In-Depth: Rekindling A Lifelong Fascination With The Pocket Watch
A stunning piece by Henry-Daniel Capt somehow wound up for sale at my local watch shop in Maine. And it sent me deep down the rabbit hole.
I fell in love with pocket watches after seeing Somewhere in Time, the 1980 time-travel romance starring Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, and a rare Hamilton 951. The Hamilton appears in the first scene: Chic coeds gather around Reeve, who plays a college-age playwright in the throes of celebrating a performance of his work. The room hushes as an older woman approaches – white hair pinned into Gibson Girl chignon; high lace collar, shawl. She puts the watch in Reeve’s hand, enfolds it briefly in hers, and says, “Come back to me.”
The camera rests on Reeve’s shocked face, then drops to his Superman hands. He gingerly opens a hunter case to reveal the watch: A blue border wraps an ornate dial like bunting on a porch; gold stars punctuate the distance between roman numerals.
Long story short, some years later, the now-successful Reeve (author of such theatrical hits as Passionate Apathies and Too Much Spring) hypnotizes himself back in time to 1912, when the mysterious watch-giving woman is a gorgeous young actress (Seymour) on holiday at the Grand Hotel, on Mackinac Island. Spoiler: They fall in love, she ends up with the watch. It’s sappy and quirky but pretty entertaining, and super tragic. Everyone dies.
My takeaway from all this was that I needed a pocket watch. The year was 1990, and I was five years old. Even if pocket watches had been the rage for kids my age (which they were profoundly not), and widely available (also not), my mother couldn’t and wouldn’t have indulged the whim. In those days I had many powerful and unrequited object hungers: For an Adidas trefoil puffer jacket, Timberland boots, a tuxedo (like the one worn by Tatum O’Neal to receive an Oscar); penny loafers, a pageboy cap. But there was something about the pocket watch that endured. A lasting love, the kind they tell you to marry.
Which is why I guess, 30 years later, I was nosing around the reconditioned pocket watch page of a local shop’s website here in Portland, Maine – Swiss Time – and found a Henry-Daniel Capt quarter repeater. Made in Geneva and set in an 18-karat gold hunter case that bears the inscribed date 1873, it had a white porcelain dial and a yellow crown and bow. A slide in the base, pulled back, triggered the quarter repeater to sound off as clear as a meadowlark. It was gorgeous. For $7,500, it could be mine.
I did some math: A watch that was potentially 148 years old, made in the watchmaking heartland of Switzerland, that still works, was sitting in a shop not five miles away. And it was selling for a relative handful of beans. (To be clear, this is an amount of beans I personally might invest in like, a car, not something that could potentially get lost between couch cushions, but we’re talking about rare watches here. I think you get it.)
If it’s not already obvious, I know next to nothing about antique Swiss movements, counting jewels, or anything else that might have helped me identify the value of that Capt repeater. I am a total novice, but I like what I like, and I really liked that watch. It bore all the stark tidiness of a train station wall clock in miniature. Pop the hinged caseback and you’d see a visible time capsule of watchmaking that, whatever its material value, was stunning to behold. It represented everything about a pocket watch that called to me as a kid, without the bunting and frills that appealed to my five-year-old self.
And so began my journey through the world of Henry-Daniel Capt, Swiss-made pocket watches, and the joy of minute repeaters.
Let’s start from the beginning.
One April very long ago, in fact, all the way back in 1773, Henry-Daniel Capt was born in the village of Le Chenit, in the Vallée de Joux, Switzerland, to Jacques Samuel Capt and Susanne Piguet. As a young man, Capt went to Geneva to work for the famous automata maker, Jaquet-Droz, where he learned a skill that would come to define much of his work going forward with watches, clocks, musical boxes, and other curios. Though the timeline is hazy, Capt went on to work with watchmakers Godemar Frères, Jean Frédéric Leschot (the adopted son of Droz), and Isaac Daniel Piguet (it is a common name in the valley, apparently), whose sister, Henriette Piguet, Capt married in 1796.
