of the mechanisms have been repaired or replaced while the other components remain original. These can be very difficult for non-experts to identify. Enjoy your adventures in horology, but if you intend to make a major investment in any antique clock or watch, be sure to have it reliably examined and appraised.

Erin Sweeney