Monday, 7 December 2015

The Watch Derby

Time and again in the coverage of horology in Victorian newspapers, the demise of the English trade stemming from the Swiss ‘invasions’ was a matter of lamentation.  For example, in The Times, 16 December 1886, a meeting at the Board of Trade the previous day was reported as an initiative to stop imported timepieces being passed off as being ‘English’.  A deputation of English makers, led by Captain Penton, MP for Finsbury and Vice President of The London Watchmakers Association, asked for measures ‘to prevent the sale in England of foreign made watches bearing the English hall-mark and to prohibit the putting of foreign movements into English hall-marked cases’: 

SIR ALBERT ROLLIT, M.P., put the case of the deputation before his lordship.  He said there was great depression in the English watch trade, and the causes were not far to seek.  The result of a conference, presided over by Captain Penton, at Clerkenwell was that the English watchmaker was confident of his own work, and he did not in the slightest degree fear competition.  This was no question of free trade, fair trade, or protection, but simply one of protection against injustice and fraud.  The Committee of the House of Commons in 1879 on Hall-marking had already found the facts upon which the deputation wished the Government to legislate.  That report stated:- “The chief complaint against the operation of the existing law comes from the manufacturers of watches and watch cases.  They have established by evidence that within the last few years a practice has sprung up, and is rapidly increasing, under which foreign-made watch cases are sent to this country to be marked with the British hall-mark, and afterwards fitted with foreign movements, and are then not infrequently sold and dealt in as British-made watches.”  To show the increase of the deceit practised upon the British public, when that report was issued it was estimated at only 10 per cent., and now it was 29 per cent.; and no less than 37,000 watches were hall-marked last year which were fitted with foreign works, and which ultimately ran the risk, according to the report of the Select Committee of 1879, of being sold and dealt with fraudulently as English-made goods.  They asked, not that any one should be prevented from buying foreign watches with all their faults, but that they should be protected against having them passed off as English-made goods.  The very principle upon which the Fraudulent Trade Marks Bill was established was to keep up the trade reputation of the country and to protect English workmen from injustice.

The oft-repeated received wisdom which held that Swiss and American quality was inferior to that achieved by the home producers emerged in this report in the passage where the Deputation had asked, ‘not that anyone should be prevented from buying foreign watches with all their faults but that they should be protected against having them passed off as English-made goods. 

This reliance on the notion that the English watch was technically superior was misplaced, and, as time went by, the reputation for Swiss quality grew as did the sales volumes.  This is readily illustrated by the next article, from The Times, 7 June 1881.  Here it was seen that on objective measurement the products of Switzerland were marginally superior to those of England, albeit the Americans had some ground to make up.  The evaluations are described as a sort of ‘Watch Derby’ with the best watch invariably coming in first, ‘which is not always the case with the best horse’: 

ENGLISH AND SWISS WATCHES. – Our Geneva Correspondent write:- “The comments made on my letter on the Swiss watch trade (which you printed on April 13th, as well in your columns as elsewhere, have attracted some attention in Switzerland and been the means of eliciting further details concerning the principles on which the horological prizes in the Melbourne Exhibition were awarded.  In reference to a remark of one of your correspondents, that the judgements of exhibition juries are by no means infallible, it is pointed out that, though there may well be differences of opinion as to the relative excellence of finish and outside appearance of several watches, good going is a matter of fact; and that watches sent for competition to Melbourne were tested in the observatory and their respective time-keeping qualities ascertained beyond a possibility of doubt.  The highest number of points, as I have already mentioned (500 out of a possible 500) was obtained by a Swiss watch; next comes an English watch by Kilpatrick, of London (495 points).  To them succeed the following:- A Swiss watch, 490 points; English, (Bukney), 485; Swiss 480; a German watch, 470; Swiss, 465; English (Bukney), 460; Swiss, 455; English, 450; Swiss, 445; English, 440; German, 435; American (Waltham), 430; English, 425; American (Waltham), 420; English, 415; German, 410; English, 405; English, 400.  No Swiss watch entered for competition gained less than 445 marks, no English watch fewer than 400.  The greatest number obtained by an American watch was 430, and four American watches were sent to the observatory which, because they gained fewer than 400 marks, were not classed.  It will thus be seen that, albeit Swiss watches showed a decided superiority, their English competitors ran them very close, while American watches were almost out of the running.  If the system of official testing which obtains in Geneva were established in England it could hardly fail to have a beneficial effect on British watch-making.  Geneva horologists can send their watches to the observatory here to be thoroughly tested, and the results of the annual competition are awaited with eager interest.  It is a sort of watch Derby, with the difference that the best watch invariably comes in first, which is not always the case with the best horse.  A few days ago M. Plantamour, the eminent astronomer, head of the observatory here, in a lecture to the industrial class of the Society of Arts, gave some details concerning the watch competition of 1880 which possess a special interest, inasmuch as he has introduced several new tests that took effect for the first time last year.  The principal modification is that, whereas the watches sent in for competition used only to be placed in the refrigerator and stove 24 hours respectively, and errors of compensation are compared as well with the extremes of temperature in these two receptacles (about 5 deg. To 30 deg. Centigrade) as with the temperature of the room (from 15 deg. To 17 deg.)  The successful watches, which it is hardly necessary to say are chronometer watches, are divided into two classes – ‘satisfactory’ and ‘very satisfactory’.  No watch can rank as ‘very satisfactory’ unless it reaches this standard; its diurnal variation for 40 days must be no more than three-quarters of a second; its maximum variation between one position and another must not exceed 2½ seconds nor more than one-fifth of a second, on the average, for each degree of temperature.  Of the 333 watches sent in for competition 117 answered to these conditions.  It is considered a very remarkable result that 78 watches exceeded the minimum of excellence laid down by the observatory.  Their mean performances being for the first test (diurnal variation), 0.474; for the second (position test), 1.538; for the third (variation of temperature), 0.127 of a second.  It would seem hardly possible that horological art can be brought to greater perfection than these figures denote.  But M. Plantamour, not content with claiming a number of watches as ‘very satisfactory’, even on the very stringent conditions he has laid down, grades them by a system of points of which zero corresponds with the minimum of excellence insisted upon for the award if ‘very satisfactory,’ while 300 represents absolute perfection, a point, it is scarcely necessary to say, unattainable even by Swiss watchmakers.  Nevertheless, some of them fall not very far short even of this lofty standard – one won 192, another 191, and a third 189 points.  Fifteen watches were awarded more than 150, and 28 more than 140 points, and these may, perhaps, be regarded as the finest specimens of horological skill which either Switzerland or any other country has yet produced.  While on the subject of time I would mention, for the benefit of travellers in Switzerland that Geneva has three times.  Having its own observatory it insists on having its own standard of time, and, while all the rest of Switzerland follows ‘the hour of Berne,’ the clocks in this canton are set by local time.  Hence, as the Swiss and French railways, which have their termini here, work by Berne and Paris time respectively, three different times are in vogue in Geneva, a condition of things rather bewildering for the uninformed traveller and not without occasional inconvenience for residents."

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