We’d call pocket watches nostalgic, except that it’s unlikely that any of us wore them when growing up. Readers of this site are more likely to have been raised on a healthy diet of Swatch timepieces instead. Still, a pocket watch’s appeal to the dapper gent is understandable. It harkens to an era of classic elegance, of three-piece suits and top hats. There are not many moments in a man’s life that warrants the usage of such a watch anymore. At the Goodwood Revival perhaps, or for the hipster types, worn as an ironic statement with jeans and a tee.
So the question begs to be asked: why is it that ever so often, a watchmaker sneaks in a pocket watch or two on the conveyor belt of new watch releases? Does it signal a healthy market demand?
The answer, oddly, lies less in consumer demand, and more in the watchmakers themselves. Pocket watches have become a sort of vanity project for watch companies as they serve a multitude of purposes. They offer larger canvas than the typical wristwatch, allowing watchmakers to pack in more technical goodness and artistic oeuvres. Moreover, they’re an eloquent way to remind consumers that these watchmakers have a weighty legacy that deserves to be celebrated.
When done well, tribute pocket watches can successfully evoke a sense of nostalgia, show off the manufacture’s former achievements, and still offer a value proposition that’s different from the wristwatches being peddled out. Last year’s IWC Schaffhausen’s Tribute to Pallweber edition “150 Years” is a great example.
It honoured the Pallweber watches with jumping hour and minute displays that were discontinued in 1890. While IWC also released the mechanism in limited wristwatch editions, it’s the pocket watch that was most evocative of the significance of the Pallweber mechanism in IWC’s history.
At Montblanc, we’ve come to expect a pocket watch every couple of years. After all, this is the brand that extolls the anachronistic pleasures of writing by hand. One that we particularly appreciated for its vintage factor was the TimeWalker Rally Timer Chronograph Limited Edition, released in 2017. It honours the heritage of the Montblanc-owned Minerva manufacture, a renowned maker of stopwatches and chronographs in the 1900s. The watch pays tribute to those original timepieces, with its 50mm frame featuring a chronograph doubling as a stopwatch. The chronograph pusher is at 12 o’clock, further invoking aesthetic codes of yesteryear. The watch can be used in four ways: as a wrist watch, desk clock, mounted on a dash board, or a pocket watch.
These convertible designs are a convenient way for watchmakers to modernise the pocket watch for the 21st century. Take a gander at the mammoth Urwerk UR-1001 Zeit Machine pocket watch that was later converted into wristwatch. While you’d imagine a pocket watch to be classic, we love that Urwerk upended this notion over its head. The timepiece is ultra modern with its roving satellite display and black AlTiN case.
Similarly irreverent, HYT released the Skull Pocket Watch, which features its liquid time-telling display in the form of a skull. For independent watchmakers that pride themselves on innovation, it is a cheeky way of closing the loop between tradition and future. It is also a reminder that while the industry is rooted in heritage, it should continue looking forward.
But perhaps the biggest advantage of a pocket watch is its size. A wristwatch is sometimes not enough to fit in all the technical complications conceived by a watchmaker. Case in point: the Vacheron Constantin 57260 pocket watch features an incredible 57 complications.
It emerged from the watchmaker’s Les Cabinotiers department, its atelier that creates bespoke watches for its distinguished (and moneyed) clientele. The endeavour would certainly have not been half as elegant if all the functions were to be packed within the limited case of a wristwatch. We won’t delve into all the complications now, but suffice to say that this magnum opus was a feat that duly allowed Vacheron Constantin to show off its technical capabilities and innovations in one mighty package.
Of course, modern pocket watches are not a 21st century quirk. Back in 1989, Patek Philippe took up the mantle of creating the most complicated mechanical watch to celebrate its 150th anniversary. The 1.1kg Calibre 89 pocket watch featured a whopping 33 complications, and was produced in four versions, in all three gold alloys and platinum. The white gold and yellow gold versions achieved more than US$5 million each at Antiquorum auctions in 2004 and 2009 respectively.
Patek Philippe continues to leverage on the size and double dial format of pocket watches for another reason: to display its artistic skills. The larger diameter of the dial of the pocket watch allows the watchmaker to reproduce elaborate artworks to stunning effect. Plus, with a pocket watch, the artwork can be showcased in all its glory without being cluttered by hour and minute indications or hands, which are usually displayed on the flip side.
The Jacquet Droz Parrot Repeater Pocket Watch is another example that showcases the manufacture’s mastery of diverse artistic skills. The macaw on the case back is rendered using grand feu enamelling, whereas the scene of the two parrots protecting their young ones is brought to life using engraving, miniature painting and hand-applique. The dial cover brings to fore the manufacture’s gem-setting knowhow. Tying it all together in one harmonious package is the fact that the pocket watch features Jaquet Droz’s signature automaton function, whereby the parrots move in sync with the chimes of the minute repeater.