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Distinguishing between men's and ladies' pocket watches?

vivian886

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Sep 6, 2011
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Hello all,

I have been exclusively a collector of ladies' antique pocket watches for a few years now. Currently, the pieces in my collection span from the 1790s to the 1910s, with provenance from France, USA, England, Switzerland, and Germany (movements range from standard cylindre, early cylindre, to various fusees). I have generally used two main criteria to differentiate 19th Century ladies' watches from men's pocket watches:

1) Fancy, floral engraved case back (with the exception of plain case backs under 40mm);
2) Case diameter of 42mm or less (with the exception of the ladies' 10-size hunter-case keywinds which were around 44mm). Also, men's pocket watches of the "Art Deco" (1915-1940) era became smaller in size at around 40mm-44mm, so such Art Deco examples are not to be confused with ladies' timepieces (which had begun to transition into dainty wristwatches).

I exclusively collect the bigger ladies' "pocket watches", not the smaller pendant watches (which are by and large easy to discern as ladies' watches). Sometimes, however, I am confused, and am not sure if my criteria above is all that accurate. I must admit my knowledge is still quite lacking.
For instance, I often see many 43mm and 44mm pieces on Ebay and other sites with ornate floral engravings all over the case -- were these men's or ladies' models? The decorative engravings would signify ladies, but the size is much more unisex. Some examples of 43mm:

pic3.jpg pic4.jpg pic5.jpg

Three examples of ornate gentlemen's pieces: 1857 43mm, 1890 53mm, and 1897 54mm, respectively:

pic8.JPG pic9.JPG pic10.JPG
pic11.JPG pic12.JPG
pic13.JPG pic14.JPG

And finally, a couple of ladies' examples from my own collection: 44mm Lady Elgin keywind (1880), 37mm James McCabe fusee (1874), 43mm early English fusee (1825), and 40mm English fusee (1860):

lady-elgin_1880-3.jpg lady-elgin_1880.jpg
mccabe.JPG mccabe3.JPG
IMG_0847.jpg IMG_0846.jpg
liverpool_fusee.JPG liverpool_fusee5.JPG

As you can see, there are many overlapping features between men's and ladies' antique watches. I myself have had trouble distinguishing them, and were it not for the opinions of the sellers, I probably would have had a lot more difficulty with the distinction.

So, are there any reliable, fool-proof observable features that define a ladies' pocket watch from a men's? And was 43mm usually a men's or ladies' size?

(To anyone wondering, the purpose of this thread is to satiate my own -- and anyone else's -- curiosity of horological history from a gendered lens.)

pic.jpg pic2.jpg pic3.jpg pic4.jpg pic5.jpg pic8.JPG pic9.JPG pic10.JPG pic11.JPG pic12.JPG pic13.JPG pic14.JPG lady-elgin_1880-3.jpg lady-elgin_1880.jpg mccabe.JPG mccabe3.JPG IMG_0847.jpg IMG_0846.jpg liverpool_fusee.JPG liverpool_fusee5.JPG
 
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graybear4539

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Hi Vivian. My wife used to wear a tiny lady's Rolex. In the years, she found increasingly difficult read hands, and now wears a 40 mm watch, bigger than mine. I do not think there's a definite way to tell exactly man from ladies watches, but, in any case, size is the most evident thing. By the way, smaller pws have a quite lower value, as far as I know
regards
mario
 

Jerry Treiman

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In my collecting of American ladies watches I have found size to be the principal factor related to gender, tempered by vintage. Among the American watches there was a definite progression to smaller sizes for both men and women. So, for any particular era, the ladies watches were smaller than the men's, but as you also observe, men's dress watches of the 1920 or '30s might be smaller than a ladies watch of the 1860s. For the American watches we also often have the advantage of original or reproduction catalogs and advertisements from different eras from which we can judge the intended customer. For instance, I have an American 12-size watch from the 1860s. It is described in the period factory catalog as a ladies watch, yet this size is almost exclusively a man's watch in the ensuing decades.


I am not as well versed in European pieces, but still believe that size criteria probably should be judged against age. As for decoration, I would not be surprised if European men were more accepting of a fancy watch than their American counterparts.


Here is an assemblage of American ladies watches, from 8-size down to 7-1/2 lignes.

ladies.jpg
 

artbissell

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VERY NICE and interesting images and text here. Really small 26mm antique that is not rare using the clumsy verge escapement and runs fine today. artbissell

Copy%20of%20IMG_1313a.jpg IMG_1289a.jpg Copy%20of%20IMG_1308a.jpg
 
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artbissell

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I BELIEVE this huge 18 size gold fill multicolor hunter was a woman's watch originally. DECO, as normally seen on little mc for ladies, is completely feminine. Also big mc cases rarely gold fill, especially for men artbissell

