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Victorian Horology: 19th Century Watch Ornament History & Trends

Tanzy Ward

By the 19th century, advancements in watchmaking had grown with the Industrial Revolution boom, but horology has always been a fascinating science. Dating as far back as 1450 BC, the measurements of time have intrigued civilizations, and our desire to keep track of time led to the invention of wearing watches. The watches' designs have developed tremendously over the past few centuries, and the beloved timepiece has become a trend with various styles, techniques, and inspirations.

One of the earliest forms of watch ornaments was created by German locksmith and watchmaker Peter Henlein (1485-1542) during the German Renaissance Era (1470-1600). Henlein made miniature portable clocks that could be worn as pendants or attached to clothing. Jewels began to be incorporated into watches during the early 18th century and included sapphires and diamonds. The 19th century became a glorious time for watchmaking, and many advancements and styles were developed. Interchangeable parts were invented, and mass production ushered in a new way of creating items at lower costs. Aaron Lufkin Dennison (1812-1895) is credited with being one of the first to use interchangeable parts for pocket watches and a pioneering figure in the American mass production of watchmaking. Before creating his successful international business, Dennison Watch Case Company, he was the founder of the Waltham Watch Company in 1850 before it was reorganized after bankruptcy. The Waltham Watch Company was founded in Waltham, Massachusetts, and introduced the Waltham Model 57, the first watch to incorporate interchangeable parts. 

Pictured above, this fire-gilded pomander watch from 1505 is credited with likely made by Peter Heinlen and is one of the earliest existing examples of a watch. Photo courtesy of:
Antique watches from Waltham Watch Company's Jewel Series feature intricately engraved cases and featured diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. Courtesy of:;  Digitizing sponsor:   Boston Public Library Contributor:  Waltham Public Library;  Publisher:  American Lithographic Co.
Although variations of pocket watches were created during the 1500s and later redesigned in the 18th century, their availability was scarce among the general population until the 19th century. The Victorian Era ushered in a new age with industrial manufacturing, introducing inexpensive timepieces to the public. Victorians now had the option to choose from a variety of different watches without having to give up high-quality craftsmanship and detail. Timepiece ornaments became integral to Victorian life, and several new designs were popularly worn. One, in particular, the Prince Albert watch chain, was a popular choice among Victorian men and was named after Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert (1819-1861). The consort was particularly fond of this specific type of watch, and its characteristics included a pocket watch chain with a t-bar attached to a waistcoat or vest that descended from a small section of the chain. The t-bar was affixed on one end, while the opposite side included a swivel hook or spring ring to attach the timepiece. The watch would be exposed from the vest pocket, and the fob is often adorned with intricate designs or symbolic affiliations. 

Solid gold vest chains for Prince Albert Watches advertised by E.V Roddin and CO'S 1888 Catalog. Courtesy of: ; GIA Collection ; Publisher:   E. V. Roddin
Gents Stem and Key Winding watches feature symbolic designs and engravings. Advertised by E.V Roddin and CO'S 1888 Catalog. ; 
GIA Collection; Publisher:  E. V. Roddin

The Victorian Era emphasized grand design, embellishments, elaborate engravings, and homage to styles from previous periods. While pocket watches were considered menswear, intricately designed bracelet watches with jewelry embedding were marketed to Victorian ladies. Other everyday timepiece jewelry during the Victorian Era included hunter-case eyes, which had a covering that could be opened to showcase a Demi half-hunter watch.


Gents Stem winding watches with solid gold hunting cases. Advertised by E.V Roddin and CO'S 1888 Catalog. Courtesy of ; GIA Collection; Publisher:  E. V. Roddin

Although the grand era of pocket watches was replaced with wearing wristwatches, the trend has not entirely gone away. Presently, avid collectors curate antique pocket watches and variations of the beloved watch fob. Designers with a fascination for the Victorian Era are still creating Prince Albert chains with a dedicated customer base. It is safe to say there is still a great admiration and love for antique timepieces and the fascinating storytelling connected with horology. As times go on and watches become more advanced, antique watches will continue to inspire and have timeless appeal. 

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