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Watch cases and crowns

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.

This page is about the designs and features of watch cases, and the crowns that are used for winding and hand setting.

Crowns or buttons

The round knob that sticks out from the top or side of the case and is used to wind the spring and set the hands is called the "couronne" in Swiss/French or "crown" in English.


Onion crown

Pumpkin crown

English watchmakers and repairers sometimes use the term "button". But since English watchmakers persisted with the fusee, which rendered watches virtually impossible to make keyless, they have little claim to name the part that operates the keyless work. As button is usually used in English for something sewn on to a garment to fasten it, I prefer the term crown.

On the type of old watches that I am interested in from the time of the Great War, crowns were often one of two styles, onion or pumpkin. One often sees old watches with their crowns described as onion or pumpkin that look like nothing of the sort, which is rather confusing, so here are pictures of two crowns with my take on the terminology.

The one at the top is an onion crown. You can see how its spherical shape with the vertical grooves to grip looks like an onion. This crown is on a Borgel cased wristwatch, the shape of the crown is necessary because of the design of the stem of a Borgel watch.

The one below is a pumpkin crown. It is similar to the onion crown but more flattened, like the shape of a pumpkin.

The onion form is the older and sits neatly on the pendants of key wound pocket watches. Wristwatches don't usually have noticeable pendants, but one is necessary on a Borgel case to give depth for the spring loaded withdrawal feature. The pumpkin form looks better at the side of an ordinary wristwatch.


Savonnette (Hunter) vs. Lépine (Open Face).


Demi savonnette or half hunter

Savonnette (Hunter) Watches

Savonnette cases, which in English are called "hunters", have a hinged metal lid that closes over the front to protect the crystal. When the lid is closed the shape of the watch case resembles that of a small round cake of soap with slightly domed top and bottom, called in French a "savonnette", hence the name. The English name arose because fox hunting men found it convenient to be able to open their watch and read the time with one hand, while holding the reins of their "hunter" (horse) in the other hand.

The watch in the image here is a demi savonnette or half hunter, which means that it has a little glass window in the middle of the lid so that the time can be read without opening the lid. These are sometimes called "Napoleons" because there is a story that the Emperor got so frustrated with having to open the lid of his hunter that he took a knife and made a circular cut out in the lid.

A savonnette or hunter, sometimes unnecessarily called a "full hunter" has a metal lid, without a window, that completely covers the dial so that the time cannot be read without opening the lid. They are the most robust design, but visually unattractive and a nuisance to use.

Savonnette pocket watches usually have a button on the top of the stem to release the catch which holds the lid closed, and it is convenient to operate this button with the thumb, the watch being held in the palm of the hand. The lid then opens towards the fingers. Because of this, savonnette pocket watches have the dial arranged so that the pendant, the tube projecting from the case by which the watch can be suspended, is at 3 o'clock and the hinge of the lid opposite this at 9 o'clock. The small seconds display is at 6 o'clock.


Lépine and Savonnette movement layouts
Pictured from the back/top of the movement

Lépine or open face watch

Lépine (Open Face) Watches

The Lépine watch was invented in the eighteenth century by Jean Antoine Lépine who radically redesigned the standard watch movement of the time to make it much thinner. Because of Lépine's role in creating the modern design of watch movement, at various times his name has been used in to name different aspects of the design. See my page about Jean Antoine Lépine for more details about this important but little known maker.

A Lépine movement has its balance in the same plane as the rest of the wheels, pivoted in the bottom plate, and with cocks or bridges in place of the top plate. Lépine created this design to make watches thinner, and this was known as the Lépine calibre.

Watches were also made thinner by not having a lid or cover over the crystal, a design called "open faced". Naturally, in his desire to create the thinnest possible watches, Lépine mostly made open faced watches and in time Lépine was taken to mean any open faced watch, as opposed to a savonnette or hunter watch.

