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, no.111, pp.40-43). 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’ (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). It is thought that the fashion for watches decorated with a portrait of the monarch came from Ottoman Turkey, where they first appeared under Sultan Abdülmecid I (r.1839-1861). Indeed our watch bears the word Constantinople on the back of the movement, after the name of the maker. It is possible that it travelled from Switzerland to Constantinople to be decorated before making its way to Iran.
A pocket watch also decorated with an enamelled portrait of Muzaffar al-Din Shah is in the Khalili Collection (Vernoit, op.cit., 1997, p.124, no.69). Others have sold at Sotheby’s, 8 October 2014, lot 176 and 7 October 2015, lot 399.