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by Sir George White

Curator's Choice: A Watch of Intrigue

A jewelled watch crafted by a London watchmaker in the late seventeenth century held the distinction for several hundred years as being the earliest surviving watch designed with a precious stone for a bearing. The story behind the watch’s history is one of intrigue, and like any good mystery, has a wonderful twist of fate.

The maker was Ignatius Huggeford Londini,1 who made the watch sometime before 1685 when he left England to work for the Grand Duke Cosimo III in Florence. Huggeford may have made the watch as early as 1671 when he became a Free Brother of the craft guild of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. It was this organization that purchased the watch several decades later.

Why the company acquired the watch is a seminal point of the story but requires some context. The guild itself was granted its royal charter in 1631, its members, or “freemen,” always intending to procure their own meeting hall. In the meantime, the members were obliged to keep their manuscript records and valuables in a large oak chest, which each year was put into the care of the newly elected master. It was not until 1813, a short time after they settled into rented rooms, that they founded a library and a collection. To these they added the contents of the chest, which included Huggeford’s watch.

The minutes of the company’s governing body, or court, record that the watch was acquired in January 1704/5. The company needed the watch, which was then rather outdated, as evidence in a legal battle involving the rights to extend a patent that had been granted over a year previously, on May Day 1703, to “Nicholas Facio, Gent2 and Peter Debaufre and Jacob Debaufre Watchmakers.” These watchmakers had devised a means of piercing “precious or more common stones” so that they could be used as extremely durable and relatively friction-free bearings in clocks and watches, as the patent put it, “not for ornament only, but as an internall and useful part of the Work or Engine itself.”

The minutes do not indicate why the court objected to the patent extension. It is reasonable to assume, however, that its members (who at the time included such celebrated watchmakers as Thomas Tompion, Daniel Quare, and Joseph Windmills) were fearful of the effect on the London trade if one workshop held what promised to be a major advantage over the others, though during the time thus far, those holding the patent had made very few jewelled watches. Huggeford’s watch was duly presented to the committee of the House of Commons delegated to handle the matter. With it went the explanation that it contained a large and visible jewel and had been made some thirty years before the Facio-Debaufres’s claimed invention. As a result the patent was rescinded and the watch was placed under lock and key in the company’s chest.

The watch resurfaced several times over the next few centuries, its secret yet to unfold. When London clockmaker Edward Tutet rediscovered the watch in 1785, he enthused about the fact that it was jewelled, declaring that “at that time [it was] doubtless a capital performance.” In 1849, the chronometer-maker Samuel Atkins declared it “remarkable.”

It took until the late nineteenth century for the truth to be revealed: that Ignatius Huggeford’s jewel was purely ornamental and never had been “an internall and useful part” of the movement at all. Whether Facio and the Debaufres had been wittingly or unwittingly defrauded of an invention so excellent that it is still in use today,3 will perhaps never be known. But the watch that played the leading role in this curious story has survived, and can now be seen in the Clockmakers’ Museum, at Guildhall Yard, London.

  1. Londini is Latin for London, the place name used by seventeenth-century clockmakers working in the city.

  2. “Gent” is an abbreviation for the title of Gentleman.

  3. The use of precious stones as “end stones” in the escapement of watches appeared gradually from 1704 onwards. Pierced stones used in other parts of the watch train were extremely rare until circa 1800, and then only in the best work.

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