When fitted with small seconds, savonnette watches have the seconds display at 90° to the crown. With the crown next to the 3 o'clock position on the dial, the small seconds display is at 6 o'clock. Open face pocket watches are usually made so that the crown is next to the 12 o'clock position on the dial, and if a small seconds display was included on one of these using the same movement as used in a savonnette watch, the small seconds display would be at 9 o'clock, which looked odd. So for open face pocket watches the movement was rearranged to put the arbor of the fourth wheel in line with the projected axis of the stem. This meant that with the crown at 12 o'clock, the small seconds display was at 6 o'clock. Because of its use in open face watches, which came to be called Lépine watches, this movement layout has itself come to be be called Lépine, although it was not much used by Lépine himself.

So there are three meanings for Lépine in watch terms:

  1. A bridge or bar movement with the balance in the same plane as the train wheels.
  2. An open faced watch.
  3. A watch movement with the arbor of the fourth wheel in line with the projected axis of the stem.

But there is a further twist. When the wristwatch was created it was natural to arrange the dial with the 12 at the top and the crown at 3 o'clock for both convenience of access for winding and for attaching the strap. This of course is a savonnette layout. But giving a wristwatch a lid would have defeated one of the principal benefits of a wristwatch, that it was possible to look at the time without using both hands, so wristwatches were almost universally open face. So the key to the successful wristwatch was the paradoxical use of a savonnette movement in a Lépine case.

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Pocket or fob watch?

Many people use the term "pocket watch" and "fob watch" as if they mean the same thing. They don't.

I have seen it said that the word "fob" is "derived from the German fobke or fuppe, meaning a small pocket". However, I can find no trace of these words in German, and in reality the German term for small pocket is "klein tasche". I am sure there is no truth in the statement. The man often credited with inventing the watch in the early part of the sixteenth century is Peter Henlein of Augsburg, Germany, called "erfinder der taschenuhr" or inventor of the pocket watch. Henlein's watches were more small portable clocks than what we today think of as a watch, but the an "uhr" is a watch or clock and taschenuhr is the German word for a pocket watch.

Ladies often wore a small watch suspended on a strap that was pinned to the outside of their clothing. A decorative metal strap with jewels, stones and enamel is called a chatelaine, a plainer and more functional leather strap is called a fob, so a fob watch is a ladies' watch.

A watch carried by a man was usually larger and kept in a pocket, it is hence called a pocket watch. The German term is taschenuhr, the French is "montre gousset".

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Pocket watch conversions to wristwatches

Sometimes it is written that "early wristwatches used small pocket watch movements", or even "early wristwatches were converted pocket watches". In the main, these statements are not true. Although there undoubtedly were some conversions of pocket watches into wristwatches, these were usually not done by the manufacturer but in the aftermarket, and were often done pretty badly. The reason behind this is that most wristwatches are "open face", they don't have a metal lid over the dial. After all, the basic idea of a wristwatch is so that you have it easily in sight and don't need both hands to read the time, so a savonnette or hunter watch wouldn't be ideal for use as a wristwatch, but using an open face pocket watch as a wristwatch brings all sorts of problems with dial layout. These were not the sort of thing that a self respecting watch manufacturer would want to put his name to. When significant demand for men's wristwatches arose, manufacturers designed purpose made wristwatches.

Movements

There is no difference in principle between a pocket watch and a wristwatch movement, they are just "movements". (OK, in practice, men's pocket watch movements are larger than men's wristwatch movements, but that is not a difference of principle.) In fact, before wristwatches came along, there were no "pocket watches" as such, there were just "watches". If a manufacturer already had a line of small movements that he used for ladies fob watches such as the IWC calibres 63 and 64, these were the ideal size to use in a wristwatch. Would he design a new line of movements for men's wristwatches simply because these calibres were previously used in ladies pocket watches? Of course not, these were just 12 ligne movements. A movement placed in a pocket watch case becomes a pocket watch movement only at that moment. Likewise, a movement placed in a wristwatch case becomes a wristwatch movement at that moment. The movement becomes a "pocket watch movement" or a "wristwatch movement" depending on what case it is put into.


If I soldered on a couple of wire lugs like this, would this really be a wristwatch?

