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Pocket Watch History

The Early Pocket Watch

Pocket watch history spans from the 1500s through to modern society. One of the earliest mentions of the antique pocket watch dates back to 1462- in a letter written by an Italian clock-maker mentioning that his pocket watch was superior to that of the Duke of Modena.

This image doesn’t represent what is now thought of as a pocket watch, but it is a very early design of one. It is the oldest clock watch that was crafted by Peter Henlein, dating back to 1510. This type of watch type is also known as a ‘Nuremberg egg’ due to its shape and height. Doubt has been cast about this timepiece’s authenticity, however. In the 1500s, there were three types of these clock watches made: high cylindrical drum watches used on tables or carried in purses, flat cylindrical watches, and spherical drum watches which were worn on chain around the neck – popular from 1580s.

Spring-operated clocks were crafted at the end of the 16th century in Germany and Italy. German watch-maker, Peter Henlein, is credited for this, as he brought his spring-loaded watch designs to Britain in the 1520s. By the mid-16th century, pocket watches were manufactured across much of Europe. At this time, the minute hand was tentatively used along with an increased number of wheels, introduced through Henlein’s inner spring design.

At this time, jewels – usually rubies – were used as bearings within the watch, as they made the time pieces run more smoothly. Adding to their value, pocket watches at this time were largely crafted from precious metals such as gold.

The natural counterpart to smaller pocket watches is watch chains. The chain is secured to a waistcoat, lapel, or belt loop, and the watch is prevented from being dropped. Watch chains were often decorated with a pendant which held a coat of arms, along with items such as a winding key, cigar cutter, and vesta case. Cumbersome watch chains often featured leather straps and fobs for attaching the pocket watch. Only the hour hand was featured on these early watches; the minute hand wasn’t regularly seen on watches until the late 17th century. Used by the upper classes and the working classes, pocket watches were an essential tool for all. Blacksmiths in particular frequently fashioned designs for the pocket watch. These earlier models were mainly made from steel rather than precious metals.

Pocket watches were the most common watch type from the 16th century until wrist watches became more practical in the wake of World War I in the early 20th century. The development of wrist watches began from the fact that pocket watches were impractical for combat, indirectly creating the trench watch. It is not known who specifically was the first to create the trench watch; the first series of watches that were produced were for the German navy in 1880. Until the 1930s, they were called ‘wristlets’, which was later replaced with the name ‘wrist watch’.

trench watch

gold pocket watch


Vintage and antique timepieces have risen in popularity in modern society. The pocket watch and watch chain combination is especially popular for modern formal events.

Pocket watches are a unisex accessory also, and though women’s pocket watches aren’t as common, there are still plenty of vintage and antique examples to be found. Albert watch chains and double Albert watch chains are the most common and popular watch chains available to purchase in contemporary society.

pocket watch history

antique vesta case

gold vesta case

history of pocket watches

Louise SnowdonWebsite Content Contributor / Sales Professional

Louise joined AC Silver with a passion for the world of antiquities and jewellery. Louise also assists the marketing team by representing the business on many social media outlets.

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Andrew Campbell started trading in antiques during the 1970s. Initially, Andrew lived in the South of England, travelling the country, searching for items of silver to buy. Andrew sold these items at various London markets and antique fairs. Over time, and through selling at a range of venues, Andrew built up a large and diverse customer base from private buyers to national and international trade customers.
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