These petite, pocketable early-20th-century timepieces are popping up once more – this time in the hands of of discerning collectors
I’d never wear a smartwatch,” says IT manager Ritchie Anderson, who favours more classic pieces of horological design. “What interests me in a timepiece is the craftsmanship and engineering” – qualities admirably illustrated by his 1926 Movado Ermeto Chronomètre travel watch, designed to be carried rather than worn on the wrist.
Designed to pack away and pop up on hotel bedstands, the travel clock or purse watch is today a rarely seen gem of a timepiece. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, this tiny-scale clock was a popular alternative to the outdated pocket watch – it could be popped into a trouser pocket or evening bag, or carried on a round of golf. Jonathan Darracott, Bonhams’ global head of watches, cites the Rolex Sporting Prince as a prime example of the genre. This rare version of the popular Rolex Prince watch (only around 100 were made c1930) has a dual-dial face and a patterned case. An 18ct gold example fetched SFr16,250 (about £12,700) at a Phillips auction last November.
“Wristwatches were met with a lot of resistance when they were first introduced at the end of the 19th century,” explains Alex Barter, vintage watch specialist at Ludlow store Black Bough, “not least for their perceived vulnerability. For a period of time between the wars, the travel watch” – with shutters that closed around it – “was a viable alternative. Lots of money was pumped into advertising them, especially by Movado, which was the main creator in the 1930s and 1940s.” The Swiss maker patented its sleek Ermeto design in 1926 and it remains highly collectable. Andy Warhol owned six different models during his lifetime, and versions can be found with gold, silver, crocodile-skin or lacquer cases. Barter recently sold a 1935 example with a silvered dial and leather case for £685, while Swiss seller Lorologiese has a crocodile-cased Movado Calendermeto (with complete calendar and moon phases on the face) from the 1950s for €1,890.
However, it is often the earlier examples displaying an art deco clarity of design that have the most modern appeal. “The decoration of this period could be eccentric and marvellous,” says watch consultant Charles Tearle, who highlights a beautiful 1930s Rolex Sporting Princess – a feminine version of the Prince, with a reptile-skin case and double dial – sold by Antiquorum for £6,870. Equally visually appealing is Rolex’s 1940 design with a sliding silver case enamelled with blue and black motifs (N Green & Sons in Chicago currently has one for $4,400). Cartier, too, created some stunning examples – including a c1930 design with a bold gold chevron metal case that sold at Christie’s in 2007 for £4,440 – as well as some supremely simple ones. A 1940s gold ribbed case that flips open to reveal a square-dial coppered clock is being sold by London antique jewellery dealer SJ Phillips for £20,000-£50,000.
Also of interest, says Darracott, are the foldout stands and other details of technical ingenuity. Some of Movado’s clocks, for example, feature a built-in winding mechanism that works when the case is opened and closed, while watchmaker Wittnauer created a clock with Tiffany c1950 that pops out to sit on a stand-within-the-case – a design that sold for $11,875 at Christie’s in 2015. But since such watches were frequently dropped into pockets or bags, finding them in working order can be quite a challenge. The case surfaces and mechanisms have often suffered significant damage, says master watch repairer Craig Struthers, who founded Struthers London with his wife Rebecca and makes beautiful updates to vintage timepieces. He believes that “anything can be fixed and it’s always worth it. After all, these designs are never going to be made again.”