New Takes on Old-Time Pocket Watches
by roberta naas
Just a few months ago at the Christie’s Important Watches Auction, Lot Number 71—a fine 18k pink-gold Patek Philippe pocket watch that was manufactured in 1898 and sold in 1900 to Stephen S. Palmer, former director of the National City Bank of New York and then-president of the newly formed New Jersey Zinc Company—achieved an amazing price of just over $2.25 million. While this was no ordinary pocket watch (it offered a minute repeater, perpetual calendar, split-seconds chronograph, grande and petite sonnerie, and moon-phase indicator), its sale reflected the revived interest of collectors and watch aficionados in vintage and newly released pocket watches.
“We have seen a renewed trend in wearing pocket watches for special events, such as weddings or anniversaries,” says John Reardon, head of watches for Christie’s Americas. “It is a way to honor the past, the present, and the future because today’s pocket watches can be tomorrow’s heirlooms.” According to Reardon, people are buying new pocket watches due to their passion for the workmanship and classic beauty. “These watches embody a true way to own historically inspired modern watches.”
Further evidence of the allure of the pocket watch can be seen in the number of brands creating them in their current collections. About 10 years ago, you could count on one hand the watch brands offering new pocket watches. Today, that number has more than doubled. True heritage brands such as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and Chopard all offer a pocket watch selection. Additionally, brands with a younger history, such as Parmigiani Fleurier and Bell & Ross are also embracing the concept.
“What makes pocket watches so relevant today is that they offer a connection to the past, to tradition, which so many people are seeking,” says Stacie Orloff, president of the Americas for Bell & Ross. “There is a romance to it.” Orloff says that many of the Bell & Ross pocket-watch wearers are young and looking for a little historical inspiration. The Bell & Ross pocket watches that start at about $3,000 give watch lovers new options. “Many of the young hipsters find that pocket watches make an individual statement. We even have women who love them as pendants, or as a special and unique gift for a boyfriend.”
As top watch brands turn closer attention to their archives for inspiration, many are unveiling modern-day pocket watches that have more to offer than just time in the pocket. Some brands are creating new renditions of original designs, but are adding a twist, such as developing stylishly updated clasps and closures for the chains or offering the watch on a leather fob instead of on traditional chains. Other makers are recalling the past but with a nod toward today’s discerning clientele by adding versatility. Several key brands are unveiling pocket watches as convertible pieces that can be changed from a pocket watch to a wristwatch and, in some instances, even a table clock. These new interchangeable watches are cleverly engineered using different systems (including wristwatch cradles or fold down partial-hunter casebacks) that let the wearer convert the timepiece with ease.
“Today’s more versatile pocket watches that can also be worn as wristwatches offer men more choices, leading to a resurgence of interest in pocket watches,” says Jack Forster, editor-in-chief of Revolution, a watch industry publication, and owner of several pocket watches. Forster says wearing a pocket watch is a private pleasure because it remains hidden until the wearer chooses to bring it out and check the time, thereby making a very distinct statement. “As sartorially minded men dress and consider accessories, they enjoy wearing a pocket watch because of its elegant and classic appeal.”
For watch brands, the challenge of bringing today’s pocket watches to the forefront involves creating them out of new materials, or with unusual twists and turns. While many of the truly heritage-inspired pieces continue to be made in precious metals such as platinum and rose gold, some of the newer interpretations are offered in stainless steel and revered high-tech materials such as ceramic, titanium, or a diamond-like carbon coating. Some brands also blend tradition and modernity by adding fine details such as skeletonized movements, tourbillon escapements, and other functions.
Price range is also a consideration when it comes to properly marketing the pocket watch. Naturally, the luxury brands offer precious metals and complex mechanics that demand prices of tens of thousands of dollars. Other brands, in an effort to attract new clientele, have priced their steel pocket watches in the range of several thousand dollars. This more approachable price tag is a perfect fit for the younger customer who enjoys wearing the pocket watch in new ways, such as from belt loops and in pants pockets.
Hugues de Pins, president of Vacheron Constantin North America, agrees. “We see some people wearing pocket watches with jeans on a single or double chain, often with the chain attached to the belt loop, and with the pocket watch in the pants pocket instead of a traditional waistcoat pocket,” he says. He is quick to add that pants pockets are not the ideal place for delicate pocket watches due to the company of coins and keys. “Many of our DC area customers, though, are in business or politics, so they tend to wear suits and waistcoats, and the watch adds a touch of elegance.” Vacheron Constantin, which offers a very classic, archive-inspired platinum pocket watch, puts its watch on a leather cord and sells it with a leather holding pouch for a luxurious, modern-day appeal.
photography by jeff crawford/big top studio; courtesy of patek philippe; styling by terry lewis; suiting courtesy of ferragamo; modeling courtesy of direct model management;