Post factory conversions

Post factory conversions from pocket to wristwatch, by the simple method of soldering on two lugs as described by Jaquet and Chapuis, are not as common as people sometimes think, because they haven't thought it through thoroughly. wristwatches don't usually have a lid, as in a hunter, so if an open face wristwatch was converted from a pocket watch, it would have been from an open faced pocket watch. Here is a picture of a small open faced Borgel pocket watch that I have rotated to bring the crown to 3 o'clock as if it were a wristwatch. A couple of problems for the converter are immediately apparent. The 12 is in the wrong place, as is the sub seconds dial. Another problem is the long pendant with the bow - the ring to which a chain is usually attached to a pocket watch for safety.

Although the position of the 12 could be moved by a new dial, and the bow could be removed and the pendant and winding stem shortened, the position on the seconds display cannot be moved. It would either appear at 9 o'clock, or the seconds display would have to be omitted altogether. This sort of mucking about is just far too much trouble to be the way the first wristwatches were made. Although there are undoubtedly some wristwatches that were made by soldering wire lugs onto a small pocket watch, these are few and far between, usually obvious, often badly done and not very well adapted to their new role. These all appear to have been done after the watch was sold, and I very much doubt that any watch manufacturer actually produced wristwatches that were converted from pocket watches.

Factory manufactured wristwatches

Although some factories initially made some wristwatches with what today look like strange layouts, such as with the dial angled so that the 12 o'clock and crown of an open face watch were between what today would be the one and two o'clock positions, the key to the first truly successful wristwatches - open faced wristwatches with the crown at 3 o'clock and small seconds at 6 o'clock - was the paradoxical use of savonnette (hunter) movements in open face Lépine cases. This could only practically be done in the factory.

Open face pocket watches usually have a Lépine movement with the fourth wheel arbor, which carries the second hand, on an axis projected from the stem. When used as a wristwatch with the crown at 3 o'clock, this places the seconds hand at 9 o'clock as shown in the picture. For this reason, lépine movements are rarely used in watches manufactured as a wristwatch, or if they are, the seconds indication is omitted, as in some early Stauffer & Co. wristwatches that used IWC calibre 63 movements - probably because there was an urgent order and IWC didn't have any calibre 64 movements on hand.

Wristwatches usually use savonnette (hunter) movements, where the fourth wheel arbor is on an axis at right angles to the projected stem. With the crown at 3 o'clock the savonnette movement puts the seconds at 6 o'clock. A savonnette movement is not normally used in an open faced pocket watch. I would say never, but see some American open face pocket watches use savonnette movements, and are called side winders. I don't think I have ever seen a European one of these. They still have the long pendant and bow though, so could not be made into a wristwatch just by soldering on some lugs.

Instead of messing about converting pocket watches they had already made, when they wanted to make some proper wristwatches, a factory would more likely say something like this to their watch case maker "You know those small open face pocket watch cases you just made for us, well make some more, but this time make the pendant shorter and miss off the bow, and put some lugs on them to take a strap." Were these converted pocket watch cases? No, because they weren't first made with a long pendant and bow and then modified - why would they do that? These cases were purpose made for wristwatches.

The factory would then take some small savonnette (hunter) movements they were already making and put them into these open face wristwatch cases, and hey presto, a wristwatch! Were these pocket watch movements? No, they were just small savonnette movements that could be used in either pocket watches or wristwatches. They may have been first used in pocket watches, before there were men's wristwatches, but does this mean they are always pocket watch movements, even when used in a wristwatch? No, they are just movements. Was this assembly of a savonnette movement into a purpose made wristwatch case a "conversion"? No: not in any way.

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Watch cases with two backs, or double bottoms


Double Case Back

One of the questions I am occasionally asked is "Why does the case have two 'backs'?". This is where a case has a hinged back that opens to reveal an inner back or cover, sometimes called a "cuvette", which is itself can be also hinged and opened to reveal the movement, or fixed to the band or middle part of the case in a double bottomed dome or Consular case.

This case design goes back to watches that were wound from the back, and some set from the back, with a key. Each time the watch needed to be wound or have the time set, the back was opened and a key with a hollow square end was applied to a square end on either the mainspring barrel arbor and turned to wind the mainspring, or to a square on a friction post that ran through the centre arbor and carried the minute hand and was turned to set the hands. If there were no protection for the movement, then a clumsy person could accidentally press the key into the watch mechanism and damage it.

