Early French Watch Making

 
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Early French Watches

ACROSS the English Channel lives a race of a very different character. The French are people of highly adaptable minds; often they see possibilities in the inventions of other nations which those other nations have failed themselves to see. The automobile was first made in the United States, but the French soon developed it into something that was better than our early clumsy cars, and we were years in overtaking them. The Wright Brothers first learned the secret of aerial flight, and then Wilbur Wright sailed for France, where the people went wild with enthusiasm over the idea of flying; it was in France that aviation really became what it is to-day.

The French have always been fine mechanics and finished workmen. It was to be expected that they would do something artistic and interesting with the manufacture of timepieces. They could not make a better watch than the British were turning out toward the end of the eighteenth century. Nobody could--but they could make it more beautiful. In Shakespeare's time and afterward, while watches were still more valuable as works of art than they could be as timepieces, the richest work of this nature was done in France. There watches were made in the form of mandolins and other musical instruments, in the form of flowers, in the form of jeweled butterflies, and in wonderful cases, painted and enameled and engraved. In the J. Pierpont Morgan collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, there is a watch which, in 1800, on the fete-day after the battle of Marengo, Napoleon Bonaparte gave to Murat, who was his brother-in-law and one of his generals. On the back cover of this watch appears a miniature portrait of Napoleon himself. And since he himself was the author of the gift, one may assume that it represented the Great Emperor's own conception of himself.

The wrist-watch, to-day a military necessity, was at first a French idea. It is interesting to learn that the merchants and makers of this kind of work were in their own time called neither watchmakers nor horologists, but toymen. There again is shown the old idea about watches; they were not timepieces but toys.

Later on, toward the end of the period of invention, when first, the clock, and soon afterward, the watch, had become fairly accurate timekeepers, the French makers again took the lead in the same way; once more they beautified what they could not practically improve. The French clocks of the period of Louis XIV and his successors are celebrated for their design. One might easily suppose, from an examination of the great modern collections of rare and precious watches in our museums that the French had been the leading watchmakers of the world, for the specimens there found being selected chiefly for beauty or value from the collector's point of view, are oftener of French than of any other make. Yet it must not be supposed that the French made no inventions. The credit for some of the important improvements is disputed between the English, French and Swiss, and it is not always easy to decide which nation has the better claim. Furthermore, certain of the French watchmakers came from Switzerland while at various times, some of those in France moved to England, especially during the reign of Terror. The distinctions are somewhat confused and we can only speak in a general way.
 


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