Blog: Shrapnel guards
Date: 26 May 2015Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved.
I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently, but because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages the changes are not very noticeable, so I decided to create this blog section to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that I have either changed or added to significantly.
During the Great War many officers and men serving at the front wore wristwatches, which were much more convenient in the cramped conditions of the trenches than pocket watches. This was the first large scale use by men in intensive combat of wristwatches and a number of designs of "guards" or "protectors" to shield the fragile glass from knocks and bumps were produced, which today are often called "shrapnel guards". The section reproduced here about these guards is from my page about Great War trench watches.
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Mesh (Shrapnel) Guards
Shrapnel Guards 644549 and 656724 / 105694
To protect the crystal of a wristwatch, metal grills or meshes were created that covered the crystal but still allowed the time to be read. These were held in place by the wrist strap, and had criss cross bars or metal domes pierced with round or shaped holes that allowed the wearer to read the time through the holes.
These are often today called “shrapnel guards”, but they would not really have been much use if the watch and its wearer were actually hit by shrapnel, a hail of bullets from a shell fired from a field gun and discharged close to a target by a timed explosion. However, they would certainly protect a glass crystal against the everyday bumps and knocks that it might experience in the cramped conditions of the trenches and when going “over the top”.
I don't think they were called shrapnel guards during the Great War; “mesh guard” or “watch protector” appear to have been the terms in use then. But you have to admit that shrapnel guard sounds good.
The photograph here shows two of these shrapnel guards:
- The guard to the left, a telephone dial style, is the earlier of the two. It has a number stamped in cameo inside the dome, RD 644549 under a cameo IN·12. The number preceded by RD refers to a Registered Design, a design registered at the Board of Trade in London to establish copyright. This design was registered on 12 December 1914 by Alfred Davison of St. John Street, London, a jeweller and metal worker. The meaning of the legend "IN·12" is not known, it might refer to the size. An identical design gained US patent 52,220 on 23 July 1918 for Louis Jacot, a Swiss citizen residing in Birmingham.
- The guard to the right, in a style called a mesh guard, has a Registered Design number RD 656724 stamped on one of the strap loops and PAT (for patent) 105694 on the other. This guard was made by Hirst Bros. and is discussed further in a later section below.
Levi sterling silver guard
Thanks to Andy Strange for the photograph
The vast majority of shrapnel guards that I have seen have been either nickel or silver plated. Silver plate tests as silver with simple testing kits, which only test the surface of the metal so be aware if someone tries to sell you one as being silver. Solid silver should be hallmarked. I have only seen one guard made in sterling silver and hallmarked, the one seen in the photograph here by Andy Strange. This carries the sponsor's mark "S.J.L&Co." entered by Samuel Joseph Levi of Birmingham, a silversmith and electroplate manufacturer, and Birmingham Assay Office hallmarks for 1916/1917. It also carries the legend "P.PAT. 11638/16, which is a reference to a patent application submitted by Levi in 1916. This is discussed in more detail further down the page.
Use During the War
Shrapnel guards were usually made by stamping them out from sheet metal, and once the punches and dies had been made the guards could easily be churned out in large numbers. In an article in the Horological Journal in 1998 Dennis Harris says that judging by the number for sale at collector's fairs at the time they must have been produced by the thousands, which they would have been; making the stamps and dies was expensive and this cost would be spread across as many items as possible.
However, the fact that they were produced in large numbers doesn't mean that the guards were all used at the front. Unbreakable crystals were introduced in 1915 and the market for these guards was severely curtailed. It seems likely that the large numbers of guards that Harris saw for sale were unsold stock, certainly the ones that I have seen show little signs of use.
Writing in the Horological Journal in November 1917, Frank Mercer of Thomas Mercer Chronometers said that wristwatches with radium hands and dials, dust proof cases and unbreakable glasses were what watch manufacturers should be thinking about, and that covers with holes in to protect the glass were going to the land of Never Never and were a waste of time.
It is probably impossible to know who exactly was the first person to come up with the idea of a protector for wristwatch crystals because, like the wristwatch itself, the idea is fairly obvious. However, unlike the wristwatch which was never patented because it was so obvious, patents were granted for devices intended to protect the crystals or glasses of wristwatches. But to become widely used they needed a market and a demand, which for wristwatches, and even more so for wristwatch protectors, didn't really exist before the Great War.
