Early Watches and The Nuremberg Egg

During the middle ages the free city of Nuremberg was one of the most influential and wealthy in Europe. It led in art and craftsmanship, and was, above all, famous for the inventions of its master locksmiths. The most noted of these was Peter Henlein who, so far as is known, made the first watch. The marvel of the age, known as the Nuremberg Egg, on account of its oval shape, this ” Egg” was the prototype all subsequent time-keepers that could be carried on the person, and a study of its method of construction sheds light on all watches made since.


Pictured right: BENJAMIN LISLE, ROTTERDAM – INTERESTING AND UNUSUAL SILVER AND SHAGREEN, SINGLE-HAND WATCH WITH CALENDAR, MOON PHASES AND TIME-ZONES, CIRCA 1680 – With gilt brass full plate, 42mm, fusee and chain, verge escapement, plain three arm flat brass balance, chased and pierced cock, steel set up with worm gear and blued steel foliate mounts, turned baluster pillars, silver dial, five concentric indications: in the center the revolving steel disc with engraved city names and aperture for phases of the moon, then a small gilt brass ring for Arabic 24-hour numerals, another silver dial with Roman numerals combined with the age of the moon for 29 1/2 days, a rotating gilt brass ring engraved with the indication of the month and their duration , with a steel dart pointer indicating the date of the month on the last silver ring,later outer case coreved with faux shagreen
Diameter : 50 mm without outer case, 55 mm with.  Sold for HK$325,000, Christies, Hong Kong, May 2011. Image Copyright Christies.


Henlein made his first watch about 1570, and, unfortunately, none of his work is known to exist. But we have historical authority for the fact that his watches were sent from Nuremberg as gifts to kings who wore them, suspended from a neck-chain or their girdle, no doubt with great pride. To appreciate Henlein’s design, it is necessary to trace the earlier use of the coiled spring as the motive power, in place of a weight, for a clock. Spring-driven clocks are believed to have been in existence as early as 1450, but most of those that have survived were made during the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. They were usually table clocks, in the form of a drum about six inches wide and three or four high with the dial and a single hand on top. The movement like that of the weight-driven domestic clock was copied from the great turret clocks of the period, with the difference that the foliot or balance was dumbbell-shaped and without moveable weights at the ends which was impracticable for a portable time-keeper.


watch 1635-1650Pictured left: Watch from the Victoria & Albert Collection dated 1635-1650. Movement engraved ‘ Henry Terold of Ipswich Fecit’, for the maker Henry Terold (recorded in 1621-1622 at Bury St Edmunds). Verge movement, with gut-driven fusée, steel balance-wheel, tangent screw regulator, silver dial with enamelled numerals and single, blued-steel hand; cast, chased and engraved silver case. Height: 6 cm estimated, including ring, Depth: 2 cm estimated, Diameter: 4.6 cm estimated. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Later, they had a balance-wheel to replace the bar of the foliot. In all these designs the verge and crown-wheel regulated the power exercised by the coiled spring. Henlein adapted this form of construction for his watches, and the oval shape of the case was well suited to the arrangement of the mechanism. As we have seen, there are no models of the Nurem- berg Egg to examine, so we must form our ideas regarding them from the few surviving examples of watches of that type.


When the Webster collection was disposed of in 1954, two watches of the Nuremberg Egg type were included. One of these was made by Paul Schuster of Nuremberg, clockmaker to the court of Dresden at the beginning of the seventeenth century. There were no watch-glasses at this time, the time by the single hour- hand being read through the pierced case, without opening it. This watch had the stackfreed fitting, which will be discussed later on, and touch pins, to discover the hour in the dark, but the general design must be not unlike Henlein’s. Another fine watch sold at the same time, and of about the same period, by Nicholas Rugendas of Augsburg, retained the egg-shaped movement, but cased in a rock crystal shell. This watch has a bell and racket work to strike the hours.

george de la courtine watch
Pictured right: George de la Courtine. A rare and early gilt metal and rock crystal pre-balance spring verge watch. Signed George de la Courtine à Genève, circa 1650. With gilt-finished verge movement, gut fusée, unusual pierced and engraved pillars in the shape of mythical fish, finely pierced and engraved elongated balance cock and foot, steel two-armed pre-hairspring balance wheel, worm set-up with blued steel decorative mounts, ratchet and wheel regulation, the silver dial with engraved and blackened Roman numerals and half-hour divisions, single blued steel hand with central rosette decoration, in circular later rock crystal and plastic case, gilt brass bezels, ring pendant and seven-piece hinge, movement signed 39 mm. diam. Sold for CHF29,800, Christies, Geneva, May 2008. Image Copyright Christies.


