Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Further Thoughts: Rentzsch and Berrollas


My article entitled, The Novel Technology of Sigismund Rentzsch, was published in the September 2017 issue of Clocks Magazine.  Rentzsch’s contemporary, Joseph Anthony Berrollas, was the subject of my article published in Volume 38, Number 2, (June 2017), of Antiquarian Horology, journal of the Antiquarian Horological Society.  I referred to these two distinctive watchmakers in the post here of 8 June 2017.

Both have been featured in enquiries I’ve subsequently received, confirming the especially interesting nature of their lives and work.

Regarding JAB, a horology enthusiast kindly sent me details of Berrollas timepieces he has owned, most particularly a drum alarm, #1500:



Having also owned a Berrollas carriage clock, my correspondent was able to reflect on the maker’s apparently peripatetic lifestyle between England and the Continent.  He comments: ‘His English work has French characteristics, and the French clocks have English details. On his English clocks I have only seen going barrels, not fusees. On the French clock escapements there are English details, like the recessed index, jewelling & hairspring stud, as on my carriage clock, (on the main spring of which is the date 1842).

He adds: ‘About 30 years ago I looked at a similar clock to #1500, in The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford.  The Museum’s example is signed, James McCabe, and the curator had no wish to be told that Berrollas had made it!’

I would like to think that my article on Rentzsch would have been a further contribution towards his profile, though this should have already been high enough to support the notion that examples of his work merit above-average valuation as they come to the market from time to time; certainly I would expect to Rentzsch to be considered ‘collectable.’  So I’m somewhat surprised that it has been possible to acquire a good-looking example in 2020 for less than £600.

Dating from 1807, the open face pocket watch featured in a Bonham’s sale last month:



Reverting to 2017, shortly before my Clocks Magazine article was published, this Rentzsch alarm came up for sale at Auktionen Dr. Crott, Frankfurt Airport:



Circa 1830, it was described in the catalogue:

An exquisite “Pendule de Bureau” with “Petite Sonnerie” and alarm.  Case: brass; Dial: silvered;  Movm.: circular brass full plate movement, heavy gold screw chronometer balance, 2 x chain/fusee, 3 hammers/1 bell.

A good deal of quality and plenty of horological interest/complication I’d suggest in return for the modest €1,500 winning bid.

Friday, 20 December 2019

Jose Rodriguez Losada




Marine Chronometer #1765, by J R Losada

The January 2020 issue of Clocks Magazine features my article on the watch and clockmaking businesses founded in the eighteen thirties in London by Spaniard, Jose Rodriguez Losada.  It is a convoluted saga, with many aspects of interest, and one that continued through to the century’s closing decade.

Losada and his nephews had a modern approach to marketing and exploited a range of means by which their products would be seen as being of high quality – for example by trading from prestige location premises, (Regent Street), illustrated press advertising, participation in international exhibitions and endorsement by government/military authorities.

This latter consideration was sought by many makers throughout the nineteenth century by entering their chronometers into annual trials conducted at Greenwich Observatory.  These trials tested the accuracy of submitted timepieces over a period of seven or eight months and in varying ambient temperatures.  Originally instituted in 1822, after a break in the mid-eighteen thirties, the trials were held each year through to the outbreak of the First World War.  The results formed the basis on which the Admiralty made purchasing decisions for the marine chronometer requirements of the Navy’s ships.  When a chronometer was thus selected, its maker greatly valued the consequence that they could then inscribe, ‘Maker to the Admiralty’ on the plates of their movements and use the accolade in their advertising.

The number of makers/instruments submitted to the trials varied considerably over the years.  As few as 17 chronometers were tested in 1852, while the count was up to 58 in 1861.  The low number may well reflect makers’ alternative focus on preparing for their participation in the Great Exhibition of 1851, and it is perhaps relevant to note that the number dipped from the 1861 high to 36 in 1862 – the year of the International Exhibition.  Most makers submitted two chronometers and in many instances, year after year.  The average number tested in the 1840s was 38, in the 1850s, 23, and in the 1860s, 51.

Losada was atypical in his approach to the Greenwich Trials.  He submitted his #1417 in 1849, and it was placed 20th of 31 in terms of accuracy.  I think he viewed this result as potentially counter-productive – that if he couldn’t achieve a top-ten result by participating he was risking having his products seen as inferior to those of several of his competitors.  So he did not submit again.  If this left him missing a potential product feature he could advertise – ‘Maker to the Admiralty’ – his later deal with the Spanish Government to supply 38 chronometers, will have compensated.

