Antique Repeater Pocket Watches Can Be Costly

By Anne Gilbert 

When antique repeater pocket watches come to market, collectors are willing to pay $10,000 or more if the case is elaborately decorated in gold or enamels. Double the price if the watch has automatons moving to mark hours or minutes. The more attractive the automatons, the more they appeal to collectors. If the case is plain and without automatons, an auction price could be as low as $1,000. A rare automaton minute repeater gold pocket watch featured in a James Julia auction on March 12 had a dial with two Victorian ladies in enameled pink and blue dresses on either side. Their hands were raised to each strike a bell to mark hours and minutes.

Another type of repeater is the "Carillon" that has a chromatic sequence of usually three tones created by small bells that chime every quarter of an hour.
Repeater watches were made over 200 years ago for the nobility and the wealthy. They were also given as gifts for special occasions. When they have historical significance, that adds to the price. A crude hour repeater was made earlier in 1695.

When a pendant is pushed inward, tiny gongs ring out. The original purpose of the gongs was to tell time in the dark. The beauty of the case called for elaborate embossing on gold and the use of enamels and jewels. In addition to striking the hour, some chimed half hour, quarter hour and minutes. Some also had rotating discs with the face of the sun for day and the moon depicting night. The sun and moon dial watches were popular around 1710. After 1710, fashion dictated an ornamental case, usually of embossed gold, silver or enamel. The minute repeater was first made in the 1840s. Special repeater watches were created for the Turkish and Oriental markets in the 19th century.

CLUES: The automaton repeater generally has two-colored, gold or enameled figures on either side of the dial who strike imitation bells when the hours and quarters are repeated. A popular style has Father Time striking a scythe and knights in armor tilting in time to the blow.

The outward appearance of repeaters can sometimes be deceiving. At first glance, they may appear like grandpa's old gold pocket watch. However, a closer look can reveal an extra slide on the side of the case, a striker or an extra long stem. Then, like magic, they open to reveal designs, often in precious stones and enamels or automatons.

Early repeaters have been faked and restored ever since 1800. Strangely enough, over-restored watches that are genuine can sell for less than the fakes. One of the reasons is that the forgeries are often so elaborate that it is hard to believe they could be fakes. A popular, and at the time, cheaply produced automaton repeater was made in Switzerland in the early 19th century. It had a painted dial with a windmill automaton.

Some advice for would-be collectors: hammers should strike the gong, not the case. If they are hitting the case, the sound will be dull. It should be clear and bold. Collectors are advised not to slam the case shut when closing any old watch especially repeaters. It must be done carefully when pushing down on the handle.

Not all fine repeaters were signed. The Swiss firm of Le Phare made thousands of well made, unsigned repeaters.

The popularity of repeaters lasted from the early to mid 19th century and ended around World War I. However, they have never stopped being made by top European and American companies, with constant innovations.

Rare automaton minute
repeater gold pocket watch.
(Photo, James Julia auctions, Fairfield, ME.)

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