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


Antique Toys: A Basic Field Guide to Three Rare Species of Antique Teddy Bear

July 20th, 2010 by

When Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear that had been pursed to exhaustion and tied to a tree, he inspired Morris Michtom, a candy store owner, to design and sell a stuffed bear in his honor. This happened in 1902, and the Michtom bear with its jointed arms and legs would become the grand ancestor of one of the most popular and iconic toys in America. A century later, of course, it would also become a sought-after item among collectors of antique toys. But the Michtom bear shares this distinction with another bear, the Steiff bear, a toy designed and launched independently by German toymaker Richard Steiff at approximately the same time. Steiff was allegedly inspired by the sight of bears performing in a circus and wanted to create a toy that was jointed, soft, and somewhat human-shaped, part toy bear and part doll.

As all bear collectors—arctophiles—know, both Michtom and Steiff bears were a huge success. And since their popularity began to surge in 1904, any bear created before that year is considered one of the very first teddy bears in America, a rare and valuable find in the world of antique toys.

A wide diversity in teddy bear styles and features began to proliferate in 1906, and during the century that followed, many famous bear manufacturers rose and fell on the same waves that shaped American and European history. German bears, for example, experienced a reduced distribution to America during World War I. Only one German bear maker, Bing, managed to continue production during the war. This allowed British and American toymakers a new foothold in the teddy bear market, and when a certain British bear created by J. K. Farnell and Co inspired A. A. Milne to write the immortal Winnie-the-Pooh books in 1926, their ensuing popularity led Farnell bears to take their place beside Steiff and Bing bears as one of the most collectable antique toys of the present era.

So what sets Steiff, Bing, and Farnell Bears apart from other bears and from one another? As far as early Bing and Steiff bears are concerned, not much. In fact, Bing fought legally with Steiff over many early similarities between the two bears, including the famous button-in-ear feature. Early Bing bears had a metal plate attached to the ear with the letters GBN imprinted in a triangle. But after Steiff’s legal challenges, this identifier was called a “mark”, no longer a “button”, and it was moved under the left arm.

Both early Steiff and Bing bears had boot button eyes, usually black. Early Farnell bears had button eyes too, but later Farnell versions were distinguished by eyes made of amber colored glass. All three companies made their first bears with long, curved arms, spoon-shaped paws, and seams running up the front of the bear rather than the back. They also made their bears out of mohair and gave them features meant to resemble real bears, such as humped backs and longish, realistic-looking noses. Farnell bears often had stitched “claws” on the backs of their paws.

Among antique toys, Farnell, Steiff and Bing teddy bears are considered relatively safe items to collect since they are difficult to counterfeit. But always check the tags on your antique bear and keep an eye out for certain features like real mohair (not synthetic), velvet paw pads (rather than cotton), hand stitching, and wooden rather than metal or plastic joints. Also keep an eye out for “wood wool” stuffing, a kind of soft wood shaving. Even when the era of wool stuffing began in the 1920’s, Steiff, Bing, and Farnell were still using wood wool to stuff their bears’ heads.

Is your Steiff, Farnell or Bing bear valuable? As with all antique toys, the answer depends on the prevailing market and the condition of the bear. But recent buying guides have placed a Steiff jointed bear with a blank ear button, circa 1905, at about $1,225. Farnell and Bing mohair bears made before 1917 may be offered at similar prices. If you own a bear made during this period, or any plush antique toy, keep it safe. If you need to clean it, do so gently with a damp cloth. Better, have it cleaned by a professional. It’s easy enough to explain the popularity of the teddy bear—teddy bears are huggable! But this also makes them rare and valuable among antique toys, because they don’t tend to last long.

- Erin Sweeney

A Little Excitement at the MET – by Reyne Haines

January 18th, 2010 by

rodriguezThere is always something new to see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It is certainly one of the most recognized museums in this country, offering some of the most important permanent and traveling exhibits for the entire world to see.

For years, the MET has displayed a work of art, thought to be by “The Workshop of Velázquez”.  The painting was donated to the museum in 1949.

The painting was darker than those painted at the hand of Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez.  Therefore, the lead authority on Velázquez’s work in the 1960s downgraded the painting to be “The Workshop of” instead of by the master himself.  In 1979, the museum downgraded the painting as well.

Continue Reading…

Collecting Fine Art – Are You Art Smart? – by Reyne Haines

January 18th, 2010 by

kandinskySo you’ve decided to make the leap and collect art.  You read about Hugh Grant buying an Andy Warhol for $3 million and selling it later for a little less than $25 million and you think…this is for me!

Ok, maybe you aren’t a $3 million dollar buyer, but you have a few nickels to spend.  You head to New York City to visit with some of the top galleries.  As you enter your first shop, you are greeted by the gallery owner. He inquires about what “style” of art you are interested in.

Continue Reading…