Losada’s nephew, Jose del Riego, entered his chronometer, #3890, to the trials in 1882.  Unfortunately, his result was much worse than Losada’s – 46th of 46.  Not surprising therefore that no further Riego chronometers found their way to Greenwich in subsequent years!

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Birchall Father and Son, Chronometer Makers


Peter Birchall was born in 1799.  It is thought that his parents were William and Ellen, then living in Widnes.  A record exists of the marriage of William Birchall to Ellen Yates at Prescot in September 1789.  There were multiple associations of the Birchall name with watch and clock making in North West England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  According to Britten’s, George Birchall was a Warrington watchmaker, c. 1793-1820, and he may have been the junior partner in a firm, Birchall & Son, 1770. Ed. Baillie, Ilbert and Clutton, Britten’s Old Clocks & Watches and their Makers, (London: Bloomsbury Books)  There was a William born in 1749 who died in 1820, but his sons were named William and Steven.  Another ‘possible William,’ a watchmaker of Wellington Street, St Lukes, died in 1842, but, again, a son named Peter does not appear in his will.One of the sons, James, also a watchmaker, committed suicide in February 1847  Holden’s Directory for 1802 lists a William Birchall, watchmaker, at 11 Kirby Street, Hatton Garden.  The location, Burton Crescent, a little to the east of Clerkenwell, near St Pancras, is also associated with the Birchall name in the 1820s.

There is no record of an apprenticeship having been served by Peter, and it is likely that he was trained by his father.  Whatever the facts of that, his horological ability was such that by 1840 he was confident enough to be submitting two of his chronometers to the Greenwich Trials.  Furthermore, one of them, #281, was good enough to be placed seventh of twenty-eight, and thus his work was out-performing that of such illustrious names as, Pennington, Parkinson & Frodsham and Santiago French.  This chronometer also did better than two made by R & H Molyneaux.  The latter business occupied premises at 30 Southampton Row, which, two years later, were taken over by Birchall and his friend/partner, Henry Appleton.  The 1841 Census shows Henry, then sixty three years old, living at 50, Myddleton Square with Peter, Peter’s wife, Winnie, and their son John, just one year old.  Appleton was renowned for the quality of his work, making him a key employee for several years in the Molyneaux firm.  Given this, and his twenty years seniority, he may well have played the role of a mentor and greatly contributed to the success achieved by Peter in the early Greenwich Trials which are summarised in the table below:

Fig.1. Peter Birchall’s Chronometers on Greenwich Trials

This chronometer, #880 is c.1865:

Fig.2. Chronometer #880  Courtesy of WorthPoint

Peter had married Winnie Hitch in 1826.  Their son, William Peter, was born in 1838, and he too would eventually make chronometers which would be proved excellent at Greenwich.  The couple had another son, John, who also worked in the family watchmaking business until his death in 1871.  The family’s means enabled the employment of a servant at each of the addresses recorded by successive censuses: 1851 – 6 Middle Brunswick Terrace; 1861 – 2 Amwell Terrace; 1871 and 1881 – 12a Stonefield Street.Amwell Terrace was merged with Great Percy St in the 1860s and the Birchall’s house became number 65 

Age twenty three in 1861, William Peter was described in the Census as a ‘watch maker’s finisher,’ (as was younger brother, John).  At this stage he had already begun to make a reputation of his own, having entered a chronometer - #1 – to the 1860 Greenwich Trial, and this was rated second only to the #642 of his father’s manufacture. The following year his #9 was rated 7th.  In 1862 he was elected to the Council of the Horological Institute.  As a further indication of qualified status, his own listing began to appear in directories in addition to those for his father.  William Peter’s Greenwich Trials results are summarised in the table below:

Fig.3. William Peter Birchall’s Chronometers on Greenwich Trials

William Peter married Eliza King in April 1864.  They lived with Peter and John at Stonefield Street, the 1871 Census recording them there together with their sons, Peter, Alfred and John.  (Another son, Herbert, was born in 1873.)  William Peter died, age forty, in 1878, from a subdural effusion of the brain, possibly a rare complication of meningitis.  His father, Peter, was considerably longer-lived, dying in October 1885.