The earliest patent for a protector specifically for wristwatches that I have seen was granted to Sydney Smith in June 1913, No. 22,414 with a priority date of 2 October 1912, "A protector for wrist watch glasses". This was different to the later shrapnel guards in that it was a metal ring that clipped directly onto the watch case, not with loops for the wrist strap. The ring surrounded the crystal and covered its edges but left the centre part clear, although the patent says that the central hole could be filled with transparent celluloid, or made smaller and surrounded with numerals, turning the watch into a half hunter.
645715 faux tortoiseshell guard
Thanks to Phil for the photograph
A patent for "An Improved Watch Face Protector" was granted to Gilbert Dennison, of the Birmingham watch case makers, in 1915, No. 23,796 with a priority date of 9 December 1914. It used a number of metal strips that were pivoted on a fixed ring at one end and a moving ring at the other. When the movable ring was rotated the strips slid to cover or reveal the dial, in much the same way that the aperture of a camera lens operates. It was a clever idea, but needed both hands to operate it. This design was also patented in the USA. It would have been expensive and also quite fragile, and I have never seen one.
The rather attractive faux tortoiseshell guard in the photograph has the Registered Design number 645715, which was registered on 3 February 1915 by Robert Blacklock of Sunderland, County Durham, a jeweller. It is made from celluloid, which was the only transparent artificial plastic material available at the time and was used as a substitute for expensive natural materials like amber and tortoiseshell. This is an unusual guard, the only one I have seen that is not made of metal.
In 1916 Harry Daw was granted a patent for "An Improved Protector for Wrist Watches", No. 11,577 with priority date 11 August 1915. This was perhaps the first protector that looked like a typical shrapnel guard. It comprised a domed metal disk with loops through which the wrist strap passed. The top of the disk had a series of slits forming bars which were turned at an angle so that the dial could be seen through the perforations between the bars when the watch is tilted at an angle, rather like looking through a Venetian blind.
Hirst Bros. and Samuel Levi
It appears that one of the earliest of these guards to be actually put on the market and sold in significant numbers was introduced by Hirst Brothers. & Co. Ltd. of Oldham, Lancashire, described in the Horological Journal in June 1916. The HJ article begins with the statement "A new idea in wrist watch protection patents has just been placed on the market. It is registered by Messrs. Hirst Bros. & Co. Ltd., of Oldham (No. 652595) under the name of "Mesh-Guard" ..." This is the earliest reference I have yet found to the marketing, and hence widespread sale and use, of wristwatch guards or protectors.
Guards carrying the legend RD 652595, the Hirst design discussed in the HJ article, are very similar to the guard shown on the right in the first photograph above; the front grill looks the same but the loops for the strap to pass through are plainer, having straight sides rather than the curved "lyre shaped" sides of the guard in the picture.
GB patent 105694, licensed by Levi to Hirst
Although Hirst Brothers and Co. Ltd. had taken the precaution of registering their design, it seems that they had not protected the idea by securing a patent. A patent for "Improvements relating to Protectors or Guards for Wristlet Watches" was granted to Samuel Joseph Levi of Birmingham, a silversmith and electroplate manufacturer, in 1917, with a priority date of 17 August 1916. The priority date is when the application was received at the patent office, so Levi submitted his application for the patent several months after the announcement of the Hirst design in the Horological Journal.
A figure from the Levi patent is shown here and you can see that the design looks the same as the guard on the right in the first photograph above, lyre shaped loops and all. The patent number is 105694, the same as the PAT number stamped on one of the loops of the guard in the photograph, confirming that it is the same design. This design was also registered with the Board of Trade as Registered Design number RD 656724. Whether it was Levi or Hirst that registered it is not known.
The Registered Design number 656724 was used in advertising by Hirst Bros. so at least some of the guards carrying that number were made by them. The number is different from, and later than, the number 652595 quoted in the Horological Journal.
Was there a connection between Hirst Brothers and Co. Ltd. and Levi? The list of exhibitors at the 1922 British Industries Fair included "Hirst Brothers and Co., Oldham, London, Birmingham and Manchester" so Hirst Bros. did have a Birmingham operation, but the same list includes "S. J. Levi and Co. of Squirrel Works, Regent Place, Birmingham", manufacturers of "Leviathan" Electro-plate. showing that Levi was a separate manufacturer. Items made by Levi's Company are stamped “S.J.L & Co.”