In the earliest watches the movement was set into a case or "box" that had a hole in the back for the winding key. Sometimes this hole was covered by a little shutter to prevent dust entering, which was pushed aside to allow winding. This was not an entirely satisfactory arrangement, and watches usually had a second out case to protect the inner case. This arrangement was called a "pair case". The inner case of a pair case has a hole for the key to pass through to wind the spring, and the outer case then covers this hole.

The style conscious French nobility were never particularly fond of the bulky pair case, and the fashion that began in France around 1775 for close fitting waistcoats resulted in them abandoning it altogether. Jean Antoine Lépine fitted his watches with single cases with no hole in the back. The watch was wound through the dial, which spoiled its appearance and exposed the enamel to damage by the key of a clumsy owner.

To avoid the need for a winding hole in the dial, Lépine designed a case with a middle part, called the "band", to which the movement was fixed. A bezel carrying the crystal was fixed to the front of the band, and to the back were hinged two covers, an outer and inner. The outer cover is usually called the bottom or back, the second the inner cover or cuvette. The cuvette had one or two holes for the key, one offset from the centre for winding the mainspring, a second in the centre if the hands were set from the back.

Lépine invented hand setting from the back of the watch, boring the centre arbor so that a centre post that carried the minute hand could be passed through it, driven by friction between the two. The cannon pinion is mounted on the centre post. When the hands were set from the back there was no need for the front bezel to open and it was made to simply snap on, doing away with the need for a hinge at the front for the bezel. The movement was fixed to the band, eliminating the hinge for the movement to be swung out from the front of the case.

The case invented by Lépine, with the movement fixed to the band, snap on front bezel and two hinged backs, is sometimes attributed to Breguet, who later used the same design. Breguet usually made the inner cuvette of gilt copper or brass, and only made it of gold in watches of his top quality, ‘ouvrage premiere classe’. It thus became the standard practice in France to make the cuvette of base metal, except in the best quality work.

In English watches the inner cover, which was called the dome, was regarded as part of the watch case by the assay office, whether it was fixed to the band or jointed (hinged) to it in a Lépine style case. Because of this the dome had to be made of the same standard of metal as the rest of the case, e.g. 18 carat gold or sterling silver, or none of the case would be hallmarked by the assay office.

Like Breguet, Swiss makers did not regard the inner cuvette as part of the case, after all it was only there as a barrier to prevent a clumsy owner damaging his watch and was not seen when the back was closed, so they allowed it to be made of base metal. This was often plated with gold or silver to tone with the rest of the case, but marked "metal" or "cuivre" (copper) so that it could not be not mistaken for precious metal.

In later movements that were wound and set by the crown, the holes in the cuvette for the key were not needed, but it was retained for better quality watches. This may have been partly because of tradition, a sign of quality workmanship not found in cheaper watches, and it might give better protection against the ingress of dust than a single case back.

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Pair cases

A pair cased English fusee verge watch
A pair cased English fusee verge watch: click to enlarge

Early pocket watches have "pair cases", two cases one inside the other. Sometimes a third case was provided, usually of a non-precious material such as leather, to protect the outer of the pair cases.

The image here shows an English pair cased watch with a fusee verge movement. You should be able to make out the cone shaped fusee between the plates of the movement, on the right behind a pillar. The wheel in the foreground with teeth pointing downwards is the contrate wheel, a sure sign of a verge movement.

The case on the left is the outer case of the pair. It is sterling silver and has London Assay Office hallmarks for 1844 to 1845, but there is no sponsor's mark. The cut outs in the rim are for the pendant, which is attached to the inner case. The rusty iron strip is the spring for the catch that normally holds the case closed.

The inner case has the same London Assay Office hallmarks as the outer case, and a sponsor's mark of the initials JB over WW struck incuse without a surround. This mark was entered on 27 June 1834 by Josiah Barnett & William Walters in partnership at 15 Lower Charles Street, Northampton Square, Clerkenwell.

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Watch cases: consular, double bottom, and dome

The definition of what constitutes a "consular" watch case is not clearly laid down in any reference that I have found. The name consular is sometimes used for the cases of English lever watches that have a jointed (hinged) bezel and back with a second, fixed, inner back called a "dome". I believe that this is incorrect.