Capt and Isaac Piguet went into business, and from roughly 1802 to 1811 specialized in watches with wild automata and musical horological complications. Piguet eventually split off, joining Philippe-Samuel Meylan to become Piguet & Meylan around 1811. A handful of years later, Capt joined with Aubert and Son to become Aubert & Capt, in 1830, credited as the first Genevans to make watches with chronographs.
Capt died in 1837 (though some sources say he died in 1841), and his son, Henry Jr., took over. Though I couldn’t confirm it, I found a few mentions of a shop on the Rue du Rhône, opened in 1855, as well as rumors of the Capt company boasting to be the only Geneva watchmaker with outlets in London. What could be confirmed was that in 1880, Capt’s operation was purchased by Gallopin and became H. Capt Horloger, Maison Gallopin Successeurs. Watches supplied to other stores and houses were either signed “Henry Capt” somewhere on the movement or were simply not signed at all.
And there the trail went cold.
Now, I’ve given you all the information I was able to find on the internet and after having spoken to three real watchmakers and restorers who know things about Swiss watches. The information out there is murky, filled with contradictions and interwoven narratives. Maybe on account of their unpopularity or because pocket watches made before 1930 in Switzerland are notoriously difficult to identify; the fact that all those Vallée de Joux producers seemed to make some bit or bob for someone else (and Capt himself worked with so many Swiss horologists), it is quite hard to verify who did what for whom, when, and how. This added to the way pocket watch cases were often supplied by a jeweler, separate from the watch – one might want a watch with only a handful of jewels but an 18-karat gold case to show it off, for example – complicates the hunt of idle historians and pocket-watch dilettantes such as myself.
So, though the name Henry-Daniel Capt is quite famous, very little seems to be widely known about the man himself. The people I spoke with about him, who have had their hands on Capt repeaters, happened upon them by chance.
Claude and Jill Guyot founded Swiss Time in Portland, Maine, in 1977. Claude was from Switzerland, Jill, from Connecticut; he had trained as a watchmaker, she had worked at her father’s watch store. Twenty-five years ago, a customer looking to sell brought the Capt repeater to Swiss Time. After he acquired the repeater, Claude, who has since passed away, put it in storage. His daughter, Stephany, told me her guess is that he had planned to take it back to Switzerland, where such a rare piece would be recognized for its value. It stayed in storage until three years ago when she noticed an uptick in interest in pocket watches. Stephany repairs and reconditions watches as well as manages the business aspect of the shop. Her specialty: Pocket watches. She is booked six months out.
Outside Swiss Time, hanging in front of the door in place of a sign is an enormous, three-foot gold-colored pocket watch – on one side is a dial, and on the other a complex movement – that once belonged to Jill’s grandfather. The day I visited, Stephany, her sandy blond hair pulled back, met me in the shop’s showroom where a wooden counter with illuminated glass cases jutted into the space like a U-shaped bar. I followed Stephany to one of the workbenches where she laid the repeater on a cloth, and technician John Muse gave me a tour of its parts. As he pointed to the decorative triple-bar bridge and delicate mainspring – noting the heft and the hunter case – I stared at the bejeweled movement. I watched the spring pulse like a tiny, beating heart.
Muse offered me a loupe to get a better look. “I am new to the watch world,” I said, putting the wrong end up to my eye.
Muse, kindly, did not comment.
He pulled the strip on the band and the watch sounded out the time: Two rings for the hour and a series of tones to indicate the quarter-hour. “So you can use it in the dark,” he said. Imagine you’re a gentleman farmer, up at dawn to milk the cows (I also know very little about farming). You reach into your pocket, feel for the dial, and out rings the time without the watch ever leaving your waistcoat. Magic.
Quarter repeaters sound the time to the closest quarter-hour. If you were a very wealthy farmer you might have opted for a minute repeater, which sounds to the minute, and was thus more expensive.
