The solitary watchmaker and hand-made watches

Mar 23, 2021,08:27 AM

I have been thinking about how a hand-made watch can be made by one person, and was provoked by a recent article by Vincent V. Cherico in the Watch & Clock Bulletin from NAWCC.  The article is copyrighted so you will have to go to NAWCC to get the whole thing, but here is his opening page:

In this article, Cherico makes the amazing statement that 

"Perhaps the most important thing to know about English “watchmakers” in the 18th and early 19th centuries is that they rarely spent any time making watches!"

“Watch-maker” might have originally denoted a single person making a watch out of rough materials; but this was the case only in the infancy of the art. That is, until the demand for pocket watches became so great that they became commercial objects. Division of labor was found to speed up their manufacture; and each specialty (there were many!) had its own tools and tradesmen. Thousands of families (yes, children too) were employed creating individual components, without needing communicate with or compete with other specialists, who were making different parts.  The capital investment in tools was reduced for the single-item producer, and skills and speed could be improved more easily than for those trying to make a watch themselves.

NOTE: Of course this was not unique to England. A snow-bound Swiss family beavering away at special mechanisms all winter come to my mind. They would schlepp down to Geneva in the Spring to exchange their handiwork for cash.

At one point in the 19th century, England had an annual production of about 200,000 watches. In the City of London alone (that tiny financial district) 8,000 workers were occupied — producing 10,000 watches a month with 40% destined for local customers and 60% for export.

By 1819, Abraham Rees’s Cyclopedia (you can find this on Google Books; look for chapter 27 Watches) described the process of making watches, and listed:
13 different “principal workmen employed in manufacturing a movement” 

21 additional “workmen employed on a watch to complete it from the state in which the movement is received from the country.”

The 13 trades required to produce the rough movement to be sent to London (in modern English)
  1. Frame (plate) maker working in brass
  2. Pillar-maker, who turned the steel pillars (linking plates, bridges and cock) and made the stud for the stop-work
  3. Cock-maker, who made the balance cock and the stop-work
  4. The barrel and fusee-maker, who made the barrel, great wheel, fusee and parts
  5. Going fusee-maker, a special device that allowed a watch to continue to run while being wound with a key
  6. The center wheel and pinion maker
  7. The small pinion-maker, who used fine drawn wire to create the tiny pinions, the 3rd and 4th wheels, and the escapement-wheel pinion (and pinions of repeater trains, if equipped)
  8. The small wheel-maker, who created the 3rd and 4th wheels and fastened them to their pinions
  9. The wheel-cutter, who cut gear teeth in the wheels
  10. The verge-maker, who mades the verge for watches with vertical escapements
  11. The movement-finisher, who turned the cut wheels to finished/fitted size and put all the movement parts onto the plates
  12. The balance-maker who made the balance wheels of steel or brass
  13.  The pinion wire drawer (if not done by #6 and #7 themselves)

The resulting rough movement, as sent to the London "watchmaker", included the main plate (with all the above parts) and the balance cock screwed to the outside of the upper plate. 

The following two dozen categories of workmen were employed to assemble the watch components and complete a watch AFTER the rough movement arrived:
  1. The slide-maker
  2. The jeweler, who jeweled the cock and the plates, and any other jeweled holes.
  3. The motion-maker, who created the spacers and edge plates and any other pieces required to lock the movement into the case
  4. The motion wheel-cutter who made the rings to edge the gold, brass or steel case
  5. The cap-maker, who mades the cap (crown)
  6. The dial-plate maker, who creates the dial
  7. The dial-painter who puts on the logos, numerals and other decoration
  8. The case maker
  9. The joint-finisher who polishes and completes the cosmetic details of the case
  10. The pendant maker, who creates the bow and other items on top of the case 
  11. The engraver who does the decoration and names of maker, retailer and/or recipient
  12. The piercer who punches, saws and/or decorates the balance cock
  13. The escapement maker
  14. The mainspring maker
  15. The fusee chain maker
  16. The finisher who completes the watch, and adjusts it
  17. The gilder who does gold or other plating of components of the watch
  18. The fusee-cutter who makes the grooves the barrels to receive the chain
  19. The hand-maker who makes the hands for the watch
  20. The glass-maker who makes the crystals
  21. The specialist making springs for opening half-and full-hunter watch cases
  22. The artist who cuts and tunes gongs and chimes for repeater watches
  23. Specialists who create and calibrate temperature-compensated balance wheels 
  24. Women (generally) do the final polishing to perfection

