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rstl99

Survival rates watches from 18th and early 19th centuries (France and England)

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I'm slowly working my way through (savouring) Adolphe Chapiro's "La montre française - du XVIe siècle jusqu'à 1900", Les Éditions de L'Amateur 1991. It has to be the definitive book on vintage french watches.

In the chapter devoted to Julien Le Roy (and his son Pierre), Chapiro writes (my translation):

"Of the 5000 watches produced by the firm "Julien Le Roy" between 1720 and 1779 [father and son], only fifty specimens, whose authenticity is established with certainty, are known to us. For a large portion of those watches, only the movement has been conserved. Even taking account that other watches of Julien Le Roy remain to be discovered, we note that not more than 1 to 2% of these watches have survived. This estimation, which can appear very low, is nonetheless in line with very low numbers associated with known watches of Lépine and Breguet."

I presume the numbers quoted by Chapiro probably also apply to survival rate of old English watches.

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In his excellent book "The Englishman's Watch", Dr. Robert Kemp devotes an entire chapter to "The Massacre of the Watches", describing the wholescale destruction of the gold-cased watches during lean times around WWI and before WWII. And of dealers winding up with "biscuit-tins, butter-boxes, sacks and sea-chests full of movements of all kinds". Some collectors searched through those piles and built up nice collections of old movements, acquired for sixpence each! Many of the remaining countless movements were eventually sold for scrap, or simply "ended up on the rubbish dump or were thrown into the canal". Some were "sold at ninepence a pound to smelters who burned them in the open hearth to recover the small amount of gold in the gilding" (similar to smelters today burning tons of computer and electronic equipment waste to recover gold in contacts etc).

One man from whom Kemp had bought many of his watches over the years, told him that he disposed two or three hundred pounds of movements a week in these manners, to earn a bit of extra income until the outbreak of WWII. Kemp supposes that many others were engaged in the same ploy during those lean times, resulting in the destruction of 10's or maybe even 100's of thousands of watch movements.

Given all this I'm glad to see the number of nice un-cased English movements on auction at any one time. I suppose these must have been picked out at one time from the piles described above, and after these original collectors have deceased, their collections are winding up in circulation and on sale (unless of course, uncaring and unknowledgeable family members have simply thrown that "old pile of rubbish watch parts" to the garbage...)

Add to this all the wars, period of social unrest, economic depressions, technological improvements that replaced older watches, etc etc, it's amazing that any of those old watches have survived at all, except for some like the nice family heirloom Berthoud discussed recently in another post, lovingly kept by family members over generations.

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I've come across an interesting article in Antiquarian Horology (March 2005) by Williams entitled "17th and 18th Century clock demand, production and survival".

Clocks and watches progress through similar yet different survival pathways. A clock can be lost in a house fire but a watch can survive in the owner's pocket. A clock sits calmly on a mantlepiece for decades whereas a pocket watch can be lost while riding on horseback, or pick-pocketed on a day at the fair. An old clock can be relegated to the basement where it will rust and rot, whereas an old watch will gladly sleep forgotten deep in someone's drawer.

In the article, Williams states that "information on survival rates [of clocks] is scarce and problematic. Not only are we reliant on the few makers who numbered their work, there is also the divide between recorded and unrecorded survivals." His detailed analysis of survival of clocks from clockmakers of Kent during the last half of the 18th century, suggests the mean survival rates between 9-11%. However survival rates of older clocks (early to mid 18th century) is typically much lower (1-3%).

This number (1-3%) is quite similar to Chapiro's estimate survival rates of watches of Julien Le Roy (1-2%), which also coincided with the survival rates of later French makers Lépine and Breguet.

Anyway, I find it interesting to reflect on these things. Makes me appreciate even more the few surviving watches and movements I've had a chance to acquire so far. I am only their custodian until the time comes for me or my estate to set them forth again.

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