Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Seventeenth-Century European Watches

The watch, a device for timekeeping made to be carried or worn on the person, was probably developed in Italy around 1500 or a few years earlier. Its ancestry probably can be traced to the type of small portable spring-driven clock that had become available by 1450 and that continued to be made throughout the greater part of the sixteenth century. By about 1520, the device had been developed to such an extent that a tiny watch movement could be incorporated into a jewel or some other small precious object. For example, the Renaissance scholar Giglio Gregorio Giraldi (1479–1552) wrote in 1541: “I myself have often seen a watch, which admirably, showed the hours, placed in the handle of an eyeglass of Pope Leo X [r. 1513–21] of which he availed himself while hunting and traveling.” Twenty years later, the publication in Lyon of a book of designs for rings by the French artist Pierre II Woeiriot (1532–1599) included one finger ring (26.57.50) in which a watch is incorporated, a design that perhaps recorded a product of one of the early French watchmaking centers in Paris, Blois, and Lyon, or more likely in Italy. South Germans, too, contributed greatly to the diffusion of the invention, although the long-held notion that the Nuremberg clockmaker Peter Henlein (master in 1509, died 1542) was the inventor of the watch has been thoroughly exploded.

By 1600, two varieties of watches were well established in western Europe: the watch that was primarily a piece of jewelry that incidentally told the time, and the watch that was primarily a source of information about the time of day, the day of the month, or even the phase of the moon. Neither variety, however, was a very accurate timekeeper, and the absence of the minute hand on all but the costliest watches of the period is indicative of their limitations.

To the first category belongs an enameled gold watch formed as the Lesser George (17.190.1475), the jewel which the knights of the English Order of the Garter were obliged to wear as part of their daily dress. The goldsmith who made the exquisite case and dial of the Museum’s version of the Lesser George remains unknown; the movement is signed by Nicholas Vallin, a London watchmaker of Flemish origin who died in the plague of 1603.

At about the same period, more serious timekeepers were being made, in both London and Paris. A watch (17.190.1549) with a movement signed by Michael Nouwen (died 1613) strikes the hours (1–12) on a bell fitted to the interior of the case, and the movement is constructed in such a way that the train of wheels for driving the hand can be separately accessed from the train of wheels for activating the striking. Nouwen was a member of a Flemish family of clockmakers that originally lived in ‘s Hertogenbosch in Brabant, now a part of the Netherlands. Like Vallin, he was probably a refugee from the political and religious strife that destroyed traditional clockmaking in the Low Countries in the last quarter of the sixteenth century.

Another watch (17.190.1607), this one by the Parisian Nicolas Forfaict (ca. 1580–1615), has additional refinements: the dial displays the day of the month, the moon’s phases, its age in its monthly cycle, and its astrological aspects, as well as the time of day. The hours on the dials of the watches, however, are not subdivided to register intervals of less than thirty minutes, although fifteen-minute intervals could be estimated. Their single hands were all that would have been necessary for timetelling to that degree of approximation. The pierced and engraved metal case of the Forfaict watch provides evidence of the skill of Parisian goldsmiths of the early seventeenth century, but both the Nouwen and the Forfaict watches were of greater value as objects of display than for their practical use. The Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton (died 1627) summed up the unreliability of these early seventeenth-century watches in the following lines: “How goes your watches ladies? What’s o’clock now? First Lady: By mine full nine. Second Lady: By mine a quarter past.”

By the early seventeenth century, most watch movements consisted of two circular or oval plates held apart by pillars of various shapes, ranging from simple, square-sectioned posts to circular or square-sectioned balusters. In the course of the century, the ornamentation of the pillars became increasingly elaborate, many with openwork designed more to show off the skill of the metalworker than to function as supports. The pillars were customarily riveted to one plate and pinned to the other, and the operative parts of the movement were installed between the two plates. In their simplest form, these consisted of a coiled spring, a train of wheels, and an escapement. A fully wound spring, when released, exerts a gradually decreasing force as it unwinds, however, and in order to even out the spring’s changing force, an ingenious device called a fusee was placed between the spring and the train of wheels that drove the hand of the watch. The fusee is a cone with a spiral groove in its surface that accommodates a cord, or a chain, attached at one end to the barrel containing the spring and at the other end to the cone. As the power of the spring decreases, the cord on the fusee unwinds, engaging the fusee at a point of greater diameter and thus evening out the force transmitted.

This invention probably had its origins about 1400 in the technology for winding crossbows. By 1600, most timepieces made by watchmakers outside the boundaries of German-speaking Europe employed the spring-and-fusee device for watches. It would be the preferred mechanism for a long time to come. A diagram of the movement of a watch illustrated in Traité de l’horlogerie, méchanique et pratique (Paris, 1741), by Antoine Thiout the Elder, shows the same mechanism (146.9 T34), and it remained in use for portable precision timekeepers until the mid-twentieth century.

