[colour=red]Memoirs of a Watch Case Engraver

By Fritz Baumgartner


Memoirs of a Watch Case Engraver – The Autobiography of Fritz A. Baumgartner (1866-1943); by Fritz A. Baumgartner, translated and Edited by Brian Pittman. Published 2007 by Lulu.com, softcover, 297 pages, many black and white illustrations, ISBN 1-4303-2311-2), available from www.lulu.com ), approx. $22 (softcover) or $34 (hardcover) plus postage. [color=black]


The text portion of this book was written down as a manuscript from 1941 to 1942 by Fritz Baumgartner and translated from German to English in 2007 by his great-grandson Brian Pittman. This story recounts the hardships and successes in the life of one individual during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Central to his autobiography are the Swiss immigrant experience and a struggling watch case industry confronting the Industrial Revolution. Upon immigrating to the United States in 1904, Fritz was one of 27 employees at the fledgling Star Watch Case Company, where he remained for over 25 years as an engraver and designer of watchcases. When the factory moved from Elgin, Illinois to Ludington, Michigan, Fritz remained with the Engraving Department until his retirement in 1931. Much of his work seems to have involved special order, one of a kind designs of engraved gold pocket watches, an item that was still fashionable among the affluent in the 1920s, but which disappeared during the depression.

This narrative (including the reproductions of a score of surviving pertinent family photographs) takes up 87 pages. It focuses on family history and offers glimpses into the socio-economic environment of a highly skilled manual laborer in the horological industry of that time. In the opinion of this reviewer the text however is quite tedious to read: For one thing Fritz was certainly a better engraver than a writer (and in declining health by thetime he penned his memoirs), and the quality of the translation is somewhat disappointing. The descendant who painstakingly undertook the huge task to first transcribe the hard to decipher handwriting, and then translated the resulting text from colloquial, allemanic German into English admits to not knowing German and using primarily online translation software to make sense of the text. It is also obvious that the translator is neither familiar with the late 19th century environment in Switzerland covered in the first half of the text, nor with the watch case industry. Based on my own knowledge of both subject matters and the language of the original I was able to spot at least one serious error on most pages: All too often, whenever the published text seemed strange, I was able to guess the intended meaning only by reverse translating, by searching for a German word that had an alternative meaning from the one chosen by the translator and his software. There are numerous instances where one or two misinterpreted letters from the manuscript led to an English word that makes little sense in the context. In the view of this reviewer translation software can give you a rough outline of the story, but the details and nuances really get lost. It is a pitty the translator was not abel to get anybody interested in the project who knew more on the subjects and languages involved.

For the horologist the meat of the book is after the narrative, in the middle part, where 137 pages are devoted to full page reproductions of the surviving sketchbooks and worksheets of Fritz Baumgartner. Much of this kind of original sources of horological history have not survived given their ephemeral nature. There you find images of literally hundreds of drawn designs by Fritz BAumgartners hand for pocket watch cases, monograms etc. There is everything from vague sketches to fully executed drawings to make master pantograph plates. There are geometric patterns, decorative ornaments and representational drawings of locomotives, wildlife, portraits and figures, and much more. Mr. Pittman deserves the gratitude of the hororological comunity for having published this rare material. Unfortunately that vast trove of information is completely unstructured and unlabeled. We don’t know when or why Fritz created which drawing, which were ever used, etc. That section of the book contains much “raw material” for research on watch case iconography, but the book contains no research findings on the subject of watch cases or their engraving.

The third part of the book (52 pages) probably is of little interest to anybody but members of the Baumgartner clan. It reproduces about 100 old family photographs from the estate of Fritz Baumgartner, many of them unlabeled or unidentified.

I applaud the translator for making the huge effort to make this material available to a readership beyond the family, but fear that both, the morsels of horological history within the text and the visual information from the central part of the book, are unlikely to be consulted or used widely by horologists because they are presented in such an unfinished, unstructured and “user-un-friendly” way.

Bookreview by Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Sussex NJ
July 12, 2007


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