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Watch Jewels

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.
Borgel movement 1914
Fontainemelon Movement with 18 jewels: Click image to enlarge.

Jewels are used in watches to provide hard smooth bearing surfaces. They were first used to minimise friction in the fastest moving parts of the mechanism, the balance and escapement, and then later to prolong the life of the movement by preventing wear in the pivot bearings. John Harrison jewelled all the train bearings of his longitude watch H4.

Watch jewels were originally fragments of real gem stones, diamonds and rubies, which were offcuts from gem cutting of little value because of their small size, but later synthetic ruby and sapphire (aluminium oxide) were used. A method of manufacturing synthetic gemstones was developed in 1883 by the French chemist Auguste Verneuil.

The picture here shows a Fontainemelon movement from a 1914 Borgel wristwatch. It has a typical Swiss straight line lever escapement but this movement has more than the standard 15 jewels. You can see the normal jewel holes fitted to the third and fourth wheels to the left and slightly above the centre. This movement is “jewelled to the centre” which means the centre wheel top bearing, the one right in the centre, is also jewelled, bringing the count up to 16 jewels, and the escape wheel has cap jewels, you cans see the polished steel setting and its screw on the escape wheel cock, these add a further two jewels bringing the total to 18.

The subject of the design and use of jewel bearings is, rather surprisingly, little discussed in text books on watchmaking. Their cleaning and replacement is well covered in texts about watch servicing, but in texts devoted to the theory and design of watches, such as A L Rawlings “Science of Clocks and Watches” and “Watchmaking” by George Daniels they are hardly mentioned. I expected to find some discussion of the design aspects of their use; finish, tolerances, the appropriate type of jewel to use in each place, etc. There might be some superlative standard text about jewels that renders discussion unnecessary, but I have yet to discover it.

The First Jewel Bearings

On 1 May 1704 Nicolas Fatio (or Facio) de Duillier, a close friend of Sir Isaac Newton, and Peter and Jacob Debaufre, watchmakers of Church Street, Soho, London, were granted a patent for 14 years over the method of making jewel bearings by piercing rubies. On 11 December 1704 the Court of the Clockmaker's Company was informed that Fatio and the Debaufres had petitioned the House of Commons for an Act for “the sole applying precious and more common stones in Clocks and Watches”, and for extending the term of their patent. The Clockmakers' Company naturally objected to this, which appears to have been intended to give the patent holders sole rights to use jewels of any sort in clocks and watches.

Diamond endstone
English lever 1833 rose diamond endstone

The Clockmakers' Company produced evidence to a committee of the House of Commons of an old watch with the maker's name Ignatius Huggerford, that had a stone fixed in the cock and balance work, which was important in persuading the committee to recommend that the Bill be rejected, which it was in January 1705. This evidence was regarded by the Clockmaker's Company as so important that the Watch was purchased from its then owner, Henry Magson, for £2 10s and kept by the Master of the Company for use in the Company's defence in case the Patentees should commence any suit. Ten shillings was given to Mr William Scale who appeared before the committee to prove he had the watch before the date of the Patent, and that he sold it to Mr. Magson.

In the nineteenth century, Huggeford's watch was examined by Mr E J Thompson, a member of the court of the Clockmaker's Company, who reported that “The movement is not in any sense jewelled, the verge holes being of brass. A piece of coloured glass or soft stone, fastened in a disc of silver and burnished into a sink in the steel cock, gives a fictitious appearance of jewelling.” It appears that if Fatio and the Debaufres had stuck to claiming a patent for piercing holes through jewels they would probably have been successful, but in extending the claim to a monopoly over any jewelling - “the sole applying precious and more common stones in Clocks and Watches”, they had overreached themselves and their claim fell.

The picture here is of a balance staff end stone from an English lever watch, dated by the hallmark in its case to 1833. The setting is blued steel. The jewel is a rose diamond, a hemispherical diamond with the curved upper part cut in triangular facets. This was purely for decoration, the working face of the stone was the flat base. The diamond was mounted in the steel setting and the two were polished on the underside together.