The earliest English watches were not made until nearly the end of the sixteenth century, so the material for the study of the birth of the watch is restricted to the few continental specimens that have survived. Dr. Ward, in his Historical Review of the collections in the Science Museum at South Kensington, states that “the earliest watches that have survived to the present day are a few German examples of about 1540 and a French one dated 1551. They are almost spherical in form.” So the material available is not great, but by inference from later work, we can obtain a fairly good idea of the evolution of the watch in its commencing phases. The provision of a suitable steel spring must have been a great problem in the construction of a watch in the sixteenth century. The making of steel from iron was in its infancy. The first process is the absorption of carbon by the iron. It may have been discovered accidentally that iron heated over a charcoal fire became altered in this way. Steel was tempered in olden times by being plunged hot into cold water or oil. A coiled spring loses power as it unwinds and several devices have been tried to overcome this drawback. The first German watches were fitted with an appliance called a ” stackfreed.” This was, in fact, a second spring that exerted pressure on the main-spring which lessened as the spring uncoiled. But the invention of the fusee did away with the continued use of the stackfreed. The fusee has so often been described that it is unnecessary to do so here. It is, of course, used today in the making of a marine chronometer.


The wheels, including the crown wheel, and the verge of these watches were generally iron or steel. Brass was employed for the works later. The plates and cock and other parts were beautifully made, and often finely engraved. As they were looked upon partly as pieces of Jewellery, the cases of these oval or spherical watches were, in every sense of the words, works of art. The balance was sometimes regulated by means of a bristle, a later development was the use of astraight piece of steel spring The coiled hair-spring balance control was not invented till about 1675. I have seen a watch made by Quare for Charles II late in his reign, and it has a poor type of balance spring. The mainspring of these watches was short, and they usually required winding every 12 or 14 hours.


The first photograph gives a good idea of the works of a continental watch of about 1575. If it is examined under a lens the design of the crown wheel, verge, dumbbell- shaped balance and pig’s bristle regulator can distinctly be seen. The “stackfreed” control of the spring can be seen follow, ing the edge of the movement for a third of its circumference.


We have little knowledge of the watchmakers who were the first to work in England, towards the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Bartholomew Newsome, clock- maker to the Queen, is represented by one or two watches that have survived. One is in the New York Museum. The Flemish were among the first watchmakers to come here and Michael Nouwen, of Flemish descent, has left us a beautiful crystal watch now in the British Museum and another example of his work in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. And we have another early watch by David Ramsey, the Scottish horo-logist, in the Victoria and Albert Museum. But it was not until the time of Charles 1 that sufficient watches were made to enable a fair number to have survived for the present generation to study. 


Pictured left: Clock watch, ca. 1600-1610 Movement by Michael Nouwen, or Nouen (Flemish, active London, ca. 1600–1610) Case: gilded brass; Dial: gilded brass, with a blued steel hand; Movement: gilded brass and iron. The hours, 1–12, are struck on a bell screwed to the interior of the case. The dial plate of Nouwen’s movement is made in two parts, an unusual feature that makes possible the separate removal of the wheels on one train of the watch without disturbing wheels of the other. The balance and the verge of the watch’s escapement are later replacements. The female figure in the center of the dial, reminiscent of Flemish personifications of Summer, wears a crown of grain stalks and carries a cornucopia in her right arm. The chapter ring is engraved with the hours (I–XII), the half hours are marked with stars, and there are touch pins at the hour to enable the user to tell the time in darkness. Image and details from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


An examination of seventeenth century watches proves that although crude in construction from the modern viewpoint, and accordingly very poor timekeepers, their design reveals the germ of most developments since. A new era opened when the watch and clockmakers received their Charter from Charles I to form their own company. Previously they had been included in the Blacksmiths’ Company.