In "The artistry of the English Watch", Cedric Jagger says The consular case - which is said, traditionally, to be associated with Napoleon's appointment as First Consul, even if the dates do not actually match up, - seems first to have been introduced by the precision watchmakers in c1775. Essentially, it is a single case with a double back, the outer of which is opened for access to the winding and hand setting squares, while the movement hinges out from the front." The government of France was called Consulate after the fall of the Directory in 1799 until the start of the Napoleonic Empire in 1804. Executive power was vested in three consuls. At first these were equal in authority, but Napoleon quickly consolidated power in himself as "First Consul".

This description of a single case with a double back would seem to apply to the cases of English lever watches, and several sources point in the same direction. Both Britten and de Carle imply that the terms consular and double bottom are synonymous, as does Terence Camerer Cuss in the glossary to "The English Watch: 1585 — 1970".

However, I noted that David Penney described on his web site that the case of Pennington watch No. 5443 has an "18ct gold case of true consular form, the band and both covers all pivoted on the same joint". David told me that in his view the distinctive feature of a consular case is that the front bezel and the case back are connected to the middle part of the case by a single "joint" (the casemaker's term for a hinge). The knuckles soldered to the bezel and case back, and the tubes or "charnières" soldered to the case middle part sit alongside each other and are all connected by a single pin.

After David explained this to me I went through Terence Camerer Cuss's book again and I noted that all the cases that are described as consular are in the chapter 1775 to 1825 and have the single joint feature, whereas later cases with separate joints for the back and bezel are called simply "cases". This confirmed to me that David's description of the single joint as the principal distinguishing feature of a consular case must be correct, although this doesn't appear in any book that I have seen.

The use of a single joint to hold the back and bezel to the middle part of a consular case is quite distinct from the later cases used for English lever watches that have separate joints for the back and bezel. I don't have any watches with consular cases but examples can be found on David's web site at David Penney's Antique Watch Store.

The consular case appears to be the first evolution of the pair case. The glass of a consular case is mounted to the bezel of the outer case, rather than a bezel on the inner case of a pair case watch. The bezel of the the inner case was discarded. The remaining half of the knuckles of what had previously been the joint between the bezel and the band and back of the inner case of a pair case watch were integrated into the joint of the outer case. The movement remained hinged at 12 to the vestigial inner case, which was now the case middle part with a fixed inner back.

French watches were sometimes wound through a hole in the dial and the hands set by turning them with a key on a square boss of the minute hand or centre arbor, so there was no need for the owner to access the back of the movement, so their cases had a single back or bottom fixed to the middle part of the case. Putting the winding hole through the dial was rather unsightly and often resulted in the enamel of the dial being damaged by the key. However, having only a single bottom meant that the case was as slim as it could be, which the current French fashion of the time for tight fitting waistcoats preferred. There doesn't appear to be a well defined name for this style of case, but Jean-Antoine Lépine of Paris was the pioneer of slim watches at the time. Open faced watches are generally known as "Lépine" watches, perhaps the design with a single bottom was the definitive version.

English watches

English watches usually wound from the back and had an enamel dial that was unmarred by a key hole, although they were generally set from the front by a key applied directly to the square boss of the minute hand.

Winding from the back necessitated a hole in the case for the key which needed to be covered to prevent dust getting in when it was not being used. This was the reason for the original pair case. The inner case of the pair had the hole, which was covered between windings by the outer case. Pair cases were not well sealed. The inner case carried the bezel and glass, the front opening in the outer case was open. This meant that dust and fluff could find its way into the outer case and between the two cases round to the winding hole. Nevertheless, pair cases continued to be made, mainly for watches with verge escapements, into the late nineteenth century.


English lever watch with dome case. Click on the image to enlarge.

When the English lever watch was developed around 1820 a better case design was also adopted. Like the earlier consular case, an outer bottom or back was hinged and when opened revealed an inner cover, called in English watches the "dome", which was fixed in place to the band or middle part of the case. The dome has either a single hole for winding, or two holes if both winding and hand-setting are from the rear. The glass is held in a bezel, and the outer back and bezel are attached to the middle part of the case by joints.