The power delivered by a spring-and-fusee is transmitted to a train of wheels, or going train, which ends in an escapement ordinarily consisting of a shaft, or balance staff, with two flags, or pallets, called a verge that is placed across the teeth of the last wheel in the going train. The staff is attached in such a way that when the wheel revolves, its teeth alternately engage a pallet, releasing a train in short measured intervals, thus producing the familiar ticking of the watch. The release of power was further regulated by the motion of a wheel, or balance, of some kind attached to one end of the staff. By about 1600, it had become customary to protect the oscillating wheel with an elaborately pierced and engraved or incised cock attached to the back plate of the watch. Like the pillars, these cocks provided opportunities for the display of the watchmaker’s artistry.

By 1600, it had also become customary to augment the watch movement with a device for striking the hours on a bell incorporated in the watchcase. Some watches sounded each hour with a single blow (striking in passing); others, with a blow for each hour individually (1–12 or 1–24). These watches are, in fact, miniature versions of a portable clock, and they are traditionally called clock watches. Alarms were added features of some clock watches.

The technology for watch movements remained standard throughout the first three-quarters of the seventeenth century, with several important exceptions: the watchmakers of German-speaking Europe and certain nearby territories routinely substituted a device called a stackfreed for the fusee, and a very few watchmakers sometimes employed the cross-beat, an escapement invented by the Swiss clockmaker Jost Bürgi (1552–1632), in the late sixteenth century for use in an extraordinary series of clocks made to meet the increasingly exacting requirements of astronomers. Among the few makers of watches with cross-beat escapements were Hans Buschmann the Elder (master 1620) in Augsburg and Johann Possdorfer (recorded 1620–24) in Prague and Dresden, whose watch in the Museum’s collection (17.190.1525) is remarkable for its tiny dimensions rather than for its escapement, an ordinary verge.

All of this changed dramatically in 1675 as the result of the work of the Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), the inventor of the spiral spring balance. The invention was first published in the February 2, 1675, Journal de Sçavants, the official publication of the French Académie Royale des Sciences, of which Huygens was a prominent member. It was almost immediately adapted by watchmakers throughout Europe, and it revolutionized the technology of the watch. Watches had at one stroke become serious timekeepers. They were now routinely supplied with two hands, and their dials were calibrated to register minutes. An early and finely executed example of the new invention is incorporated in a watch (17.190.1417) by Johannes van Ceulen (active 1675–1715).

For a short time, the London clockmaker and watchmaker Thomas Tompion (1638–1713), as well as several French watchmakers, abandoned the use of a fusee altogether and relied entirely upon the spring balance to regulate the force exerted by the springs in their watches. Some of these watches survive, including a remarkable Tompion traveling watch, or coach watch (17.190.1512), but the experiment was not, in fact, completely successful, and the use of the spring balance alone was short-lived. By 1682 or 1683, Tompion was able to make a watch (17.190.1489ab) with a spring and fusee mechanism and a remarkably modern-looking dial that not only registers the hours and minutes on a large, easy-to-read chapter ring, but also seconds on a subsidiary ring.

While pre-balance spring watches were not great timekeepers, the cases of the best of them provided fine opportunities for the display of the artistry of goldsmiths, enamelers, lapidary workers, and jewelers. By 1627, Paris watchmakers had wrested the right to make gold and silver watchcases from the goldsmiths. It was not until 1643, however, that they were permitted to ornament their cases with enamels and gems. The watchmakers nearly always signed their works, but the signature of a case maker is rare, and for the most part their work remains anonymous. Occasionally, however, it is possible to match the name of a goldsmith with a variety of watchcase. One of these matches is the exquisitely ornamented case of a watch with a square-plated movement signed F. Meybom AParis/St. Germain (17.190.1600), which belongs to a small group of similar cases attributed to the Paris goldsmith Isaac Bergeron (active 1649–94). The enameled relief on the band of another watchcase with painted enamels on the cover and back of the case (17.190.1417) may be the work of Josias Belle (1624–1695), another Paris goldsmith who is known to have made watchcases.

The watchcases made by French enamel painters of the seventeenth century include some of the most magnificent examples of the art ever produced. Among the best in the Museum’s collection are a watchcase depicting the Rape of Europa and Mercury and the Three Graces (17.190.1413), incorporating a later movement by Dutch watchmaker Lambertus Vrythoff (recorded 1724–69); and one depicting the Virgin and Child with an Angel and Joseph Awakened by the Angel (17.190.1557). All four scenes are miniature versions of paintings by the French artist Simon Vouet (1590–1649). The technique involves coating the various parts of a gold watchcase, including the cover and the center of the dial, with a pure white enamel ground and then applying opaque colored enamels in such a way that the resulting image closely resembles miniature painting on paper, parchment, or ivory.

The invention of the technique is generally credited to Jean Toutin (1578–1644) of Châteaudun (and, after 1632, of Paris). The earliest watchcases with this type of enameling probably originated in Blois, a city known for both enameling and watchmaking, but Paris, too, was an early and important center of production. An increasing number of sources from which these enamel painters took their designs have been identified, and it now seems safe to say that many, if not all, were content to reproduce in miniature the work of other artists. Prints were often the medium of transmission, but in some cases it seems that the enameler had direct access to either a painting or a colored drawing of it.