It is often said that watch jewelling was a jealously guarded secret among English watch makers, but the jewels were there to be seen by anyone who cared to look, and techniques for cutting and shaping jewels had been known for centuries, so it can hardly have been a great secret. It is more likely that the continental makers had difficulty getting hold of raw jewels because the principal sources of rubies were in Sri Lanka and Burma, and the trade between them and Europe was dominated by the British East India Company. When free trade opened up British import and export trade in the middle of the nineteenth century, Swiss manufacturers started buying raw jewels in quantities in London and mass producing watch jewels, with serious consequences for the English hand craft producers.

In evidence given in 1887 to the select committee of the House of Commons examining the Merchandise Marks Act (1862) Amendment Bill, Alfred Bedford, the General Manager in Europe of the Waltham Watch Company, said that jewels for Waltham watches were bought in the rough in London and cut there, and that some were finished in London and some in America. During peacetime America continued to import jewels, mainly from Switzerland, until the 1940s when it was recognised that jewel bearings were so important in modern precision instruments and timepieces vital to the war effort that American firms were encouraged to begin manufacturing jewels.

Electa catalogue 1914
Electa catalogue 1914: click image to enlarge.
Copyright © The Gallet Group

Because of the difficulty of shaping and boring very hard materials such as diamond and ruby, they were at first used only for the bearings and endstones or cap jewels of the balance staff. However, the importance of jewel bearings in reducing friction and wear was soon appreciated - John Harrison's prize winning timepiece H4 which was made between 1755 and 1759 was extensively jewelled - and jewels became more widely used in other parts of the movement.

Natural and Synthetic Jewels

The jewels used in the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century were made from natural gem stones, in the main rubies and sapphires. However, it appears that the Swiss discovered how to make artificial rubies in the 1880s. The first appear to have been what are now called "Geneva rubies", which were marketed in 1886.

In around 1883. Auguste Verneuil invented a method of making synthetic or artificial rubies. These were exhibited at the World's Fair in Paris in 1900, although Verneuil did not reveal the process by which they were made until 1902. By 1913, when Verneuil died at age 57, his process was being used to make 10 million carats of rubies annually.

In 1916 Jan Czochralski, a Polish chemist, invented a process for growing single crystals that was fast and inexpensive. It produces flawless crystals that are so clear they can easily be mistaken for glass imitations. Consequently, gemmologists now look for inclusions to distinguish natural rubies and the Czochralski process is used to manufacture rubies for industrial use.

The picture here is a scan of a page from an Electa catalogue dated 1914. It's interesting that even the 7 jewel basic version had a Bréguet balance spring and temperature compensated balance. The red rubies seem to be rather expensive, presumably they were natural gem stones rather than the other "jewels" which were synthetic. The first three entries on the table are for an "0" sized movement, this would be a 13''' movement for a wristwatch - for more about these measurements see watch sizes. The columns of prices do not have headings but I guess that the first is Swiss Francs and the second is English shillings and pence. Before the First World War, currencies were tied to gold, the "gold standard" and had been stable for a long time. I think that French, Belgian and Swiss Francs were all valued at 25 to the pound sterling, the dollar was at four dollars to one pound sterling, hence the old English slang of a "dollar" for a crown (five shillings) and, more commonly, half-a-dollar for a half crown (2/6 or 2 shillings and six pence).

The extra charge for an 0 size movement with 15 jewels and 17 jewels in chatons at 1 and 8 Swiss Francs respectively are shown as 10 pence (10d) and six shillings and six pence (6/6) which agrees with the exchange rate, there were 240 pence to the pound so 1 Franc would be 240/25 = 9.6 pence, or 10 pence in round money, and 8 Francs would be 8 * 240/25 = 76.8 pence, or 6 shillings (72 pence) and 4.8 pence, six shillings and sixpence in round money, the sixpence being a common coin at the time. The extra charge for 21 red rubies set in chatons is 41.50 Francs or 33/6. The Francs work out at 41.5 * 240/25 = 398.4 pence or 33 shillings and 2.4 pence; 33 shillings and sixpence in round money; one pound thirteen shillings and sixpence. This would be an enormous extra charge, wristwatches in ordinary silver cases were being retailed at only two pounds and six shillings to two pounds and 10 shillings at the time, I bet not many were made with red rubies! You can read more about Electa and Gallet on my Gallet and Electa page.

