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Passionate collectors are bringing centuries-old Chinese-market pocket watches back home

During the 18th and 19th centuries, many affluent consumers in China prized a peculiarly stylish form of timepiece—distinctively decorative and novel pocket watches created by Swiss and British watchmakers—as a potent symbol of status and influence. Following the Communist Revolution of 1949, however, as western affectations and luxuries quickly fell out of favour, most of these remarkable watches disappeared or were sold off overseas.

Now Chinese collectors are on a mission to bring what remain of these cultural treasures home. Often featuring illustrated enamel dials and cases decorated with florid engraving, jewels and other glittering embellishments, Chinese-market pocket watches stood in stark contrast to the more restrained, functional timepieces usually created for European consumers. The most sought-after examples integrate music works, chimes and complex automatons featuring mechanically animated people, animals and scenery.

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Across the Sea

Western mechanical clockwork first came to China at the end of the Ming dynasty. In the late 16th century, a Jesuit missionary named Matteo Ricci, who hoped to convert China to Christianity, ingratiated himself with the Wanli emperor, who reigned from 1573 to 1620, with the gift of a watch and a chiming clock. A centuries-long imperial fascination with horology commenced, with subsequent Chinese rulers accumulating vast collections of intricate timepieces, and their courtiers and wealthy merchants following suit as much as their comparatively meagre means allowed.

The Kangxi emperor, China’s longest-reigning at 61 years, from 1661 to 1722, and his grandson, the Qianlong emperor, who ruled from 1735 to 1795, amassed thousands upon thousands of ornate watches and clocks. Most were crafted by artisans in Switzerland, Britain and France, while others were built in ateliers the emperors established within the Forbidden City or in the horological workshops that sprang up in Suzhou, Guangzhou and other major Chinese cities to cater to the court and the public.

Some of these time-telling tools served the obvious purpose of aiding scheduling and appointment-keeping. But pocket watches and clocks made for the Chinese market also served a more decorative purpose, as entertainments demonstrating a mastery of engineering, science and craftsmanship.

From Then To Now

In contemporary times, the market for pretty much any pocket watch has long been overshadowed by the booming demand for rare and collectible luxury wristwatches. During the past 10 years, however, they have been creeping back into the spotlight—thanks in no small part to a rising interest in the flashy Chinese-market designs, or Chinese calibres, as they’re also known. One of the first experts to identify this trend was Daryn Schnipper, New York-based senior vice president at Sotheby’s and chairman of the auction house’s international watch division.

The entrance to the market of Chinese buyers in the past 10 years, says Schnipper, “really made a big difference. That has been a big factor in this market growing.” She believes the interest stems from a desire to return objects of cultural significance to the country. “There’s no question about that,” Schnipper says. “Although these pieces were generally made in either Switzerland or England, they were absolutely created for the Chinese market. They’re definitely part of the national DNA.”

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Thomas Perazzi, head of watches for Asia at Phillips auction house in Hong Kong, says that since 2005, demand for Chinese-market pocket watches from buyers in mainland China has been “increasing slowly season by season.” He too puts it down to a wish to bring important national artefacts back home. “Some of these collectors are even thinking of building private museums where they can show their collection and Chinese heritage to the people of China,” he says.

Matched Set

Would these purely be museums of horology? Probably not, says Schnipper. A broad-based curatorial approach characterises many Chinese-calibre aficionados in the East. “The western collector, he’s usually someone who’s fully focused on collecting watches,” she says. “Whereas the Chinese buyer might be collecting watches along with many other areas of decorative art,” such as ink, calligraphy and painting, ceramics, sculpture, carving and antique furniture. An understanding of these complementary disciplines helps a collector appreciate the myriad métiers involved in making a Chinese-market pocket watch. 

The experts believe these timepieces represent remarkable value, in light of their craftsmanship, history and rarity. “You have to consider that every single important pocket watch that was made for the Chinese market, we can think of as unique. They’re also of extremely high quality. If you have the chance to hold one in your hand, you’ll see—the quality, it’s exceptional,” Perazzi says.

As Schnipper points out, “With wristwatches, they’re modern and generally in plentiful supply. Take a [Rolex] ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona—they weren’t rare. They obviously were not made in the millions but when you compare it to a pocket watch in the shape of a rose with an automaton… now, that’s rare.” These singular pocket watches are, Schnipper says, “miniature works of art. The Swiss enamellers were painting these amazing scenes with a brush that had one bristle. How did they do it? The scenes that they were able to paint, you can’t reproduce them.”

Slow And Steady

Though certainly far rarer than the aforementioned steel Rolex chronograph, Chinese-market pocket watches don’t present anywhere near the opportunity for swift, exponential profit as their wrist-worn kin. In terms of value growth, “I think it’s a more gentle curve than the wristwatch,” Schnipper opines. “You’ve got to figure that everybody is a potential client for a wristwatch. But it’s a smaller subset of the population that is interested in pocket watches.” The kind of individual who’s drawn to this area is, she says, “the true collector”—a knowledgeable connoisseur.

The cost of entering these refined ranks is surprisingly forgiving. According to Schnipper, you can begin collecting for around the cost of a new Daytona. “A collector might want to start out with Chinese-market pocket watches by Bovet, many of which have back lids covered in a polychrome enamel with a burst of flowers. That’s very, very typical. That’s the entry level,” she says. “They’re not so expensive. They made them in two grades: silver gilt and gold. Today, silver gilt is in the US$20,000 range, whereas the gold starts at about US$40,000.”

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Of course, the sky is the limit. Price and appeal ascend depending upon the complexity of the design, especially the presence of automatons, singing birds in particular. Other factors include the quality and condition of the decoration, whether the watch possesses exceptional provenance (being the former property of the Kangxi or Qianlong emperors helps a great deal), and whether the movement is signed. Schnipper suggests seeking out watches made by Jaquet Droz. “They’re among the rarest,” she says. Other makers include Piguet and Meylan, Vaucher, Henry Capt, Piguet and Capt, Ilbery, James Cox and Bovet. However, she counsels, there are many outstanding pieces that are not signed where the value is “more a matter of quality than attribution”.

“Quality is paramount,” asserts Perazzi. “Buying intact watches that have not been restored or had parts replaced is fundamental.”

Schnipper similarly advises avoiding watches with enamel restoration, but adds a caveat: “You have to be a little bit forgiving, I think.” She says as collectors become more seasoned, “They gain knowledge and educate themselves or have a trusted advisor—in addition to an auction house, of course—and they might steer away from things that have issues. But then, once they’ve gained even more knowledge, they realise it’s actually rare to find something in totally unrestored condition. Ultimately, the defining factor is how unusual and important the piece is.”

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