The mechanical-watch renaissance of the past decade or so has proven a boon for just about every sort of timepiece, as brands have developed and produced countless new models of complicated, simple, classical, and modernly styled watches. The only form seemingly uninvited to the party happens to be the one that started it all: the pocket watch.
We can only speculate about the reasons behind this apparent snub. Maybe this generation’s watchmakers and watch owners recoil from a design so strongly associated with the 19th century and with their forebears. Or perhaps it is less a matter of taste than of practicality: Our pockets already are crammed with keys, a wallet, and a mobile phone, leaving little room for a timepiece.
Whatever the cause, it seems that the pocket watch is destined to remain in obscurity, sequestered in museums and the collections of a small group of enthusiasts.
Or is it?
A scan of watch manufacturers’ current and upcoming models indicates that the pocket watch is not being ignored. In fact, watchmakers seem to be designing and producing more pocket watches today than at any time in the post-quartz era. These watches are much more than simple reproductions of granddad’s hunter or railroad watch; they are contemporary expressions of Swiss design that tie modern brands to watchmaking’s oldest tradition. In some cases they draw a clear distinction between old and new, reformulating the pocket watch for the 21st century. Some blur the very definition of a pocket watch and the concept of what can be worn on the wrist. The latter feat has never been easier, as wristwatches have increased to dimensions that once would have been considered appropriate for the pocket only.
Pocket-watch movements have been making their way into wristwatches for years, and now wristwatch-like designs are heading for the pocket. The watches in Glashütte Original’s Julius Assmann series were among the manufacturer’s first watches that could be either carried in the pocket or worn on the wrist, thanks to an external case ring to which a strap attaches. This year it is joined by the Amadeo system from Bovet, which, according to the company, originally designed all of its timepieces as "pocket watches on the wrist." On the Amadeo, you can substitute a strap for a fob—or you can dispense with the strap and the fob altogether, fold out the external case ring, and use the timepiece as a desk clock.
Chopard’s L.U.C. Louis-Ulysse—The Tribute also debuted this year, with a system developed in 1912 by Karl Scheufele I, grandfather of Karl Friedrich Scheufele, currently the co-president of Chopard. A claw system attaches a strap to the big, modernly styled pocket watch, which contains a large movement that Chopard developed for use as a training tool for students at the Geneva Watchmaking School.
While such convertible systems neatly adapt the pocket watch to seemingly modern sensibilities, the act of carrying these timepieces in the pocket might be surprisingly in tune with the current times, when wealth is often preferably displayed discreetly. Virtually invisible to the public at large, the pocket watch can be revealed in an instant when you are in the company of a fellow collector so that he can admire the dial movement and case. Anyone who has ever struggled to undo a strap in such situations surely can appreciate the convenience that a pocket watch offers.
Fellow collectors also will be quick to appreciate the individualism that such an accessory represents. This is a quality that appeals to designers as well. "I chose to create a pocket watch because it was the very last thing anyone expected," says Richard Mille about his massive RM020, a piece he introduced in 2008 that appears more akin to a chain mace than to the timepieces of yesteryear. In addition to striking dimensions, the RM020 has advanced components such as a carbon nanofiber base plate.
For many companies, however, the pocket watch serves as a link to the past. Patek Philippe, for example, has for decades built pocket watches in limited numbers for its most classically minded clients.
Other brands have incorporated pocket watches into their current collections. When revising its Villeret line, Blancpain created a pocket-watch version. And Jacquet Droz offers a pocket-watch rendition of its flagship Grande Seconde Enamel model, which features a dial format that was lifted from an antique pocket watch.
At times this reverse-engineering process—adapting a wristwatch to a pocket-watch form—creates something completely modern. Consider, for example, the contemporary look of Piaget’s square-cased Altiplano, which was introduced in 2007. The calfskin fob on Hermès’ Arceau Pocket Moon Phase watch, meanwhile, provides a fitting complement to a pair of fashionable trousers.
To carry a pocket watch is to belong to an exclusive cadre, which frees you from the status overtones that can come with possessing wristwatches and allows a purer form of watch ownership. A pocket watch also offers a strong tie to the history of the craft—and maybe even to your own lineage. "It is to my grandfather and his marvelous collection of pocket watches that I owe my passion for fine watchmaking," says Pascal Raffy, who was so enamored of the style that he acquired Geneva-based Bovet in 2000. "In an age when electronics and information technology are omnipresent, collecting or manufacturing pocket watches can be compared to an authentic art whose past is an infinite source of inspiration."
Blancpain, 877.520.1735, www.blancpain.com; Bovet Fleurier, 888.909.1822, www.bovet-fleurier.ch; Chopard, 800.246.7273, www.chopard.com; Glashütte Original, www.glashuette-original.com; Hermès, 800.441.4488, www.hermes.com; Jaquet Droz, 888.866.0059, www.jaquetdroz.com; Patek Philippe, 212.218.1240, www.patek.com; Piaget, 877.874.2438, www.piaget.com; Richard Mille, www.richardmille.com