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Fabulous Antique Chinese Market Watches

by David Mycko (12/14/10).

The back of a watch made for the original Chinese market. These watches usually featured enamel colorful designs of flowers and other sights of nature.

The Chinese have their own taste in things, from dress to food and just about everything in between. This includes watches and jewelry, and since I don’t know too much about jewelry, I better write about watches. Fortunately, I know a little about Chinese watches.

Nowadays, the Chinese make everything, including watches. But there aren’t any antique Chinese-made watches.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Chinese became aware of the rest of the world had to offer. One of the things the West discovered about China is that they didn’t have watches. Oh, there were watches, but they came in the pockets of foreigners; silly little contraptions constantly being fiddled with by their owners. They were a Western contrivance, and wealthy Chinese didn’t see the need in them.

Eventually, though, a fad took hold and many Chinese decided that they had to have watches. And not these plain, ordinary contraptions Westerners were carrying around in their pockets, but special watches, suited to the Oriental style. They had to do certain things, have just the right appearance, and there had to be two, in case one got broken—there were no watchmakers or repairmen capable of repairing such a delicate instrument until much later in the mid 1800s. Besides, the little woman might also want one, too.

I can find no information on when the first watches turned up in China, and since there were no watch manufacturers in China, there are no records. The first Chinese watches were imported from Switzerland, and here again, no one can tell me when the first Chinese watch came about (could it be that no one cares?). Anyway, the exact dates are almost inconsequential. My best guess is the late 1700s to early 1800s, but more like 1820-1830.

Now, on to the watches! They were some of the most fabulous watches ever produced for any one country. They were singularly unique—made of precious metals, both gold and silver, featured certain unique complications, and sported enamel—lots of enamel—with plenty of colors.

The face of an original Chinese market watch, with every minute marked in the chapter ring.

These watches are highly sought after today, especially by the Chinese. Watches produced for the original Chinese market featured:

• Bright, vibrant colors, like wildflowers in a field. And flowers turned out to be the most favored design on Chinese watches. Occasionally, a portrait of a Chinese noble or madam would grace a watch, but flowers were the order of the day, and finding anything else will be extremely rare.

• The watches need to be big and impressive, so size was very important. Small watches do exist, but are infinitely more scarce. They would boats a nice, big white porcelain dial with every minute marked in the chapter ring. Oddly, Roman Numerals were used, as opposed to Chinese numbers. Additionally, the watches must have had a seconds hand, and the biggest and best was a sweep seconds hand. This was the formula for the case and dial.

These watches were not only beautiful on the outside, but also beautiful to look at on the inside. Movements were almost always intricately engraved and embellished with functional jewels.

• As for the mechanism, the seconds hand had to jump, literally, from one second mark to the next. The invention of the Crab Duplex escapement was perfect! The Crab Duplex had a delay in the oscillation of the balance wheel, which gave pause to the seconds hand and giving it a “jump” in its rotation around the dial. Nearly all Chinese watches are Crab Duplexes, or English-style straight line levers, which also had a slight pause between ticks.

• Pocket watches of the day were not only beautiful on the outside, but also beautiful to look at on the inside. Movements were almost always intricately engraved, embellished with functional jewels, and quite often with precious metals like gold and silver. The Chinese wanted more. The LePine style plate layout suited the look, and nearly all Chinese watches have this very distinctive mechanism layout. The LePine style plate layout also made the Chinese watch thinner, as compared to “fat” European and English watches were considered ungainly, chunky contrivances. The Chinese wanted them slim and stylish. They also wanted them extravagantly and elaborately engraved and gilded, a nice, pretty gold color.

• The case had to have a button for a spring-activated back cover and a glazed-over bezel, to quickly and conveniently display the marvel under the back cover. Quite often the balance wheel had blued-steel winged bats mounted on the wheel itself. This was to ward off evil spirits.

Under the back cover, quite often, the balance wheel had blued-steel winged bats mounted on the wheel itself. This was to ward off evil spirits.

• Later, Chinese watches took on more sophisticated and outer worldly and technical aspects, but gold and enamel would remain a high choice for the Chinese. Makers for the Chinese market would be largely, if not exclusively, Swiss and the French. The watches are rarely signed by the makers, as this was almost typical for many Swiss makers anyway.

The size of the fragile dial makes it difficult to find a perfect example, and gold is always elusive and expensive, so Chinese watches were also produced in silver. Oddly enough, the silver watches are rarely enameled, but the movements are almost always elaborately engraved, making for a lovely surprise when the pendant button is activated, displaying all that engraving.

Top-flight examples like the watch pictured in this article will bring a handsome sum; anywhere from $5,000 to $35,000, and up. Plain, silver watches can be purchased on eBay for as little $200 to $300, or less.

No watch collection is complete without at least one example.

My sincere thanks and credits to Howard Gitman, The Movement King, the Swiss, and Janet Wencel, who makes me write.

David Mycko is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in antique and vintage watches.

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