XVIIth century pendant watches, the Wallace Collection, London
Until the end of the Xth century, the mode of measuring time was by the sun-dial, and it is not until the XIVth century that we hear of portable clocks. During the XVth century clocks appear as part of the necessary furniture of a wealthy household, hung on the walls, with their movements regulated by weights and lines. It was only with the introduction of the ‘spiral spring’ as the motive power in place of the heavy drive weights, that gave, about the middle of the XVth century, the first impetus for technical improvements that permitted the creation of smaller and portable watches. However, these early timekeepers were not precision instruments, therefore it is appropriate to view many of the watches made between 1600 and 1800, including those in the Wallace Collection in London, primarily as ‘mechanical jewels’.
These luxury and expensive accessories were used as a sign of wealth and knowledge contributing more to their wearers' social status than to their punctuality. They only had one hand which struck the hour but such was the fascination with machinery and automata during the XVIth and XVIIth century it was probably sufficent that they ran at all.
From contemporary sources such as paintings and engravings it appears that portable watches were worn by both men and women, on dresses, hanging from a chain or a silk ribbon, around the neck or twisted around the waist with different objects such as seals, writing or cosmetic implements. The fashion of wearing watches exposed to view on clothing continued throughout the XVIIth century giving craftsmen the opportunity of devising new and ingenious forms to suit the increasing market for novelty: these included egg-shaped and faceted ovals, flowers (particularly the tulip reflecting the contemporary Dutch mania) and cruciforms like the Latin cross, as exemplified by the Wallace Collection pieces, all dating between 1620 and 1650. Their role as a symbolic ornament is enhanced by the decoration of the case crafted in gold, silver or rock crystal, while the dials and mounts are finely engraved and occasionally enriched with coloured enamels.
These watches were created in the leading artistic and clock centres of France (Blois), Switzerland (Geneva) and England (London) by famous masters who signed them. The watchmaker of the time was usually also a retailer. He made some parts, bought others, designed and assembled the movement, bought a case and engraved his name and the town on the movement and sold the whole watch to the customer. These portable ‘memento mori’ with their precious and glittering materials, their fashioned and refined workmanship seem to reward us whilst reminding us, time after time, of the frailty of human life.