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.