The Differences between French and British Pocket Watches

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  • Author Mark Nico
  • Published October 7, 2021
  • Word count 1,131

Here is a strictly personal and mainly non-technical view of the differences between French and British pocket watches from say the mid-18th century to the earlier 20th.

Do please note that this article contains some VERY broad generalisations. It is a rough guide only.

18th century – the verge is king

  1. The most common (but not universal) difference is that French verge fusee pocket watches tend to use a balance bridge whereas most British watches use a balance cock.

A balance bridge basically means that the ornate piece of brass sitting on top of the balance wheel is secured by screws at both ends. A balance cock only has one screw and foot securing it, as it projects out over the balance wheel.

Note that some Dutch and German makers made their pieces and signed them with an English name and “London” but they still used a balance bridge.

  1. Pair-cased pieces are slightly more unusual in France than the UK.

  2. French pieces have an adjustment screw to help make easy fractional changes to the crown wheel and pinion. British pieces usually don’t and use instead a brass stent/plug. Some purists argue this makes French watches of the period technically superior to British – you can debate that one at length!

  3. While there are of course exceptions, French watches tend to be mainly smaller. British watches start to become larger towards the end of the century.

19th Century - verges

Until around 1830-40, both countries are still largely making verge fusees.

France also starts making some chunkier, heavier watches from around 1820. These are called “Campagnard”. Some French watches start to be fitted with snap-on rear cases rather than the previously more commonplace hinged solutions. This is less commonplace in the UK.

Styles start to diverge more significantly in the period 1815-1830 and the end of the verge epoch.

In the UK, watches are becoming larger in diameter, heavier and their cases (often pair-cased) are becoming much weightier in terms of silver or gold content, than their French counterparts.

The silver in most French watches is far thinner. It’s not clear if this was a practical design consideration to keep weight down or a reflection of the more rapidly growing wealth of the British middle class versus their French cousins. Whatever, most French watches from 1830 onwards start to feel much less substantial in the hand than British pieces, though they may have been a little easier to carry around.

19th century – death of verges

After several centuries of good service, the verge starts to become obsolete from around 1830 onwards. This transition happens faster in France than the UK.

However, in terms of men’s watches, France moves almost universally to what’s called the “cylinder escapement”. By the 1840s-50s, most French watches are even smaller, lighter and thinner, due to this revolution. The silver content of their cases also reduces.

In the UK, cylinders start to become more commonplace being often imported from Switzerland or France, however, these are largely restricted to women’s watches.

The UK makers recognised the end of the verge but mainly adapted for men’s watches, a different escapement. That was called the “English Lever” though to begin with, it was still combined with a fusee and chain.

From around 1840 onwards, you can’t easily tell at a glance whether a woman’s watch (often called a ‘fob’) is French, Swiss or British. By contrast, men’s watches are typically very different between the two countries.

In the UK, it seems clear that many men still demanded very large, chunky and solid 'statement' watches. Pair cases are still commonplace and dial or casing decoration is comparatively rare. US watches also start to make a favourable impression.

In France, men’s watches are typically much smaller, lighter and more likely to carry engraving on the case and dial decoration of one sort or another.

20th Century

By the earlier years of the century, the verge fusee has almost entirely gone from the UK and pretty much is now long-dead in France.

The cylinder sweeps all before it in France in the late 19th century but it is starting to see increasing challenge from the escapement that will soon become predominant – the “Swiss Lever”.

Many but by no means all pocket watches are now stem-wound in the UK and France.

During WWI, pocket watches start to lose ground to wristwatches too and by the 1940s, they have largely gone, though even today they continue to be made.

French watches (many were in fact mass produced in Switzerland) continue to be smaller, lighter and thinner, than British. Their cases and dials remain more ornate on average. Many also reflect the design impact of Art Nouveau and later Art Deco. The use of silver declines and it is replaced by cheaper alternatives such as argentan (an alloy) or steel.

In the UK, the English Lever escapement loses ground slowly to the Swiss Lever and some cylinders. However, stylistically, many British watches for men continue to be larger, heavier and more overtly masculine in style than French. Far more are in silver than was by now the norm for mass-market watches in France.

In the UK there is also a trend during the 1920s-30s towards thinner and finer watches for men and of course, Art Nouveau and Deco both have an influence on some cases and dials. Yet on the whole, British makers targeting the mass-market continued to produce very conservatively-styled pieces that would have been recognisable to their grandparents 80 years before – with the exception of the stem wind.

Summary – which is best?

We’re speaking here mainly about visual appearance and style, not the technical merits of different escapement types. So, this is about opinion and personal inclination – meaning there can be no answer!

For women’s watches, there is a mid-19th century convergence meaning that they have a very similar appearance across both the UK and France. Many, cases and movements or movements only, were made in Switzerland.

It’s really only in male watches that you see very significant divergence in styles and apparent tastes, which is starting to become visible in the 18th century but which became much more pronounced around 1815-30.

If you like a feel of solidity, plainness and a “this watch will last a lifetime”, sensation, then you’ll probably be drawn to British watches. By contrast, if you incline towards a little more elegance, design flair and self-expression, then you might smile more upon French watches. Another factor some devotees of French watches cite is that they don’t feel like they’re a brick in your pocket which is likely to pull your breeches down!

In the end, they’re all wonderful things. Enjoy them – wherever they were made.

Mark Nico is an antiques dealer with almost 20 years' experience, operating in the French and UK marketplaces.

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