The Walters Art Museum contains a large collection of historic watches, many of which were collected by Henry Walters. Mr. Walters appears to have collected the watches mainly with an eye toward the beauty of their cases. Many of the watch cases qualify as miniature works of art in enamel, metalwork, and gemstone; yet recent conservation work has shown that the clockworks inside the cases may often be later replacements, pastiches, or else incomplete and non-functional.
Henry Walters’s interest in the exterior beauty of his watches is evident in the care he took to display them in his personal collection. The archives of the Walters Art Museum include Mr. Walters’s design sketches for watch display stands, as well as several surviving examples of the finished product.
The stands are made of brass, treated with a chemical patina to appear black. A small hook at the top of the arch allows a watch to be hung between the two pillars, and the symmetrical design of the display stand allows the front and back of the watch to be admired equally.
Though these stands are designed to display the watch cases in an elegant fashion, they do not provide much protection from accidental damage. When displayed on the stands, watches may swing on the hook, and there is a danger that they may bang against the hard, heavy brass columns at either side. Many of the watch cases in Mr. Walters’s collection are made of fragile materials such as enamel, which consists of thin layers of glass fused to a metal backing. Some enamel watch cases, including the early 18th-century case from Geneva shown below, are damaged around the edges. It is possible that chips and cracks in the enamel may be due to damage that occurred when the watch was displayed in Mr. Walters’s watch stands, though we cannot be certain.
Above is a watch stand with a watch from the collection of Henry Walters, showing the back. This large, heavy watch has a case made of gold, decorated with painted enamel. The watch barely fits inside the stand, and due to the configuration of the interior clockwork, it hangs to one side. This side (shown in detail at right) has a series of chips and cracks in the enamel (indicated by arrows) that may be due to damage from the stand.
Today, many remarkable watches from Henry Walters’s collection are displayed in the Collector’s Study on the first floor of the Walters Art Museum. The watches are no longer displayed in Mr. Walters’s stands. Instead, they rest on soft velvet supports to protect them from damage. This manner of display is much safer for the fragile materials that adorn many of the watch cases.
Learn more about other enameled watches in the Walters Art Museum:
“Geneva Enamels,” by Osvaldo Patrizzi. In Antique Horology, 2012.
This article details the rise of the enamel industry in Geneva, Switzerland, and describes the contributions of the Huault/Huard family of enamellers, makers of one of the watch cases featured above (Walters Art Museum 58.142).