In the 1952 book The Story of Watches, Aaron L. Dennison says that couriers would be tasked with:

“Taking these various pieces of work to the outside workpeople — who, if sober enough to be at their places, were likely to be engaged on someone’s work who had been ahead of him, and how, under such circumstances, he would take the occasion to drop into a ‘pub’ to drink and gossip, and, perhaps, unfit himself for work the remainder of the day.”

I love this description, and perhaps it reads true about the era! 

NOTE: When I moved to England 30+ years ago, my first day was spent mostly at the Hand & Spear, drinking ale and eating chips while being introduced to my new team. I suppose things have changed since then, sadly...

None of the above persons were “watchmakers”; that title was reserved for the masters who were responsible for overseeing the final assembly and arrangement of the components when they were all brought together.

As Robert Campbell described in 1747:

The Watch-Maker puts his Name upon the Plate, and is esteemed the Maker, though he has not made in his shop the smallest Wheel belonging to it. It is supposed, however, that he can make all the Movements… He must be a Judge of the Goodness of Work at first Sight, and put his Name to nothing but what will stand the severest Trial; for the Price of the Watch depends upon the Reputation of the Maker only.

This is all ancient history, and mostly forgotten except by guys like author Cherico, whose full articles we should all read.

Alas, not too many watches are now made in England. Did the English give up their market willingly? I think not. There was competition from many countries, including the US, that eventually undermined this colossal cooperative system of manufacturing.

Swiss watchmakers began to develop thinner, lighter, and cheaper pocket watches, which were in great demand from those who saw them like we see watches today, as symbols of accomplishment. But even their prices seemed too high, and the tariffs and taxes too burdensome. Cherico reports: 

Smuggling problems grew — in 1831, French customs officers reported that smugglers would take packs of large dogs across the border into Switzerland or Belgium, attach bundles of watches to them, and then let them loose to run back to their masters’ homes carrying their untaxed cargo. These chiens fraudeurs — frauding dogs — were almost impossible to catch. Border agents reported that the dogs had learned to recognize their uniforms and either flee away from the roads or else attack them. 

By the 1840s, the English industry had been almost entirely surpassed by the Swiss. Fifty years later, American pocket watch makers became global leaders due to automation and production lines, then their lead faded in the 20th century as the Swiss incorporated technology and industrial production methods to rise to the top. Is that at risk? Not perhaps from another country but from new technologies like smart watches?

Another chapter in watchmaking history began with the 21st century ...

Now we as enthusiasts are seeking a grail -- the watch made by hand, for us, not as the result of an assembly line or child labor or mindless machines. But what is "hand made" and can we find an agreeable definition?


Personally, I don't think there is one right answer to the question. The best I can suggest is we find an artisan, make his or her acquaintance, get into a first- (or even last name) basis and be a patron of the arts, buying their product and receiving (and sending) Christmas cards (or better yet chocolate) to one another in subsequent years. 


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Comments: view entire thread


We need to know by whom and by what method these watches are made! (London 1812)

 By: cazalea : March 23rd, 2021-09:11
The acknowledged importance of the art of Clock and Watch-making to the manufactures and trade of this kingdom; and the probability that it will be greatly deteriorated by the modes now in practice, if not totally lost to the country, at least so far as r... 

The above qoute

 By: vincherico : March 9th, 2022-13:44
Who are you quoting? Thanks for the plug for my article glad you enjoyed it. Vin Cherico


 By: Weems@8 : March 24th, 2021-00:28
That the Swiss produce today watches is remarkable. They haven’t to do this anymore the fact that there is a lot of other work, jobs to do for a living. I think it is passion, making beautiful products that make them happy give a meaning to their lives. T...