Jewelling reduces the wear, and thereby prolongs the life of a watch, but it also increases cost. The reduction in wear is a result of reduced friction. Variations in friction at the balance pivots are the most significant point at which timekeeping will be affected. The amount of energy lost to friction during each oscillation of the balance compared to the amount of energy stored in the balance and spring assembly determine its "Q" factor. The higher the ratio, the better the timekeeping. The balance staff also rotates a lot more than any wheel in the train. It is no coincidence that the balance staff pivots were the first to be jewelled.

End Stones / Cap Jewels

Balance Assembly - Bearings and End Stones in Red

The image here shows a balance staff in green with the balance in mustard yellow. The balance staff pivots turn in the red jewel bearings with holes through their centres, like the pivots of other train wheels. At both ends of the balance staff are red flat jewels without holes. These are end stones, sometimes called cap jewels.

The use of end stones achieves two beneficial results. The first is that combined with the jewel hole they form an oil reservoir, the second is that they control the end float of the arbor. Because the end float of the arbor is controlled by the end stone it does not need a square shoulder, so it can be made "conical", a shape that prevents oil migrating along the arbor from the pivots.

In an ordinary plain jewel bearing without a cap jewel, the outer face of the jewel bearing is dished to form a reservoir for oil. When a cap jewel is added, a much better reservoir for oil is formed, capillary action causing the oil to form a globule around the pivot in the cavity between the cap jewel and the jewel bearing. When filling this reservoir it is important not to overfill it because if it touches the plate the oil will penetrate between the plate and the cap jewel setting and be dispersed by capillary attraction. There are two ways of introducing oil into this reservoir. One way is to place a drop of oil onto the cap jewel before it is put in place, which I find is difficult because the jewel can move about while you are trying to secure it, and the oil can get onto places it shouldn't. The other way is to introduce oil into the assembled setting through the jewel bearing. This is done with a fine piece of wire, or with a special oiler which makes the job easy and is my preferred method. It is sometimes said that the pivot of the balance staff will push the oil through so there is no need to lead it through by hand, but the setting should be examined after oiling to make sure that there is the right amount of oil in place. This examination is complicated if the balance assembly is in place, and if the quantity of oil is wrong, removing the balance can result in oil getting where it shouldn't

Some movements have end stones on the escape wheel pivot bearings. As the escape wheel is the second fastest turning component after the balance this would be a logical place to enhance the bearing arrangement to reduce friction. Cap jewels are usually used with conical pivots, without the square shoulder that is needed to control end float on normal parallel pivots. If the escape wheel pivots were made as fine as those of a balance staff to minimise friction, a downside of this would be that they were as fragile and prone to breakage as the pivots of the balance staff itself. However, the escape wheel turns much more slowly than the oscillating balance, so its pivots do not need to be made so fine and can be more robust.

Sometimes end stones or cap jewels use a Kif Duofix setting, where the cap jewel is held in place by a spring that looks like the spring of a shock protection system. The spring is simply a convenient alternative to tiny screws to hold the cap jewel in place, allowing it to be easily removed and replaced during cleaning. Kif Duofix is not a shock protection system. It is often seen on the escape wheel pivots of Rolex watches.

End stones are also sometimes seen on train wheel pivots.

Train arbor pivots are parallel, with a shoulder that keeps them in the right place, stopping them dropping through their bearing. However, when the watch is moved about this shoulder moves into and out of contact with the plate or jewel bearing. This causes a difference in friction, when the shoulder is in contact with the bearing the friction is higher. The oil flows along the parallel pivot surface by capillary attraction, and can get onto the shoulder of the pivot causing it to stick to the plate. A cap jewel replaces the function of the shoulder in keeping the arbor where it should be, and eliminates the problem of the shoulder of the pivot touching the plate.

