BOOKREVIEW: Thomas Engel - An autobiography

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Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

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Sep 23, 2001
Bookreview by Fortunat F. Mueller-Maerki

Thomas Engel, “Thomas Engel, a modern Thomas Edison, An Autobiography”,

published 2003 by Costa Maritim, Wiesbaden (Germany),

ISBN 3-00-011996-5 (in separate English and German editions) , paperback, 300 pages, 15 Euros plus shipping.

Like most students of horology I first came across Thomas Engel as the author of the 1993 book “A.-L. Breguet, Watchmaker to Kings, Thoughts on Time” (ISBN 3-85725-114-x), one of the most lavishly produced horological volumes in the last decade. More recently he was in the news when the depth of his collection of superb Breguet pocket watches (and others of similar importance) became apparent when Antiquorum in Geneva held a superbly documented, single-owner auction of about 150 world-class watches in 2001. In the auction catalogue one could learn that this collector was a self-taught, self-made inventor who had also taught himself watchmaking up to the level of making his own tourbillion watch.When I heard about an autobiography I decided that I wanted to learn more about the motivations of a fellow timekeeping nut, although this watch collector obviously had at his disposal more means, energy and skills than I ever will.

Engel, born 1927 in Germany, never finished school due to wartime interruptions, and never had any formal professional or business training, but got a head start as a “kitchen helper”for the US Army (and black-market goods trader) in the chaotic aftermath of WW2. A love of reading and self-study, coupled with street-smarts, untamed curiosity, ambition and energy, soon made him start a one-man business in the then new area of plastics processing. Disregarding conventional chemistry and physics wisdom he invented several new processes and plastic materials. A tinkerer, truth seeker and inventor at heart he decided early on to make his living selling licenses and collecting royalties, rather than becoming a manufacturer.

Engel’s introduction to horology came in the early 1950’s, when his UK licensee turned out to be serious collector of Breguet timepieces, who gave him a copy of Sir David Salomon’s Breguet book as a gift . Engel caught the watch collector’s bug, just as he came into his first chunk of disposable income. In his single-minded –if not to say obsessive- manner that characterized all his endeavors he started to study Breguet and collect his masterpieces. Engel taught himself watchmaking, taking a special interest in the techniques used to produce fine rose-engine cut dials in the style of Breguet. With his inherent mechanical aptitude he became a good dial and casemaker, but employed formally trained craftsman to make unique movements for the watches that bore his name on the dial.

The charm –and weakness- of autobiographies of this kind is that they clearly are not “literature”, but “:stream-of-consciousness” narrative, probably told to a tape-recorder and then transcribed, and only lightly edited. This process also unavoidably leads to numerous small factual errors. This is not primarily a horological book. Engel’s family, his inventions and his career get first billing, but there are significant horological tidbits (well known watchmakers like Alfred Hellwig and Richard Danners make their appearance, meetings with prominent dealers like Edgar Mannheimer, Tina Millar and Richard Faulkinert are described, as are once important collectors like Cyril Rosedale and Seth Atwood) to fascinate a horologist.

If you don’t like this style of self-serving autobiography don’t bother to buy this book, but if you enjoy anyway the somewhat voyeuristic pleasure of an unvarnished self-description of a successful self-made-man the many horological threads that wind through the narrative will be appealing to horological collectors, who may well see sides of themselves in the sometimes obsessive ways Tom Engel pursued his vocational and avocational interests.

FMM / 15 August 2004

Jon Hanson

Golden Circle
Aug 24, 2000
Boston, Ma.
REVIEW: Thomas Engel - An autobiography

Great review, F.

Thanks for the trouble! Keep them coming (reviews).


Registered User
Nov 15, 2003
REVIEW: Thomas Engel - An autobiography

Thanks from me too. Definitely the sort of book one wouldn't be likely to read, but one that could be invaluable to take a look at if you were doing research on an area touched on.


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