The dignity of the new body brought them in touch with the equally new Royal Society that included all the leading thinkers and scientists of the day, thus affording them the help and advice of men like Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Christopher Wren and Dr. Hooke.


This gave a great impetus to all branches of horology and cleared the way for watchmakers like Tompion, Quare and Graham. Progress, however, from the Nuremberg Egg to the fine watches made by Tompion was bound to be gradual. Until 1650, catgut instead of a chain was employed for the fusee attachment. As regards watch cases, there were no glasses to protect the hands until about 1640.


henricus jones 17th c watchPictured right:  Henricus Jones. A fine and early silver openface verge watch with protective outer case. Signed Hen. Jones, Londini, circa 1680. Gilt-finished verge movement, chain fusée, pierced and faceted tulip pillars, pierced and engraved balance cock and foot, secured by a pin in the top plate, three-armed steel balance and early hairspring, chased silver dial, raised blackened Roman numerals, lozenge-shaped half hour divisions, inner quarter hour ring, scroll and floral decorated centre, decorative blued steel single hour hand, plain inner case, revolving dust cover for the winding hole, hinged split bezel, silver pinwork tulip and foliage decorated leather-covered metal outer case, inner case stamped with casemaker’s initials SB surmounted by a crown, movement signed. 51.5 mm. overall diam.  Sold for CHF32,500 at Christies, Geneva, November 2009. Image Copyright Christies.

A few watches had white enamelled dials at the end of the seventeenth century, but metal dials were usual until about 1720. Before the invention of the balance spring about 1675 watches had a single hour hand. But after this invention the time-keeping qualities were so much improved that a second hand could be added, for minutes, and even seconds, recorded for short intervals. Daniel Quare made a single- handed watch of an unusual pattern, that recorded both minutes and hours. The single hand is a minute hand reaching to the outer minute band, the hours being shown on a central disc, and their course so calculated that each in turn appears under the minute hand and travels with it until the next hour is due. The second numeral then takes the place of the hour that has expired.


goullons a paris 17th c watchThe idea, originating in the monasteries, that the primary object of clockwork is to sound a warning was carried over in the design of table clocks that were mostly fitted with alarms and this same principle influenced the construction of the first watches that appeared not so long after the Nuremberg Egg. Watches containing bells for alarms or striking the hours— sometimes called “clock watches” —continued to be made throughout the seventeenth century until the repeating watch was invented.

Pictured left: GOULLONS A PARIS, FINE AND EARLY GOLD AND ENAMEL VERGE POCKET WATCH WITH SILVER DECORATED OUTER CASE, CIRCA 1665. Gilt brass full plate movement with chain and fusee, verge escapement, finely chased and pierced cock with irregular pierced foot, plain two arm steel balance, the steel set up with worm gear and blued steel foliate mounts, turned baluster pillars, Laterpainted enamel dial with Roman chapters, single shaped steel hand, the centre field with laterpainted enamel biblical scene, decorated split bezel, the gold case with later painted enamel scene of the nativity to the back, the sides with four symbolic scenes from the scriptures, the inside of the case decorated with a scene depicting a shepherd watering his lamb at a brook, with leather covered outer case with silver pinwork decoration. Diameter : 37mm. without outer case, 42 mm. with. Sold for HK$275,000 at Christies, Hong Kong, May 2011. Image Copyright Christies.  


The regulation of watches has been a matter of concern to horologists for a long period. It is, of course, possible to regulate, to some extent, the speed of a clock with a foliot by moving the weights at the extremity of the balance towards or away from the centre. But in the case of a watch with a dumbbell or wheel balance this is not possible and some other means of adjustment must be found. The invention of the mainspring to control the balance wheel eventually opened the way for a method of doing this.


Tompion designed a circular slide with teeth on its outer margin. This was made to control the operative length of the mainspring by means of a pinion. The slide carried two pins that embraced the spring. The present principle, dating from the invention of the lever escapement. is a second lever with two curb pins acting directly on the balance spring itself.


As we have seen, the first watches made in England about 1580 had marked Continental features, but for some reason the ” Stackfreed ” spring control method never appears to have attracted the English watchmakers. If they saw the greater merits of the fusee, they did not at once adopt it.

Further information:

Seventeenth-Century European Watches on the The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art
Victoria & Albert Watch Collections