These two factors, the additional oil reservoir and control of arbor end float, mean that the fact that cap jewel on train pivots are rare even in top end modern jewelled watch movements is surprising. Several companies produced endstone settings for use with train wheel pivots with square shoulders. There was "Giracap" made by Universal Escapements Ltd., the makers of Incabloc; "Fixmobil" made by Parachoc, the makers of Kif shock protection, and Lubrifix made by Seitz, the makers of Rubyshock and watch jewels.

How Many Jewels are Needed?

How many jewels are necessary? Although jewels are often said to be used to reduce friction, this isn't essential and many watches were made without any jewels at all, a good strong mainspring ensuring that the watch ran. I have never seen an analysis of the effects of jewelling on the timekeeping properties of a watch, and I suspect that they are not large; timekeeping is determined by the characteristics of the balance and balance spring. A balance in a watch with a going barrel has to cope with a far greater variation in torque from the mainspring between fully wound and nearly run down 24 or so hours later than it would ever get from variations due to friction in the train.

Because jewels are hard, a jewel bearing can be shorter than a brass bearing. This is useful because it means there is a shorter film of oil between a jewel and a pivot than there is between a longer brass bearing and a pivot. A longer oil film increases drag on the pivot.

The first bearings to be jewelled, at the beginning of the eighteenth century by Nicolas Facio (or Fatio) de Duillier, were the balance staff bearings. These are the most important bearings in a watch because the quality of timekeeping depends on the balance oscillating with as little loss of energy as possible so that the impulse that keeps it swinging can be small. Each impulse necessarily disturbs the timekeeping of the oscillating balance, so the smaller the impulse the better. This is why the balance staff pivots are made so small in diameter, and consequently are so easily broken. Balance staff jewels are usually regarded as essential in a good quality watch, although many successful cheap watches have been made without them.

Because the balance of a lever escapement is highly detached it is fairly well immune to small fluctuations in torque due to friction in the train. Jewelling of other parts of the movement is more a case of reducing wear and increasing longevity at a certain cost, rather than significantly improving the timekeeping of the watch. It might be thought that the escape pallets must surely be jewelled because of the amount of sliding friction they experience, but the Roskopf pin pallet escapement, which has no jewels at all and lasts reasonably well for a cheap watch, belies that.

In most jewelled watches, train jewels are more value in reducing wear and lengthening the life of the movement than for any effect on timekeeping.

Counting Jewels

Counting jewels can be more difficult than it appears at first sight. You can't simply count the number of jewels visible on the top of the movement and double this to get the total. The reason for this is that pivots were not always jewelled in the bottom plate in mirror image to the top plate. If the centre arbor bearing in the top plate is jewelled, the bearing in the bottom plate usually isn't jewelled. Cap stones were often fitted only to bearings in the top plate, and sometimes even only the top bearings were jewelled. This was obviously to make the movement appear jeweled to a customer, but to halve the cost of jewelling by not putting jewels in the bottom plate. This was very common practice throughout the American pocket watch industry, and also some English watches. I am not sure about Swiss practice but I am sure it would have been done by some.

Jewel Counts in a Lever Escapement Watch

Balance assembly - balance yellow, balance staff green, jewel bearings red

The picture here shows in red the jewel bearings and end stones (cap jewels) for the balance staff. To reduce friction the pivots of the balance staff are made very fine, only a few hundredths of a millimetre in diameter. In addition, the holes of the two jewel bearings that the pivots pass through are made with convex rather than parallel sides, so that the pivots only touch them over a short distance.

The first and most important item to have jewel bearings, because it is the fastest turning, is the balance staff, so when counting jewels it is usual to start there. In a jewelled watch, the usual jewel counts are made up as follows:

7 Jewels: Two bearings and two end stones (jewel holes and cap jewels) for the balance staff makes four jewels, then one jewel for the impulse pin and two pallet jewels for the lever escapement gives a total of 7 jewels.

