The human lust for one-upmanship has always been a primary driver of fashion, and this is the case, it would seem, with the pocket watch. In November 1462, Italian clockmaker Bartholomew Manfredi – a man not exactly overburdened with modesty – wrote a letter to the Federico Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua offering him a “pocket clock” that would make any timepiece belonging to the Duke of Modena look like some florin-a dozen bauble.
Fast-forward five-and-a-half centuries and contemporary dandies’ zealous desire to trump their peers in new and imaginative ways is seeing the pocket watch enjoy a resurgence. It’s the latest twist in the item’s rollercoaster history, which goes back to mechanical engineers’ ever-more innovative exploitation, in the late-15th century, of spring devices. Most notable was the invention of the mainspring, which allowed German inventor Peter Henlein to create pioneering timepieces that were not powered by weights and gravity.
The earliest portable watches were worn as a pendant on a chain around the neck, while the introduction of screws in the 1550s enabled developers to ditch cumbersome egg-shaped designs in favour of the flattened shape we recognise today. The next major development was the introduction of the waistcoat as a symbol of stately virility in the court of Charles II in the 17th century. This, combined with greater durability thanks to the introduction of glass and accuracy due to the invention of the lever escapement, resulted in the pocket watch’s popularisation across Europe and North America.
The industrial revolution saw mass-production democratise ownership of pocket watches – by 1865, the American Watch Company could manufacture more than 50,000 reliable watches a year. And, having been developed by and for the loftier echelons of the European class systems, they became a staple accessory for the working class.