The first enamel pocket watches
The birthplace of these highly decorative timepieces was the town of Blois in the Loire Valley, where in the 16th century a thriving community of miniature portrait painters and artisans grew up around the French court.
Early watches were oval in shape and worn on a chain around the neck, and the finest enamel artists were employed to decorate the cases.
As Watches consultant and author Richard Chadwick explains, the level of research, precision and talent required to make these timepieces was such that only the wealthiest nobles could afford one.
‘When you are firing enamel at temperatures of around 1,000°C, the chances of it shattering when it contracts are high,’ he says. ‘To get one perfectly painted case you may have destroyed several in the process, so it was a hugely expensive undertaking.’
The move to Switzerland
Had it not been for Louis XIV revoking the Edict of Nantes in 1685, France might still be the centre of the enamel watch industry today. Denied the right to worship freely, however, thousands of Huguenots fled France for countries sympathetic to their Calvinist beliefs.
Many goldsmiths, mechanists and enamellers made their way to Geneva, where there was a modest trade in watches. ‘The Huguenots brought with them intricate engraving tools and skills in filigree and enamel work that transformed the Swiss market,’ notes Chadwick.
The key eras of enamel pocket watches
There are two important periods for enamel pocket watches: the first quarter of the 1600s, and the two decades from 1800 to 1820.
In the 17th century, enamel pocket watches were crafted in gold and painted with scenes of an allegorical or mythical nature. One of the most famous artisans at the time was the French-born Pierre Huaud (sometimes spelt Huaut), who moved to Geneva in 1630 and established a dynasty of celebrated enamel painters working for the Brandenburg court.
The Huaud family broke away from the French tradition of painting in pastel shades, instead producing scenes in rich, highly coloured, translucent enamels.
Until the early 19th century, such luxury items were commissioned only by the European elite, but in 1800 requests started coming in from China. This era saw the emergence of pocket watches with complicated musical movements and mechanical actions whose functions were exaggerated and made visible so that buyers could marvel at their intricacy.
‘The early 1800s was the golden age of automata,’ says Chadwick. ‘Chinese emperors loved novelty and anything mechanical, so the market adapted.’
The rise of automata
This was an era of technological innovation, with experiments in electricity and mechanics pioneered by scientists such as Michael Faraday also having an impact on religion and philosophy.
New ideas such as Galvanism — the notion that the origins of life were generated by animal electricity — filtered into the literature of the time: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein imagined what it would be like to build a larger-than-life human monster, while in The Sandman, E.T.A. Hoffmann recounted the descent into madness of a poet who falls in love with a lifelike mechanical doll.
‘We often don’t fully appreciate the sheer wonder these timepieces produced in people at the time,’ says Chadwick. ‘Many of those early automata were seen as magical, and there were cases of watchmakers being accused of witchcraft and being imprisoned.’
Perhaps the most famous examples were those of Pierre Jaquet-Droz, a Swiss clockmaker who specialised in complicated striking mechanisms. To advertise his abilities, he built three life-size humanoid automata, which simulated breathing and performed tasks such as writing a letter.
The clockmaker travelled with these curiosities all over Europe and may have been the inspiration for Hoffmann’s uncanny story. ‘There are several accounts of Jaquet-Droz being imprisoned for sorcery in Spain, but little evidence to back it up,’ says Chadwick.
The current market for enamel pocket watches
Demand for these rare timepieces has hit record levels again in the past few years, says Chadwick. ‘In the 1980s, they took a back seat, when the market for wristwatches took off. But as the latter are now financially out of reach for many collectors, interest in pocket watches has revived.’
Collectors of wristwatches are also beginning to look back in time, fascinated by the technology of these centuries-old timepieces. There is a reverence for fine craftsmanship, says Chadwick. ‘Each work is unique because it is handmade, which makes a big difference in a digital world.’
Top-end watchmakers such as Patek Philippe still employ enamel artists to make one-off pieces like the rare 18k pink-gold watch above, representing a map of North America.
Even for novice collectors, there are still masterpieces to be had. ‘Early 17th-century enamel pocket watches can go for as little as £5,000 [$7,000], rising to £20,000 [$28,000] and above for a watch with illustrious provenance,’ says Chadwick. ‘This is one of the last areas of watch collecting in which beautiful pieces can be found for relatively modest prices.’
Works from the 19th century tend to be more expensive, he adds. ‘It is all down to the complexity of the mechanism and the quality of the enamelling. If it is really superb, the watch will become very desirable.’
One of the reasons the sales of these timepieces have remained resilient is that buyers recognise that a high-quality pre-owned enamel pocket watch is a safe investment, sufficiently unique as a work of art to guarantee it will go up in value.
What to look for
Check the condition carefully, advises Chadwick: ‘Enamelling is tough and impervious, but it can get damaged. Study the case for hairline cracks. It is almost certain that the mechanism will have been worked on at some point, too, so check the quality of the restoration.’
The identity of the enameller is not necessarily important, he says. ‘Enamellers were revered at the time and their work was considered as important as painting, but few were ever known outside the industry — although a signed enamel watch will command a premium when it occasionally appears on the market. The key consideration is whether the watch is painted with skill.’
Incorrect provenance doesn’t have to be a bad thing, either: 19th-century enamel timepieces were often signed ‘London’ despite being made in Geneva.
‘The Chinese were keen on English fashion, art and culture, so many pocket watches were decorated with idealised scenes of the British countryside,’ explains the specialist.
As a result, engravings by Francis Wheatley and Sir Joshua Reynolds were copied onto watches that were then signed as having been made in London. The country scene on the highly decorative Ilbery timepiece above is a classic example of the kind of image popular in China in the early 1800s.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
Where to see enamel pocket watches
Chadwick recommends the Patek Philippe Museum, a temple to watchmaking in a beautiful Art Deco building in central Geneva. As well as an unrivalled collection of enamel pocket watches, from the earliest period right up to today, it has some ‘quite extraordinary automata, and the first ever solar-powered watch from the 1950s’.