IMG_9034acopy.jpg IMG_9033a.jpg IMG_9033ax.jpg IMG_9034ax.jpg

IMG_9034acopy.jpg IMG_9033a.jpg IMG_9033ax.jpg IMG_9034ax.jpg
 
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vivian886

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Sep 6, 2011
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graybear4539: Yes, it is indeed quite interesting to see how wristwatch fashion has come full circle nowadays. And ladies' antique pocket and pendant watches were in general smaller than men's, yes, but as Jerry notes, even this criteria is not reliable and overlaps depending on the decade in question. A 10-size piece from 1870 America was likely a ladies' model, as evidenced by Elgin and Waltham's early keywind models (Dexter St., Lady Elgin, Gail Borden, etc). These were very large ladies' models, checking in at 44mm diameter. Meanwhile, the standard 18- and 16-sizes of 19th century men's pocket watches shrunk to 12- and 10-sizes in the first half of the 20th century, and at 40mm to 44mm these Art Deco pieces were sometimes smaller than Victorian-era ladies' pocket watches. See here:

pic3.JPG pic4.JPG pic5.jpg


Jerry: Interesting information. I think a large part of the reason men's pocket watches shrunk down to smaller sizes in the 1920s is due in part to the cultural climate of "micro-engineering". Suddenly, it became prestigious to have the smallest timepiece contemporary mechanical engineering could allow (also the fact that men drafted into the war found it much more convenient to wear a smaller wristwatch). From the 1920s on, there also seemed to be a clear gender divide beginning, with women's tiny wristwatches becoming in vogue while men's dress pieces (i.e. non-sport or non-military) largely still remained in pocket watch form. Alas, I haven't perused very many watch catalogs from the period, as they are difficult to find -- indeed they would be a very prolific source of information on this topic.
On a side note, yes, European men's pocket watches were generally "fancier" than their American counterparts. Here's an example of an ~1860 Swiss 46mm-diameter men's watch (I'm assuming men's because of the size):

pic6.jpg pic7.jpg


artbissell: Those tiny 18th-century verge fusees are quite the mechanical marvels, aren't they? I found another 27mm-diameter verge from 1790s France while perusing the 'Bay. Stills works perfectly. (And I even recall seeing a 22mm piece somewhere before; may have been the smallest verge fusee in existence.) Funnily, ladies' pocket watch sizes went from really tiny in the late 1700s, to really big in the late 1800s, and then back to tiny pendant and wristwatches in the early 20th century.
Regarding your 18s/54mm American example, I'm not all that sure it was definitively a ladies' model. I've seen some multi-colored men's pieces before, so this may not be an exclusively feminine feature (but I may be wrong). It seems a 54mm watch would be inordinately cumbersome for a Victorian-era woman to carry around while donning the tight and elaborate dresses of her time.

pic.JPG pic2.jpg
 
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artbissell

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VIVIAN: Very interesting and appreciated examples and descriptions. With a fair sized collection of mc watch cases the big one shown is definitely decorated in feminine style in my opinion. I have quite a few of these 18 size that are all in either no object designs or horse, elk, deer, rr engine, ship, etc; never floral.
However, it may have been a woman's choice of decoration for a gift to a man, perhaps not too well appreciated, judging by its unused condition. Couple of men's no subject styles. 16s and 18s. artbissell
 

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vivian886

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artbissell: Thanks for sharing -- I stand corrected. Those multi-colored 18s cases do seem to be very large ladies' examples. Interesting; I never would have thought ladies' watches got as big as 18-size. Stunning pieces you have there.
 

Neuron

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As has been said, size (smaller) and frilliness (more) are suggestive of a lady's watch. Some were specifically marketed as such and you could check the old catalogues and advertisements. Also, some were designed to be carried as pendants, rather than in the pocket or on a coat chain, which would be a pretty good indication of a lady's watch. And some had images and decorations that were decidedly "feminine" or "masculine." Then there are dead give-aways, like personal engravings, where the owner is clearly a woman. Your watch photo #6 says "To E. Peel." Maybe Emma Peel? Would have been quite remarkable if it had also said "From J. Stead"...
 

vivian886

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Sep 6, 2011
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Neuron: I have some antique "pendant" watches in my collection; they are definitely ladies' as they are all under 31mm in size. Over the years I've seen some personal engravings on dust-covers which revealed interesting provenance (a famous biographer, outspoken suffragette, a student gifted the watch by teachers, among others), and of course they are dead giveaways as to the original owner. I am unsure about the particular engraving in photo#6, but I'm fairly sure this is not the 1960s' actress you're thinking of. :)
 
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Jerry Treiman

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I BELIEVE this huge 18 size gold fill multicolor hunter was a woman's watch originally. DECO, as normally seen on little mc for ladies, is completely feminine. Also big mc cases rarely gold fill, especially for men artbissell
I have a hard time believing that any woman would carry an 18-size watch. I find it much easier to believe that a man might appreciate a fancy watch, even if not decorated with a manly theme.

Art - do any of your 16 and 18 size multicolor cases have inscriptions? Can you tell if they were owned by a man or a woman from the inscription?
 

artbissell

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JERRY, YES hard to believe, but being from a rural background from Vermont and Nebraska I have a little different perspective about the interests of some thoroughly feminine country women and their personal interests.

The gold fill 18s has no personal engraving, and none on only 4 other 18s solids. artbissell
 

Jerry Treiman

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Vivian - would you consider this Swiss verge fusee to have been a ladies watch? It is in a fairly plain case with simple engine turning on the back. The case is about 42 mm across, not counting the pendant. It is probably from the first half of the 19th century.
 

vivian886

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Sep 6, 2011
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Jerry: I have a number of smaller (below 40mm) pocket watches with rather "plain" engine-turned engravings on the case, and I've always considered these to be ladies' because of the size (the sellers also seemed to agree that these were ladies' watches). My American Waltham example below (6s, 42mm case) with a relatively-simple case is a ladies' model, for example. However, a lot of the judgement depends on the time period; it was a lot more common for there to be bigger (42mm+) ladies' watches in the late-Victorian period. In the early 19th century, smaller men's pocket watches were a lot more common (esp. in England and other parts of Europe), so judging by your attached photo, I would say it was a smaller men's piece of the period.

waltham-lady3.jpg waltham-lady4.jpg
 

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