The return of the pocket watch

A style of watchmaking that began to fall from favour almost 100 years ago is being rediscovered by a new generation of makers, says Nick Foulkes. And they’re putting it into the pockets of both the suit and the denim brigade

Bovet Fleurier white-gold Amadeo Fleurier Tourbillon Braveheart, price on request
Bovet Fleurier white-gold Amadeo Fleurier Tourbillon Braveheart, price on request

“Just making the chain took us almost four years”, says Angelo Bonati, CEO of Panerai, explaining the level of care taken with the company’s watch chains. Yes, you are reading this correctly: the boss of Panerai, the military brand famed for its diver’s watches, is talking about watch chains. I have a brief vision of one of those second world war diver-commandos on his miniature submarine, pausing mid-mission to consult his underwater pocket watch. But no, the Panerai pocket watch is not an evocation of an earlier model, but rather a product of the 21st century – and if you think four years is a long time to spend making a watch chain, that’s because the chain, like the watch, is ceramic and there can be no risk of it breaking. “We used ceramic in order to propose something different. We try to surprise our clients who already own tourbillons and the most important watches”, explains Bonati.

Breguet rose-gold Classique Grande Complication, £624,000
Breguet rose-gold Classique Grande Complication, £624,000

It would be an exaggeration to describe pocket watches as a market sector. Nevertheless, an increasing number of makers are starting to offer pocket watches to a small and highly discriminating clientele, whose numbers have grown since 2008 when Richard Mille brought out a truly radical pocket watch, the RM 020, about which I enthused on these pages at the time. It is crazy, huge, very Mille, and seven years on I still love it and hope that in years to come it will be fully appreciated. “I thought it would sell like hot cakes – instead it sold like a coffin with two spaces,” Mille jokes ruefully. “I wanted to make a very modern pocket watch and chose to do it rectangular and ‘sportswear’, so you could wear it with jeans as well as with a three-piece suit [albeit one with extra-large waistcoat pockets]”. Mille paid the price of being a pioneer, but he still regards the watch as “very, very sexy… I just thought pocket watches were really ‘grandfather’ and 19th century”.

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For many this connection with the past is the point of the pocket watch and visitors to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco between now and January 10 will have the chance to look upon some of the legendary pocket watches of Abraham-Louis Breguet at an exhibition of his oeuvre. “Pocket watches are part of our legacy. They are a transportation to a period of time we can only visit through books and movies”, explains CEO and president Marc Hayek. “Breguet pocket watches tell the story of modern Europe.”

Panerai ceramic Tourbillon GMT Ceramica, £140,300
Panerai ceramic Tourbillon GMT Ceramica, £140,300

It is a similar sense of being a witness to history that appeals to Bell & Ross CEO and co-founder Carlos Rosillo. “I inherited a pocket watch from my grandfather and I love history”, says Rosillo of his personal motivation for putting Bell & Ross into the pocket as well as onto the wrist. This is another brand with strong military styling and Rosillo wanted to emphasise the fact that it was widespread military use during the first world war that moved watches from the pocket to the wrist.

Richard Mille white-gold RM 020 Tourbillon, £412,500
Richard Mille white-gold RM 020 Tourbillon, £412,500

“I wanted to go back to the origins of the wristwatch and to have something traditional that showed where we come from. I wanted to make a philosophical and historical point”. To his surprise, he sold the entire first series of 300 pieces – “much more demand than we expected”. And now the pocket watch has become a small but regular part of Bell & Ross’s annual production.

Hermès gem-set rose-gold Slim d’Hermès Pocket So H, £92,000.
Hermès gem-set rose-gold Slim d’Hermès Pocket So H, £92,000.

Pascal Raffy, owner of Bovet, believes the pocket watch is bound up with a sense of values. “I like pocket timepieces, not as being old-fashioned, but because they represent values of another age when people had the time to think and consider rather than merely react”, he says. And as good as his word he has rebuilt the venerable maison of Bovet around the pocket watch, making either wristwatches that have pocket watch design cues or creating pocket watches per se. His wristwatches are unmistakable, looking, as they do, like pocket watches to which a strap has been attached where the chain would normally be, above the winding crown. Annual production is small – under 3,000 pieces.

Bovet Fleurier c1870 gold-plated‑silver Serpent Attack
Bovet Fleurier c1870 gold-plated‑silver Serpent Attack

But as well as the emotional benefits that Raffy describes, there are rather more practical pluses for pocket-watch makers of today. As the Brobdingnagian dimensions of wristwatches have receded, the naturally larger dimensions of the pocket watch prove an excellent canvas upon which the practitioners of the métiers d’art – so much in vogue with today’s watchmakers – can express themselves.