Unlike the consular case, the joints for the back and bezel are separate and located at different positions around the case middle part. This made them simpler, with fewer knuckles, which allowed them to be made smaller and less obvious. It would have been easier to make these simpler joints, but a challenge to solder all the charnières to the middle part of the case at the same time. This was probably the reason why they were in separate locations around the case middle part, so that they could be soldered in two separate heatings.

The movement is attached to the middle part of the case by a hinge at 12 o'clock. If it is to be examined or regulated the movement is swung out from the front of the case by first opening the bezel and then releasing a catch which holds the movement in place. The bezel is usually hinged at the side around 9 o'clock. The catch is below the six o'clock position on the dial, with the movement hinge at 12 o'clock. To fully remove the movement from the case, the hinge pin is pushed out. The practice of hinging the movement to the case continued in some high class English watches until about 1870.

The name of this style of case does not seem to be well defined. When I first bought an English lever watch I was told that it was a consular case, but thanks to David Penney I now realise that this is not the correct name. In his book "Watch and Clock Making", David Glasgow calls them "double bottom cases" and says that their cost was part of the reason for the decline of English watchmaking. However, I have also seen them called "dome" cases in nineteenth century sources. The term double bottom is rather generic and could apply to cases with a jointed inner back, whereas dome refers to the specific fixed inner back used in English lever watches, which seems to be preferable.


English watch dust cap

The first photograph shows an English lever watch. The front bezel with the crystal has been opened and the movement swung out of the case on a hinge located at 12 o'clock below the pendant. The small projection from the edge of the movement that I have ringed in red is the catch that normally holds the movement in place when the bezel is opened to set the hands, you press it with a finger nail to release the movement so that it can be swung out.

The outer back or case bottom is also open, showing part of the hallmarks for sterling silver. Inside the case you can see the dome, also hallmarked, that is fixed to the middle part of the case. In this watch the dome has a single hole for winding, which is isn't visible in the photograph.

In English watches, if the case is gold or silver the dome must be made of the same metal, because if it was not, none of the case would be hallmarked. English assay offices would refuse to hallmark an item that was not all of one standard of metal.

The second photograph shows the dust cap that covers the movement. The curved blue steel spring engages with two pillars on the movement (in the picture one of these is missing) to hold the dust cap in place. To release the dust cap you slide the blue steel spring round a little, as shown in the picture, and then the dust cap will lift off.

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Black oxidised steel watch cases

Watch cases were sometimes made from steel, This was cheaper than gold or silver, but prone to marking and rusting. To make the case more attractive and give it some protection against rusting it was hot chemically treated . The process turned the steel black and the cases were described in Swiss/French as "acier oxide", or oxidized steel. The oxidised finish was attractive and reasonably satisfactory in everyday use, but it was not very successful in preventing rust in damp conditions. When these cases are seen today the black surface layer has often worn thin or been removed by polishing, showing the grey of the underlying steel.

Black oxidizing, or caustic black as the process is sometimes called, involves immersing steel parts in a caustic soda (sodium hydroxide [NaOH]) salt bath at about 140 degrees Centigrade (290 degrees Fahrenheit). The reaction between the iron in the steel and the hot oxide bath produces magnetite (Fe3O4), which forms an attractive and moderately corrosion resistant dark black finish on the surface. The parts are usually oiled or waxed after treatment to improve corrosion protection. Because of the temperature and the caustic materials involved, this is a dangerous process.

Jean Finger advert 1894
Jean Finger advert 1894

Some idea of the specialised nature of the process may be gained from the advertisement here by Jean Finger, a case maker of Longeau who later patented the hermetic watch case, or case within a case. This advertisement is from April 1894 and at the bottom says "Oxidages soignés de boites acier n'étant pas de ma fabrication", i.e. that the company will carry out oxide treatment on steel watch cases that are not of their own manufacture; they will oxidise watch cases for manufacturers who don't have the capability to do it themselves.

The same process is used by gunsmiths to produce an attractive cosmetic appearance and measure of corrosion resistance to firearms; because of this the finish is sometimes called "gunmetal". This is unfortunate because true gunmetal is really a copper alloy similar to bronze that was used to make cannon before large steel forgings were possible. When used in regards to watch cases, "gunmetal" doesn't refer to the type of metal used, which is steel, but only to the black, or sometimes dark blue, surface finish.

