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Collecting American Treasure
History & Masterpieces

Collecting American Treasure

Friday, 27 November 2009
By Meehna Goldsmith
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Meehna Goldsmith

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5 min read

First opened to the public in 1977, the National Watch and Clock Museum, located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has grown from less than 1,000 items and now includes more than 12,000 to house the most comprehensive horological collection in North America.

Though the museum covers an international scope of clocks, watches and tools, the largest collection is of 19th century American timepieces. This period marks the heyday of American watchmaking, when the American Industrial Revolution introduced a whole new concept of production.

“High grade prestige watches were offered by the American companies to show that they could offer timekeepers as good as or superior to the best imported products using the American system of manufacturing with machine-made, interchangeable parts,” explains Carter Harris, curator of the NAWCC Museum. “Much of the technology used in producing these watches could be used in improving all grades of watches, making them a much better value than the imports, being more accurate and much easier and cheaper to repair, with their standardized and interchangeable parts.”

Damascene decoration

Companies such as American Waltham, E. Howard, Hampden, Illinois, Elgin and United States Watch Company set up shop and produced everything from the dials to the rubies in the movements, only seeking outside sources for the watchcases. The highest-grade movements generally had a ¾ plate design and damascened nickel plates, were highly jeweled with 17 to 23 jewels or more, and carefully adjusted. Gold plated wheelwork and gold jewel settings were often used, as were patented micrometer regulators.

Watches containing these top-of-the-line movements were very expensive. The 19 jewel United States Watch Company grade ¾ plate model of 1872 in an 18K gold case cost $400, and the 21 jewel American Watch Company grade, Model 1872 in an 18K gold case cost $250. In contrast, a typical railroad grade 15 jewel adjusted full plate watch of the period in a silver case would cost about $40, and a common 7 jewel watch, unadjusted, in a nickel case about $10.

In addition to materials used, decoration also added expense and value to a watch. The Americans used damascene, a type of engraving similar to guilloche that was first practiced in America by the U.S. Watch Company of Marion, New Jersey. In his book American Watchmaking, A Technical History of the American Watch Industry 1850-1930, Michael C. Harrold provides an excellent description of the process. Damascening involved a worker moving a rotating wood dowel or disk with polishing compound over the surface of the watch plate. The tip of the tool buffed a textured pattern of spots and lines into the polished plates. Ivory and other materials could substitute for the wood, and later programmed machines created limitless design possibilities as they rotated and translated watch plates using buffing tools with varying diameters.

United States Watch Company 18 size, United States Watch Co. grade, 19 jewels, ¾ plate, frosted and damaskeened nickel, gold jewel settings, gold plated screws © DR
United States Watch Company 18 size, United States Watch Co. grade, 19 jewels, ¾ plate, frosted and damaskeened nickel, gold jewel settings, gold plated screws © DR
“Gentlemen’s” watches

While damascening was a popular technique, other decorative aspects incorporated two-color plates, such as on the Hampden 23 jewel No, 103 movement, which also used gold plated screws, regulators, train wheels, and gold filled engraving.

Another factor reflecting price, adjusting also added considerable expense to high-grade movements because of the time involvement. “Pinions, pivots and jewel holes had to be highly polished, hairsprings carefully vibrated or timed and properly colleted, and balances carefully trued and poised,” says Harris. Once adjusted, the watches were then tested for isochronism for temperature compensation of the balance, and in five positions for higher grades of adjustment, which are pendant at 9:00, 12:00 and 3:00, dial up and dial down. To fall within acceptable parameters, a watch had to keep time within 30 seconds per week in all conditions.

These higher grades of timepieces, referred to as “gentlemen’s” watches, were cased in 14K or 18K gold and even some of the highest grade railroad watches had the honor of 10K or 14K gold filled cases. “Though railroad watch movements were often highly jeweled and beautifully finished, they were working men’s watches, and a gold case would seem a needless extravagance,” Harris points out.

Adopting a timepiece

The museum houses an expansive collection of timepieces and takes visitors on a journey through time. While the museum displays its permanent collection, it also shows special collections on a rotating schedule. Currently, Time and Exploration and A Sense of Time, which is an exhibit of incense clocks, is on view. More than just a repository for horologic history, the museum puts on educational programs, and, not forgotten, are the horologists of tomorrow. A selection of programs caters to junior horologists with engaging activities, and there is even a library section dedicated to children.

Like all public museums, the National Watch & Clock Museum needs support to continue their efforts, and becoming a member grants you all the privileges of its resources. Another charming and creative way to contribute is through the Timepiece Adoption Program. Starting at $250 per year, the donor’s name will appear on a label next to the adopted timepiece for the period of one year. In addition, the donor will receive an 8″ x 10″ image of the adopted object, and recognition on the Museum’s website. The museum has a list of clocks and watches for your consideration. For those interested, the timepieces mentioned in this article are all available and awaiting good homes. By adopting one, you can literally put your imprint on a piece of time.

National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors: www.nawcc.org

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