Patek Phillipe 1967-72 rose-gold Port of Dordrecht
Patek Phillipe 1967-72 rose-gold Port of Dordrecht

Hermès is one brand that has taken the idea of the pocket watch as a creative tabula rasa and used it with imagination, whether employing the cover of the pocket watch to reproduce the So H tie design of 1971 with its pierced‑ gold couvercle, or adapting a technique from the making of crystal paperweights. It also provides a new showcase for the talents of legendary Hermès designer Henri d’Origny, the father of the Hermès tie: the Arceau pocket watch, with the dial depicting his Amazones tie design, is exquisite.

Roger Dubuis rose-gold Hommage Millésime, £680,300
Roger Dubuis rose-gold Hommage Millésime, £680,300

The notion of the pocket watch as a frame for the artistic skills of an industry legend is also seen at Patek Philippe, a house that has never abandoned the pocket watch. For the past 48 years, these have been adorned with miniature enamel paintings by Susanne Rohr, who went to work for the storied Geneva brand almost 50 years ago in 1967. Rohr’s genius is to reinterpret great masterpieces on pocket watches, and in recent years, the value of her work on Patek’s pocket watches has risen; this summer saw one of her 1985 models with a “Renoir” on its back sell for $353,000 – almost double the estimate.

Vacheron Constantin 1923 gold Les Bergers d’Arcadie
Vacheron Constantin 1923 gold Les Bergers d’Arcadie

Vacheron Constantin is another classic maker with renewed interest in the pocket watch, which it reintroduced to its main collection in 2010. Talking about the craftsmen, Vacheron CEO Juan-Carlos Torres says, “They like the fact that in these pocket watches they have more room to express their crafts than in the wrist watch.” And each year the maison offers what Torres calls a small curated collection of métiers d’art pieces and executes a significant number of bespoke commissions. What’s more, he says Vacheron’s annual production of 100 or so pocket watches a year cannot keep pace with the demand. “For the moment we are unable to meet all the requests for the métiers d’art pocket watches because there is not the availability”.

Bell & Ross titanium PW1 Heritage White Dial, £2,250
Bell & Ross titanium PW1 Heritage White Dial, £2,250

In addition, there is a plain Vacheron pocket watch, the Patrimony Contemporaine (£33,000), available “over the counter” so to speak, which, he says, has found favour on America’s East Coast. “They like to wear it in their gilets. It is a mix of nostalgia and the desire to be different.”

Parmigiani Fleurier rose-gold and steel Transforma Quator CBF, £28,500
Parmigiani Fleurier rose-gold and steel Transforma Quator CBF, £28,500

The style statement a pocket watch can make is an important part of its growing appeal, which is why Jean‑Marc Jacot, outgoing CEO of Parmigiani Fleurier, believes pocket-watch wearing, as distinct from collecting, is on the rise. “Now suits and ties are back, people like to wear something a bit more elegant, like a pocket watch that’s on a chain.” But he can also see the aesthetics of the pocket watch appealing to a completely different style tribe. “I am convinced that even young people in jeans will like it. A lot of motorcyclists wear chains and we have some people who ask for pocket watches for that reason.”

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Whether the pocket watch will become de rigueur for the well-dressed Hells Angel remains to be seen, but that watchmakers are anticipating interest from those whose style is formal and also those whose look is less so is borne out by the dual approach taken to the pocket watch by Roger Dubuis. One especially, the Homage Millésime, pays homage to the expertise of Roger Dubuis as a restorer of vintage timepieces. It is a unique piece made by Dubuis himself to celebrate the opening of the Roger Dubuis boutique in Geneva, and is based on an antique ébauche.

The other face of the Dubuis pocket watch, which made its debut at the Watches & Wonders fair in Hong Kong in the autumn, is the Excalibur Spider  Pocket Time Instrument (£359,800), which features the Quatuor movement with its four sprung balances to counteract the effect of gravity. But Dubuis being Dubuis, what might be a rather academic-sounding timepiece is given a decidedly contemporary execution. It is worn either at the end of a bulky blackened chain or suspended on its own sculptural stand so that the movement can be fully appreciated. Unlike the Excalibur Quatuor wristwatches, the chapter ring has been moved towards the dial circumference, “thereby freeing up even more space for the movement to reveal its fascinating intricacies”.

The irony, therefore, is that a style of watchmaking that began to fall from favour almost 100 years ago is being rediscovered by a new generation of watchmakers keen to show off the latest micromechanical developments. For them, the modern pocket watch is an item utterly unhampered by even the pretence of observing 21st-century notions of utility, and can take any form the maker likes.

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