REVIEW: Droz: The Keys of Time (Watchkeys) 2012

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Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

NAWCC Star Fellow
NAWCC Fellow
NAWCC Life Member
Sep 23, 2001
A Comprehensive –although Francocentric- History of the Watch Key

The Keys of Time – The Comprehensive Book of Watch Keys. By Yves Droz, published in 2012 by the author (simultaneously in English and French language editions of 650 copies each, French title: Les clefs du temps – Le grand livre des clefs de montres). ISBN 978-2-918999-02-7; 384 pages, 31 cm x 24 cm, hardcover, in sturdy slipcase. Priced at Euro 89.-(ca. US$110) plus shipping, available at (PayPal accepted).

Winding keys for pocket watches, a necessity before stem winding gradually became the norm in the second half of the 19th century, are a subject few watch collectors think much about. If no key comes with a key wind watch, cheap replacement keys are easily and cheaply available, and even historic keys are more often than not strictly functional. But most horological enthusiasts have at least occasionally run across a watch key that is most memorable, maybe one that picks up a decorative element of the watchcase, or has additional functions or features, and many watch keys are a highly decorative and artisanal object in their own right, including custom made, one-of-kind watch keys.

The published literature on the subject of watch keys so far had been very limited: In the course of over 60 years the cumulative index of the NAWCC Bulletin lists only about 20 articles that merited the keyword ‚watch key‘. This reviewer knows of only a handful of past monograph publications dealing with the subject, and they all are small books[1], mostly catalogues of small private collections or temporary museum special exhibits. And the only one dating from the current century is in German and French.

But now there is a splendid, voluminous monograph in English by Yves Droz, a pillar of the French horological collectors’ world, who over the last 10+ years has systematically hunted for unusual or unique historic watch keys, and researched the history of the watch key. Fancy watch keys are really miniature works of art, often incorporating precious metal, gemstones, ivory, porcelain, mosaics, paintings, sculpture and a wide variety of special functions or decorative techniques. Some even contain miniature watches of their own.

The book begins with a short overview of the history of the watch key, which also includes full text reprints of two early 20th century articles (by Alfred Baillard (1908), and Mathieu Planchon) dealing with the history of watch keys. There follows a discussion of the earliest watch keys, which functionally were winding cranks rather than winding keys.

The main section of the book (encompassing over 300 large format pages) basically documents several hundred different outstanding examples of watch keys of every conceivable material, decoration and function. In this part, the images take over half of the pages, often in very significant magnification. Watch key illustration that may cover up to 100x the area of the physical key allow the reader to experience the object with an intensity that exceeds even the use of a good magnifying glass.

The list of materials and decorative techniques covered is extensive: Enamel, hair-jewelry, cameos, hard stone mosaics, paper maché, mother-of-pearl, porcelain, steel, wood, pearls, ivory, precious metal, gemstones, glass, coral and jade. There are also keys incorporating various coins, medals and tokens. Special categories include keys with references to revolutionary, imperial or Masonic themes, and special sections on rustic Swiss, Chinese, Dutch and German keys. Keys with additional features include: cigar cutters, magnifying glasses, counters, charms, plaques, calendars, balance cocks, hands, rebuses, advertising, and keys-within-keys. Special functions include automatons, perpetual calendars, compasses, thermometers, peepholes, slide viewers, mechanical music, hooks, seals, weapons, hidden memories, erotica, and even erotic automatons. All these are described and illustrated, and the quality of the photography and printing is excellent.

Inserted into this panoply is a 20 page chapter dealing with the regional history of industrial watch key manufacturing in the town of Plancher-les-Mines, in the Franche-Comté region of France, especially the A. Spindler Fils et Cie. enterprise.

The English translation (no translator is credited) is fine, even if the language is not quite as precise and elegant as the French language original (ISBN 978-2-918999-09-6). The final proof reading of the English edition was not quite as thorough as it could have been: The first obvious error is a typographical error on the title page, and a few of the page number references in the text to illustrations are off by a few digits, presumably due to a last minute page layout adjustment when the book was being printed.

These are but minor shortcomings in a most valuable addition to the horological literature, a book that is destined to become the standard reference on the subject, a title that belongs into any well stocked horological reference library.

Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Sussex NJ December 2012

[1] The oldest is: Watch Keys as Jewelry, a 1967, 136 pages listing of the S.H. &E.R.Smith collection exhibited at Syracuse University. This is followed by a 12 page listing (undated, no images) of the same collection „The Watch Key Collection presented to Rollins College“. The most substantial book up to now was „Watch-Keys“ ISBN 2-923810-01-06, published 1983, by Kaltenboek and Schwank. The only recent text is „Remonter le Temps – Die Zeit und ihre Schluessel‘, an illustrated 42 page, bilingual (French/German) catalogue of the 2004/2005 temporary exhibits in Winterthur and LeLocle (Switzerland).


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