British Watches

The Watchmaking Craft of The Past is Worth Appreciating

The thing I admire most about the watchmakers of the past is their determination to solve what must have seemed like incredibly complicated problems. Take this Strigel verge watch from the 1760s for example.

It was no easy task making glass back then. No Pilkington float method had been invented, so glass had to be blown into shapes by skilled people, then carefully cut and trimmed to fit something like a pocket watch bezel. That’s why many 18th century pocket watches have `bulls eye’ glass – they had to cut it away from the blower which left a tiny flat top.

This particular example is typical of the era. The silver cases, usually pair-cased, would have been bought in batches from a silversmith in London. The reason watches were encased like this was that in the 1760s there were two modes of transport for the wealthy man about town; water craft and horseback. He would not walk very far in a country like Britain, which was largely lawless, with no roads as we understand them. So a silver watch – which at today’s prices would have cost about £10,000-£15,000 would have basically said to Highwayman, `come and get it boys.’

strigel verge 4

So a watch movement had to be protected not only by a tightly shut inner case, but another pair of silver cases to keep out seaspray, pouring rain, or the stench of the gin-soaked poor begging at your britches. This work was done by hand, not by machine, so imagine how many hours it took to get a perfectly set of halves to close upon the watch itself.

The verge movement has sturdy square columns joining the plates, which are like minature columns on a mansion – no coincidence that the architecture matches those grand houses and follies of the era, for a watch was a statement that you had made your money, serious money. Engraved plates state the makers name because brands didn’t exist then, everyone had a reputation, like Harrison, Mudge, Breguet etc.

strigel verge face 1

Dials and hands would be provided by an enamelling shop, the watchmaker concentrated on the movement. Imagine the basic lathes and drilling tools used, and how difficult it was to align hand-cut gear wheels, and match pins and axles to their correctly sized holes in the plates. No wonder it was a week’s work to assemble one movement, although many master watchmakers had apprentices making kitted plates and gear wheels in a sort of production line.

Typically housed in a freezing attic, with overhead windows for natural light, the watchmakers of the past had a tough life. Many made clocks as well, which of course demanded great care in transport and installation at some slave/sugar/silk/pepper trader’s newly built mansion in the sunny shires. Not many artisan watchmakers lived a long life like Thomas Harrison, the inventor of the marine chronometer, many only had 20-25 years of work before the untreatable illnesses of the times, a fire, bankruptcy or a family bereavement effectively ended their career.

Could you persevere in spite of everything back in 1766? Survive on no benefits, no central heating, and eat bland, rancid food and drink foul water or home brewed ale or gin? Probably not. We have it easy now and watches, superbly engineered and finished, are relatively cheap compared to wages. Enjoy these good times, they won’t last.

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