My Forefathers' Watches

by C. Bradley Jacobs

Originally published in International Watch Magazine Number 90, April 2005

A sampling of vintage watches originally owned by the author's ancestors

Not long after I first expressed an overwhelming interest in timepieces to my family, I was fortunate enough to have some wonderful pieces sent my way. Uncles, grandparents, great aunts and other relatives from all branches of my family began sending me items that had lain around (for decades in some cases) after the passing of their original owners. A few pieces were ordinary watches that just happened to be old and interesting because they had been owned by people long dead. Photo by the authorOther watches could be considered true heirlooms. Among those that fit into this second category are several from my father's side. They include a rose gold Swiss pocket watch & knife engraved with the monogram of my father's paternal grandfather, a large 8-day clock watch monogrammed for the same great grandfather, a white gold Hamilton cushion wristwatch given by my paternal grandmother to my grandfather upon their marriage in 1926, his 23-jewel Howard pocket watch with monogrammed knife, and a 1916 rose gold Longines pocket watch inscribed with that same grandfather's initials.Photo by the author" 

1910s 23-jewel E. Howard 12 size dress watch

I am grateful to the members of the Jacobs, Foushee and Barrow families who have passed these pieces down to me and consider myself lucky that many of the watches are in very good condition. It is clear to me that my ancestors took care of their belongings and pride in their finer material possessions. But I suppose it must be inevitable that some such items sustained damage either through misuse or neglect over the decades. Such is the case with my grandfather's 1916 Longines.  That watch alone is not working--probably as a result of moisture contamination that has left its mark on the movement and the dial.

A 1916 Longines. Photo by the authorIt is not too far gone to repair--the dial, beneath it's yellowed plastic crystal is still easily read and, in fact, still has all of the numerals and minute markings. The only serious flaw is a long scratch at about 11:00. It is dark but not deep and this dial could easily be refinished, if not cleaned up enough to be presentable. The rose-colored hands are in good shape, though they could benefit from polishing. The heavy, somewhat splotchy patina is at once the most distracting and most compelling feature of this dial. It tells of age--of a time when watches were delicate, when dials were made of materials that were impermanent and even dangerous to apply--and it tells of the longevity of a branch of my family of which I (barring the birth of a son) am the last in name. This small sampling of watches, most with a case back or knife bearing the initial letter of my surname, passed down to generations of Jacobses, might just stop with me.

Photo by the authorSo it is not merely the history and future of a watch I contemplate as I examine this timepiece, but the history and future of my family. The implications weigh on me to the point of inactivity. For several moments I cease typing and wearily shift my gaze from the computer screen to the watch and back. It is futile for me to wonder what my ancestors--those whose names, and maybe their personalities, are indicated by these watches--would advise me to do. I never knew any of them. The timepieces were all originally owned by men from the generation preceding that of my father; his own father died seven years before my birth. I can only guess at the meaning each of these little machines might have had for its previous owners. My father's older brother, who sent many of these to me, obviously kept them safe, though whether he carried them and enjoyed them as I do I have yet to learn. Little, unanswerable questions nag at me: Did my grandfather buy the Howard to replace the damaged Longines? Why did he not see to the repair of the Longines? Were these watches given to him to commemorate milestones in his life? How much did he treasure each one?

Clearly, it is pointless to continue this line of thought.

Photo by the authorIt is left to me to decide, somewhat in a vacuum, the next stages in the life of these ancient timekeepers. That they will be maintained (if not improved) for future generations is a given. My daughter, now three years of age, will receive them at some point if I have no other children amongst whom to distribute them. Perhaps she'll inherit my love of watches. Perhaps she'll bear a son who will share this interest…again, it is pointless to speculate. For now I must be serious about my role as temporary caretaker of the artifacts of my family history. These watches are not the only such artifacts, merely the only ones that coincide with an obsession of mine. They are no more important reminders of my heritage than are elegant sabers symbolizing past military service or passionate manuscripts and other writings symbolizing my ancestors' own obsessions. But I cannot deny that the quickest ways to my heart are via the wrist or vest pocket. As has long been the case for many more watch brands than those who advertise it: one does not own a fine watch, one simply keeps it for the next generation.

Though I do not lack for serviceable timepieces, part of me aches to see this Longines watch restored to its original glory. An oversized pocket watch/clock in a mahogany & silver boxThe 14k rose gold case is well preserved, clearly shows the diamond-shaped monogram, and is numbered inside both hinged covers to match the movement. But if restoration means replacing original parts with others differently numbered, I may just keep it intact. In its present condition, it can serve various roles: a reminder of the difficulties my ancestors have faced; a symbol of the shift from one phase of life to another; a challenge to myself or subsequent generations to reclaim something lost (or nearly so)…

The most satisfying result of my introspection is the realization that I may have decades of living in which to decide what to do with the Longines. It has obviously waited many decades and can wait some more. I don’t know what traits I might have in common with my grandfather, but perhaps he, too, frequently thoughBC4FFAC4E011B61 watch repaired. I doubt he considered its value as a project for future generations, but he obviously thought enough of it to keep it in his possession while he made use of other, newer timepieces. And I, through the generosity of my own relatives, find myself in exactly the same position.

Photo by the author
Photo by the authorPhoto by the author
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Text and images: © C. Bradley Jacobs and, unless otherwise credited