European watches were highly valued in Iran from as early as the Safavid period. Pocket watches are depicted as part of the royal regalia in early Qajar paintings, see for instance a painting of Fath ‘Ali Shah by Mirza Baba from an important copy of the Diwan-i Khaqan, now in the Royal Collection (Julian Raby, Qajar Portraits, exhibition catalogue, London, 1999, pp.40-43, no.111). The fashion for watches seems to have developed from then. The Austrian physician Jakob Polak wrote that ‘in Iran watches were carried in a pouch in a man’s sash and consulted especially during Ramadan to ascertain the times of fasting and prayer’. Polak indicates that amongst the watches imported from Europe, hunting watches from England, such as ours, were the preferred (J.E. Polak, Persien, das Land und seine Bewohner, I, Leipzig, 1865, p.156, quoted in Stephen Vernoit, Occidentalism, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London, 1997, p.124, no.69).
This pocket watch, which bears the name both of Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar and Mu'ayyir al-Mamalik was probably given as a present from one to the other. Dust Muhammad Khan Mu'ayyir al-Mamalik (AH 1273-1331/1856-1913 AD) was married to 'Ismat al-Dawla, the daughter of Nasir al-Din Shah. Appointed as treasurer and head of the Royal Mint. He showed little interest in these roles and travelled to Karbala and then to Egypt without the Shah's permission. In an attempt to bring him back into service, the Shah appointed him the Iranian delegate at the opening of the Suez canal. Dust Muhammad however ignored the Shah's command instead moved to Paris for three years. Finally, after his wife's intercession he received the pardon of the Shah and moved back to Iran. It may be that this watch was given to the Shah then, on his return from Europe.
A watch with the portrait of Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar sold at Sotheby’s Geneva, Important Watches, 13 November 2011, lot 194.