Considering the success of both Peter’s and William Peter’s chronometers at the Greenwich Trials, it is notable that they figure only marginally in horological literature, and I have been unable to find any images of extant timepieces of their manufacture other than that of Peter’s #880, as seen above.  I would be very pleased to receive details of any in readers’ possession and/or photographs of them.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Thank You Omega

A couple of years ago Raynald Aeschlimann, CEO of Omega, kindly invited my eldest son and I to Bienne to visit the new Omega Museum and the production line. My health prevented me from taking up the invitation at that time, but, more recently, plans were put together for the trip from England to be made on 27 September.  In the event, medical advice was against my going after all, but Omega generously arranged for my second son to be accommodated in my place.

My boys had a great time and came away even more Omega brand-enthusiastic. I’m attaching a few of their photographs, but am mainly posting to record my appreciation of the exceptional generosity, friendliness and efficiency of Reynald and his PA, Alexandra Buraglio.  They represent a watch brand which manages to be very charismatic, yet accessible.  The company’s history is a highly interesting one, and the role of the Speedmaster in the NASA moon programmes has been a considerable feature in all the Apollo coverage in this year of the 50th anniversary of the live broadcast of this goose bumps-inducing dialogue:

“Engine arm is off. Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

“Roger, Tranquillity. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot.”





Monday, 12 August 2019

The Wild West . . . in South East London


If you ever have reason to start looking into the Frodsham horological dynasty you may, as I did, become excited to happen upon Edward, of that ilk.  Whilst most of the family, from William James (b.1778) through to Parkinson & Frodsham, (surviving to 1947), remained London-based, establishing and developing watchmaking businesses of great repute, this Edward was to be found in the 1870s in Wyoming, U.S.  Described as a jeweller by trade, he apparently had a fearsome temper and was good with a gun.  A succinct pen portrait goes like this: Imprisoned for having shot dead a man who had been having an affair with his wife.  On release was soon in a gunfight at Laramie, killed another man, was arrested, then bailed, moved to Leadville, killed again, for which he was arrested and put into jail, from which he was seized by vigilantes . . . and lynched by them!

Meanwhile, back in England, George Frodsham was in 1876, if a little less extravagantly, also flouting the Law: he was summoned for travelling 2nd Class on the Great Eastern Railway with a 3rd Class ticket.

But if George’ delinquency was mild in comparison with Edward’s, one of his fellow London watchmakers, Nathaniel Wegg, would have been quite at home in the gun-toting Wild West.  In 1885 Nat shot a man attempting to break into his watch/jewellery shop in Deptford.  A little reminiscent of Dirty Harry’s line, ‘you've got to ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?,’ Nat shouted to the wounded burglar, ‘How did you like it? . . . I have another ready for you.’  And while at the movies, Nat’s approach reminds me of Paul Kersey in Michael Winner’s Death Wish, not only for his liking to be tooled-up, but also as a one man judicial operation, as illustrated by this report in the Kentish Mercury, 14 May 1881:



Wegg is certainly proving to be an interesting subject and my article on his life and business is nearing completion.  However, examples of his work are very hard to find.  So, if you have a Wegg watch – or a photograph/description of one – I’d be very grateful to hear from you.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Another missed

Further to previous posts - 2019 and 2015 - another Alexander Hare Pocket Watch was included in the Jones & Horan sale, 2nd June, described:




The watch sold for $1,800. It's another that I feel I've 'missed,' (because I was overly-focused on the Alexander Watkins Chronometer in the same sale.) But I'm intent on acquiring a timepiece by Hare and will keep looking.  Meanwhile - courtesy of Jones & Horan - here are some photographs of #406:








Monday, 3 June 2019

Mr Watkins would not have been amused

Following up my March 2019 post, I was very surprised to find that the beautiful little Pocket Chronometer by Alexander Watkins made only $8,600 at auction on 2nd June.  Bearing in mind that it featured in the 1851 Great Exhibition and is a 'one-off'' piece of horological history, the £51,000 it sold for fifteen years ago seemed fairly modest, and how it can have achieved such a very much smaller hammer price now is a real mystery to me.  Someone has acquired for themselves a wonderful bargain!

In cataloging the Chronometer Jones & Horan made available some new images, including several of the cases, and courtesy of J&H, here is a selection:






And, surely, the presence of these accoutrements, should have supported a higher resale value?  I'm certain that Alexander, a notably proud man, would have expected so.