1901 Goldsmiths Advert
1901 Goldsmiths Advert - Click to enlarge

In 2012 the Swiss watchmaker F.P. Journe presented in New York City an exhibition entitled "Steel time: The largest historic collection of gunmetal watches of the mid 19th century". I thought at the time, and I still think, that this is a very unfortunate use of the word gunmetal; collectors need to be aware of this usage but I hope they will avoid propagating it, or at least qualify it as "gunmetal finish".

A similar process using a solution of potassium nitrate and sodium hydroxide heated to around 140°C produces a blue finish. This is a different process to the blue produced by simply heating polished steel parts until a blue coloured oxide film appears, and both processes are different to the bluing produced by "Engineer's" or "Prussian" blue that is painted onto parts in the workshop so that they can be marked out prior to cutting and shaping.

Pictured right is an advertisement which appeared in the 1901 Goldsmiths Company Watch and Clock Catalogue for a military pocket watch, "The Company's Service Watch,". It was described as "The most reliable timekeeper in the World for Gentlemen going on Active Service or for rough wear." The "UNSOLICITED TESTIMONIAL" at the bottom of the advert, dated June 7th 1900, states "Please put enclosed Watch in a plain Silver Case. The metal has, as you can see, rusted considerably, but I am not surprised, as I wore it continually in South Africa on my wrist for 3½ months. It kept most excellent time, and never failed me. Faithfully yours, Capt. North Staffs. Regt.".

The Captain's watch was the version cased in an "oxidised steel case" shown in the middle picture. This made the watch, at two pounds ten shillings, considerably cheaper than one with a silver case, which the advert shows was priced at three pounds ten shillings, a considerable increase of one pound; 40% more. The 18 carat gold case was considerably more at twelve pounds, nearly five times as much as the one in the steel case. Which raises an interesting point; the same watch mechanism could be housed in either a steel, silver or gold case at the customers choice. As the mechanism was the same in each case, its cost must have been the same, and must have been part of the cost of the cheapest watch, the steel one, at two pounds ten shillings. The difference in cost of nearly ten pounds between a steel and 18 carat gold case watch was therefore entirely due to the extra cost of the gold case. A rough estimate might put the cost of the watch mechanism at two pounds and the steel case at 10 shillings, giving the price of the steel watch at two pounds ten shillings. Which would make the gold case, at ten pounds, twenty times as expensive as the steel case, and five times as expensive as the watch mechanism itself.

You will notice that the Captain says I wore it continually in South Africa on my wrist for 3½ months. This was during the Boer War in South Africa, and he had been wearing his watch in a leather "wristlet", which you can read more about on my page The Evolution of the Wristwatch: Wristlets. During the same war a Borgel watch in an oxydised steel case spent several days in the Modder river.

A particularly attractive use of black oxide finish in combination with gold was used by François Borgel to create a case for an IWC pocket watch with a stunning dragon design which can be seen by following this link: Borgel black oxidised dragon case.

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Chrome plated watch cases

The first commercial process for chromium plating was developed in 1924 in America and chrome plate didn't come into use for watches until some time after then. Rolex were one of the first companies to use it, Hans Wilsdorf registered the name "Snowite" for watch cases that were made from chrome plated nickel. The 1920s economic depression that resulted in the Wall Street crash of 1929 meant that manufacturers were looking for cheaper but still eye catching alternatives to gold and silver. Stainless steel was introduced in the 1930s for the same reason

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Watch Case Repairs

If you have a watch case that needs repairing, get in touch with my good friend Adam Phillips. Adam is a goldsmith with over 30 years experience in the making and repair of all types of watch case, from antique pocket watches to modern wristwatches. He was originally based in Clerkenwell, the historic centre of watchmaking in London but now his workshop is in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. Adam can undertake all types of watch case work, e.g. new watch backs clip, screw, or hinged, bezels in any material and shape, hard gold plating, gilding, rhodium plating, chrome and nickel plating, He can also copy parts.

Contact Adam via his web site: www.watchcaseworks.co.uk - this link will open in a new tab.


If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact me page. Back to the top of the page.

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved. This page updated March 2017. W3CMVS.