There was a moment of silence when I think Muse and I both stopped to marvel at the repeater in front of us, made by hand, over a hundred years ago. Based on an assessment by the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors that Muse requested, this particular Capt movement was likely made in the early 1900s. Though Capt senior was no longer alive, as we know, the work was continued by H. Capt Horloger, Maison Gallopin Successeurs. Though it seemed to me like all that fancy footwork going on in the movement would indicate a particular watchmaker, the fact is, unless it’s signed, there’s no guarantee.
Many famous Swiss houses kept records of the watches they made and sold, which now help verify provenance and bump prices at auction. But there don’t seem to be such records for Capt. “If they could create a celebrity they would, wouldn’t they?” said Richard Perrett, a watchmaker from South West Wales who helped a client purchase and restore a Capt minute repeater a few years back. The repeater that Perrett worked on came from Bulgaria, purchased for £4000. It had a broken case lid spring, a “weak repeater mechanism spring” and was missing a dust cover crystal and hinge. Perrett filed and cleaned what he could, and had replacement parts 3D-printed based on a model he made of the original. (“Elon Musk would approve.”)
While he was working through the restoration, Perrett made a video for his YouTube channel, which means you can hear the repeater and see the movement in action while getting a contextual history lesson as Perrett draws connections between Switzerland’s famed neutrality and its fine, fiddly watchmaking.
As for verifying provenance, well. “There was nothing inside the watch that I worked on that would have gone, ‘Oh, that’s from him,’” Perrett told me, “other than – it was exquisite. I honestly have no idea how they made it so well. The quality is just phenomenal.”
It was such a complex piece of machinery that Perrett was worried about getting the repeater to chime correctly once he’d taken it apart and put it all back together again. “There are no manuals for these things,” he said. He assumed it would be terribly complicated. “But it isn’t at all. It’s beautifully simple.”
Here’s the thing about even the most spectacular pocket watch ever: Wearing one these days makes a statement that speaks louder than whichever one you happen to have. The statement is: I’ve gone out of my way to wear a timepiece that isn’t a wristwatch. Many pocket watches have full hunter cases (i.e. a hinged cover) that need to be opened, making them a thousand times less practical than glancing at an iPhone or wall clock or even the sun. They require a pocket or a chain; they were once considered a men’s item, back when men wore waistcoats with pockets conveniently gut level (and ladies wore wrist jewelry). All of which adds up to the pocket watch’s status today as a borderline novelty, and even the rare ones, those made in Geneva in the late 1800s for example, are purchasable for a few thousand dollars rather than an average American salary (a little over $50k in 2020). As our own Jack Forster put it in 2016, “for a fraction of the cost of a collectible wristwatch, you can get something that represents an almost unbelievable amount of real horological content.”
It may come as no surprise that until I started writing for HODINKEE, I had zero knowledge of “horological content,” but after spending some time with the minute repeaters and the movement of Capt pocket watches, I’m starting to get it. In layperson terms: they are portable museums that miraculously tell time. In the case of the repeaters, they even tell it out loud.
Stephany Guyot, who grew up in the Swiss Time workshop – at a miniature workbench where she and her brother learned the trade – loves pocket watches for similar reasons. To work on one is to restore family history, she said.
The trick with pocket watches these days is mostly the pocket. How do we wear one? Do I have to embrace 19th-century menswear in order to fulfill my childhood fantasy?
Stephany recommends her clients invest in a small stand, in order to put the pocket watch on display (she’s seen enough gone through the wash at this point).
Yet part of the appeal, I think, is the ritual of retrieving the thing from a pocket, popping the case open, then shut, and sliding it back. There’s something to the leading question of a chain from button loop to pocket: The implication of what’s hidden, a treasure. And maybe there’s also something to the appeal of the Swiss piece from a maker whose name means everything to some, and nothing to most.