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Precious Time: A Tale of Art and Watchmaking

Precious Time: A Tale of Art and Watchmaking

24 Jan 2018


…Ick laet uw edele hier hoorlogien maken die heel schoon sullen sijn...
Translation: …I will have watches made for your honour that will be very precious…
- sentence of a letter of Joan Huydecoper (1625-1704) sent to his sister Geertruijd, 1648.

Pocket watches in the 17th century Dutch Republic

Today almost everybody owns an accurate watch or another time measuring device. Watching the time to the minute has become an unconsciousness daily act. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that it hasn’t always been that way.

Turn the clock 500 years back

It was a bit more than five hundred years ago when the German clockmaker Peter Henlein (1485 – 1542) invented the portable watch. He has been recognised as the first artisan that made the taschenuhr in Nuremberg in 1505, although arguments have been made that the portable watch was already developed in the fifteenth century in Italy. However, there was no patent law and quickly the number of watchmakers increased since this craft provided good earnings. Important countries for portable watchmaking in the sixteenth century were Germany, France and Italy. In the Dutch Republic the first centres of portable watchmaking formed in the province of Friesland and Nord-Holland.

Wearing time, painting time

Since the portable watch was such a valuable scientific invention, it was overall the nobility and rich merchantmen that owned this type of measurement device. Emperor Charles V (1500 – 1558) was known for adoring clocks and portable watches. Made from ostentatious materials like crystal, platinum and gold, this gadget was either worn on a chain on the neck or on a belt. Women would wear their watch on a silver or gilded chain on the waist. Around 1675 the long jacket became fashionable and watches were carried in the pockets as well, hence the name ‘pocket watch’. Wealthy men and women loved to show off their gorgeous golden enamelled watches and asked painters to paint their portraits with their virtuoso pieces. One of the oldest portraits to show a portable watch is the portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici who was a great patron of science and technology. The pocket watch became a loved motif among painters, especially in seventeenth century Dutch still life painting.  *

Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici, by Maso da San Friano
ca. 1560, Science Museum London.

* See this example in auction.

Great examples of 17th century pocket watches and paintings with watches can be found at  the Rijksmuseum in  Amsterdam.


Portrait of Christiaan Huygens by Caspar Netscher, 1671, oil, Museum Boerhaave, LeidenTime management

The pocket watch became more accessible and affordable in the seventeenth century. The Dutch loved this complex piece of technology that was new on the market. It changed the daily perception and handling of time. Time was precious and to ‘manage’ time became important. Especially when the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629 – 1695) invented the balance spring watch and patented it in 1675. Before this invention, pocket watches weren’t precise time measurement pieces, but thanks to Huygens’ invention they became reliable.His brother Constantijn Huygens junior introduced the term 'time management' in his letter to queen Mary Stuart.

Portrait of Christiaan Huygens by Caspar Netscher
1671, oil, Museum Boerhaave, Leiden  

Cherished jewellery

The growing prosperity in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic triggered a growing demand for pocket watches. This accessible new ingenuity was perceived as more than just a functional time measurement piece: it was a jewel. A larger group high middle class had the means for buying a pocket watch and made it a personal item by ordering particular and sometimes intimate decorations. General ornaments included mythological representations, personifications and floral motifs. The Dutchmen admired pocket watches and gave them as souvenirs or gifts to maintain friendship relationships, this included relationships between family members. This is shown in the dairy of Joan Huydecoper, mayor of Amsterdam. In 1648 he wrote in his journal about alluring and exquisite pocket watches made in France. 

Time is money

The prices of pocket watches in the Dutch Republic varied between 20 and 110 guilders, depending on the materials, the watch case and complexity of the clockwork. Newspapers of that time show desperate advertisements of watchmakers who had their pocket watches stolen or lost. They would offer a reward of 20 to 25 guilders for the lucky finder. Even though a merchant could afford a pocket watch, the average day labourer who earnt about a guilder a day, wouldn’t spend his hard-worked money on it considering he could see the time on the public clock tower.

See all upcoming watch auctions on LOT-ART the platform for searching auction’s lots worldwide from a single place.


This article was brought you by Ms. Linda Eversteijn in collaboration with Lot-Art.com 

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