15 Jewels: Higher quality watches also have jewels for the bearings of the pallet staff and the pivots of the train wheels. There are two jewel bearings for the pallet staff, and two each for the escape, fourth and third wheel pivots. This makes another eight jewels on top of the seven in the balance and escapement, making 15 in total. This configuration is often referred to as "fully jewelled".

Some watches are in addition “jewelled to the centre” with jewel bearings for the centre wheel arbor. This is not justified by an improvement to timekeeping, because the centre arbor turns so slowly, but it does reduce wear in the centre bearing in the plate or bridge. Sometimes only the top bearing is jewelled, the one in the bottom plate being plain.

18 Jewels: A count of 18 jewels usually means the usual 15, plus one jewel for the centre wheel top bearing and end stones for the two escape wheel arbor bearings.

Additional jewels are used in automatic winding mechanisms, but sometimes high jewel counts were used just to impress customers and the extra jewels have no function.

Jewel Settings

When jewels were first used in watches as bearings, it was difficult, given the tools and equipment available, to pierce holes in the hard stone of a jewel that were exactly centred.

To overcome this problem, jewels were first turned to round and pierced to make the central hole. The jewel was then set in a metal setting by rubbing in. The jewel and setting were then mounted in a lathe so that the jewel hole was exactly centred. The metal setting was then machined on its outside so that it was concentric with the jewel hole. The metal setting and jewel were then secured into a larger hole in the watch plate with small screws.

Rubbed In Jewel
Rubbed In Jewel: Click image to enlarge


The metal jewel settings are called “chatons” by the French and Swiss. At first sight this appears to be the French for kittens, but the word chaton has a second, completely different, meaning. It has been used by French jewellers since around the 12th century for metal settings of stones in finger rings, for example “le chaton d'une bague”. The term is thought to derive from the Frankish “kasto”, meaning a box or a case, through Old French, where “caston” referred to a metal mount or setting.

As technology improved it became possible to make jewels that were concentric, with their holes and external diameters co-axial, and chatons were no longer necessary. However, chatons were, and are, still fitted when a manufacturer wanted to make a movement that looked extra impressive. They are only used on the visible pivots on the top plate and are there only for show, to impress a customer and persuade him to part with his money.

Rubbed In Jewels

Once jewels could be made concentric, the first method of setting them into the plates without chatons was called “rubbing in”. This was the same way that jewels were set into chatons, but now the jewel was set directly into the plate.

A feather edge is turned into the plate around the jewel hole. The jewel is dropped into the hole and the feather edge rubbed with a tool to fold it over the edge of the jewel, holding it in place.

Friction Setting

Friction Set Jewel
Friction Set Jewel: Click image to enlarge

When it became possible to make jewels with very accurate external dimensions, friction setting was introduced. This is a much faster and easier way of setting jewels, and allows jewels to be easily changed if they are chipped or broken.

The hole in the plate that is to receive the jewel is drilled and reamed to a very precise size, and then a jewel that is one hundredth of a millimetre greater in diameter than the hole is pressed into the hole by a special jewel press.

There is sufficient elasticity in the materials to allow the jewel to enter the hole without shattering, and it is then held in place by friction.

Jewel Problems

A broken or chipped jewel can cut into the surface of the pivot that runs in it. A cracked jewel can draw the oil away from the bearing by capillary action, even if it doesn't cut into the pivot. For these reasons, damaged or cracked jewels should always be replaced.

If the jewel is friction set and the correct size jewel can be located, the repair is straightforward. The new jewel is just pressed in using a jewelling press.

The procedure is less straightforward for a rubbed-in jewel. Tools are available for opening the setting to receive a new jewel and rub it down again, but there is always a danger of tearing the metal.

The major problem with replacing rubbed in jewels is finding a jewel. They are not the same shape as friction set jewels, which are cylindrical on their outer surface. Rubbed in jewels have a thinner outer edge for the setting to be rubbed over. They can sometimes be replaced with a modern friction jewel by boring out the setting. Finding a jewel with the correct hole size for the pivot and outside diameter for the bored out hole in the plate is usually impossible so the hole needs to be bushed. If not done carefully this can look out of place, and the watch is less original.

If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated June 2024. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.