In the last quarter of the seventeenth century, and especially during the years just before King Louis XIV withdrew the toleration of Protestants in France in 1685 with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, enamelers who were Protestant, as well as many Protestant watchmakers, were driven out of the country. Geneva benefited from the influx of watchmakers and also became the center of watchcase enameling. Swiss watchcase enamelers rarely achieved the excellence of their French predecessors. Among the best known were the Huaud family (17.190.1436; 17.190.1522), descendants of Pierre I Huaud (1612–1680), the son of a goldsmith of Châtellerault, France, who took refuge in Geneva in 1630, and became a master goldsmith there in 1634.

After 1625, Genevan jewelers and goldsmiths were united in a single guild, often collaborating on making watchcases. Geneva also became famous for watchcases of rock crystal (17.190.1014) and hardstone (17.190.1617). In the second half of the seventeenth century, a similar combination of jewelers and goldsmiths belonging to one guild in Augsburg, Germany, produced even more sumptuous items of gold set with gemstones. A watch by Nicolaus Rugendas the Younger (1619–1694/95) is a fine example of the florid style of Augsburg goldsmiths’ work in vogue from about 1660 to 1680 (17.190.1520).

Another specialty of Geneva and to a lesser extent Blois, like Geneva a center of Protestant watchmaking, was the watch in the form of a human skull. The sundial motto “Remember how short my time” from Psalm 89 of the Old Testament explains the form of a watch (17.190.1575) by Isaac Penard (1619–1676). Until the early eighteenth century, Geneva remained quite open to French Protestant refugees who were trained as goldsmiths and as watchmakers.

England, too, was a beneficiary of the French Protestant, or Huguenot, diaspora. A different strain of Protestantism was responsible, however, for the most severe style in seventeenth-century England exemplified by an unadorned, but elegantly shaped pair-case watch (17.190.1468ab) by native Englishman Edward East (1602–1697). Popularly known as a Puritan watch, it seems, however, to have had its origins in watches made in the Netherlands some ten or fifteen years before.

Neither of the two silver cases of the watch by Edward East are marked, but from 1631, when the London Clockmakers’ Company was incorporated, London makers of silver and gold watchcases began to register their marks, and modern research has brought many of them out of the shadows. Thus, we know that the maker’s mark ND is that of Nathanial Delander (1648–ca. 1691) and that he was a member of a distinguished family of London clockmakers. Delander became a favored supplier of watchcases (17.190.1489ab; 17.190.1512) for the illustrious Thomas Tompion, who contributed vastly to the fame of English watchmaking in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, eclipsing all but the very best continental European watchmakers.


Balance, or Wheel Balance
A wheel, usually with two or three spokes that, when attached to the top of a shaft, made to oscillate, and coupled with a power source, controls the movement of a watch.

Basse taille
A technique of enameling on metal in which a relatively large surface of the metal is cut away and the resulting cavity is filled with enamel. The cut away portion is often striated or incised with an ornamental pattern or design. Then it is covered with colored translucent enamel, fired, and polished. The prepared surface of the metal has the dual purpose of securing the enamel and providing opportunity for ornament.

A technique of stamping or of cutting away large surfaces of a metal watch dial, often leaving the numerals to be filled with colored wax or enamel. This technique is not to be confused with champlevé enameling.

Chapter ring
The circle upon which the hours and, later, the minutes are engraved or otherwise indicated. It is sometimes a separate part applied to the dial of a watch and sometimes engraved or painted directly on the dial.

A vitreous substance (essentially pulverized glass) that has been applied to a metal surface and heated to its melting point until fused with the metal. When fused, it forms a brilliant, glossy surface. Coloring agents such as metallic oxides may or may not be added before heating. Enamel may also be applied to surfaces other than metal.

The mechanism that converts the continuous motion of the series of wheels, or going train, of a watch to the back-and-forth motion of its regulator. In the oldest form of escapement, an arbor (or balance staff) with two pallets (or flags) is placed across the last wheel in the going train and attached in such a way that when the wheel revolves, the teeth of the wheel alternately engage a pallet, releasing a train in short measured intervals.

A cone with a spiral groove in its surface that accommodates a cord—or, later, a chain—attached at one end to the barrel containing the spring and at the other end to the cone. It is inserted between the spring and the train of wheels that drives the hands of a watch, and it is used to even out the spring’s decreasing force as it unwinds.

Going train
The series of toothed wheels that connect with a power source, or spring, and drive a timekeeping mechanism.

An alloy of silver, copper, and lead to which sulfur and often borax have been added. In pulverized form, this composition is applied to a silver plaque, which has been prepared with an incised design, and heated until the composition and the silver fuse. When cool, the plaque is scraped until the blackened composition remains in the incised areas alone.

A technique of enameling on metal with a raised surface, either in relief or fully in the round. The enamel may be either opaque or translucent, and is often varicolored.

Set up
The construction in a watch that allows the mainspring to retain a certain amount of its tension after the fusee has run down. The set up can be adjusted in various ways in order that a suitably regular portion of the spring may be selected for the purpose.

The balance staff and pallets of a verge escapement.