It seems likely that after Levi lodged the patent it was recognised that the two designs were so similar that Hirst Bros. had no choice but to either contest the patent, an expensive and drawn out legal procedure that they might not have won, or buy the rights from Levi. A period advert which shows the design with the curved sided loops of the patent calls it ‘The improved "Mesh Guard" Reg. No. 656724 P.PAT 11638/16’, the "improved" no doubt signifying the use of the later design.
I have seen mesh guards impressed with "RD 656.724" on one lug and "P.PAT. 11638/16" on the other, the numbers referred to in the Hirst Brothers' advertisement. The number 656.724 refers to Registered Design number 656724, so the design is the same one, but the patent number is different. The 11638/16 is a reference number for Levi's patent application deposited in 1916. The "P.PAT" stated in the advertisement means "pending patent" or patent pending, which has no legal status but warns that a patent has been applied for and optimism on the part of the applicant that it will be granted.
The provisional specification for the Levi patent was lodged on 17 August 1916 and given the application number 11,638 – the "/16" refers to the year. Levi made some guards stamped with this number, the sterling silver guard shown in the picture above by Andy Strange is one of them, which is perhaps how Hirst Bros. got to know about Levi's design. The complete specification was lodged 25 September 1916 and the patent was granted on 26 April 1917, British patent number 105694.
Summary of Hirst Bros. and Levi numbers
RD 652595 – first Hirst Brothers design, June 1916 to circa August 1916.
RD 656724 and P.PAT. 11638/16 – Levi design during patent examination August 1916 to April 1917.
RD 656724 and PAT. 105694 – Levi design after patent granted 26/04/1917.
Guards with the "patent pending" number 11638/16 must have been made during the period the patent was being examined after 17 August 1916, and those with the patent number 105694 must have been manufactured after 17 August 1917. Which is interesting given the announcement in of this guard the Horological Journal of June 1916. This announcement in June 1916 was two months before the application for the patent was lodged by Levi.
From the date of the first article in the Horological Journal, the date that the patent application was lodged, and the date that the patent was granted, we can put some dates to guards stamped with the various Registered Design and patent numbers, which I have done in the side box. This also helps to understand the rather confusing jumble of numbers surrounding the Hirst Bros. and Levi guards.
Boneham and Hart v. Hirst Bros.
At about the same time as Hirst Brothers put their Mesh Guard onto the market, other firms were doing the same. A company called Boneham and Hart, trading as F. Boneham & Co., started to advertise their "Vizard" protectors, which differed from the Mesh-Guard only in the shape of the ears. Hirst Brothers issued an advertisement in which they warned that "The extraordinary success of the Mesh Guard, Regd. No. 656724 P. Pat 11,638/16, Patented in France, Switzerland and U.S.A. has evoked some rubbishy imitations ... and the adoption of similar sounding names", and threatened legal proceedings against manufacturers or dealers "infringing our patent or registered design".
The advertisement by Hirst Bros. in which they threatened legal proceedings against other manufacturers of similar guards caused Boneham and Hart, manufacturers of the "Vizard" protectors, to start a legal action for threats against Hirst Brothers, and a messy and lengthy court case ensued. There was also another guard on the market at the same time called the “Vanguard” that was not so near in appearance to the “Mesh Guard” as was the “Vizard”.
GB patent 103815, Frank Farr of Montreal
Another design of shrapnel guard that I have seen fairly often is the one shown in the figure from GB patent 103815 "Improvements in Watch Face Protectors" shown here. This guard was designed (I hesitate to say "invented") by Frank Farr of Montreal, Canada, and was first patented in the United States with a priority date of 3 February 1916.
Farr's patent might have clashed with the Levi patent and taken priority because in concept it is very similar. The application for a British patent was received in November 1916, still within the period when the Levi patent was under examination. However, the Farr patent was approved and given British patent number 103815. Although I have seen guards like this I have never noticed this or any other number on them.
I think the Farr guard is quite aesthetically attractive with its "non-radially disposed" bar pattern. Farr makes the point that these bars will not be confused with the hands of the watch, and offers two patterns with the bars straight or curved. Twelve bars are shown so that the hour numerals are will be visible between pairs of bars, but Farr does not restrict the number to twelve. The slot at 15 allows the guard to be put on to a watch with a sewn on strap, where the buckle would not be able to pass through the gap that the strap passes through.
If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved. This page updated November 2021. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.