Howard Pocket Watch: A Story of Heritage
Perhaps this is where it all started. My extraordinary love for timepieces, that is. I’ve always had an infatuation with machinery, moving parts, and basically anything that performs a task mechanically. So watches, particularly the mechanical kind, seem to be a natural attraction. Many question, though, what’s the point? Why the love for these hand-assembled, inherently flawed pieces of old technology? Sure, you could buy a Casio for $50 bucks and it will keep perfect atomic time for the next century, as long as you keep the battery fresh. But the idea of precisely calculated measurements, translated into miniscule gears, springs, and wheels to perform the same function? Let’s just say, Rube Goldberg is a personal hero to me. Not to mention, take this idea back a few decades, before the advent of modern computing, and you have a truly amazing feat of engineering.
My grandfather gave me this beautiful timepiece when I was about 8 years old. I would love to tell you that I have this everlasting memory about a long talk with him regarding the watch’s heritage, how he acquired it, what it meant to him, and now that it was bequeathed to me, what it meant for me to become a man one day and pass it on to a son of my own. And, I would love to tell you that I was enamored from the moment the watch left his hand and graced my small palms and that it was truly this very moment that I was bitten by the horology bug. But I can’t do that. The truth is, I barely have a recollection of the moment he gave me this watch. I remember my grandfather was visiting from Pennsylvania and was sitting in my parents’ living room. I just remember him handing me the watch, but I was far more excited about the G.I. Joe F-14 fighter jet toy I had also just received. However, I do remember, with amazing clarity, my parents’ persistent warnings of “don’t wind it up too much” and “stop winding it, you’re going to break it!” They were right. I broke it. Within a year of taking ownership, I overwound the watch and broke its mainspring. I was sad, but hey, my G.I. Joe F-14 Tomcat was still operating flawlessly, so life went on.
My grandfather passed away not long after. From time to time, I would go back into my dresser drawer where I kept the watch, look it over, and feel thankful that I had this piece with which to remember him. I’d unscrew the caseback, gaze at the movement and think about trying to take the watch apart myself in an attempt to fix it. But the realization that this machine’s components were so intricate and beyond my mechanical capabilities would make me wrap the watch up and safely put it back in the drawer.
Gazing at that watch throughout all those years, like a slowly dripping IV, I became infused with a passion for watches. Around the same time I inherited this Howard watch, I was also bestowed a mechanical Timex watch that has, indeed, taken a licking and to this day it still keeps on ticking. However, I was admittedly side-tracked during the Quartz revolution and made several watch purchases (mistakes) based on aesthetic value alone. But after discovering this pocket watch, I’m falling in love with mechanical timepieces all over again. I’ve acquired a few choice examples of modern and vintage mechanical watches over the past couple years, all of varying values. But this Howard watch always had an intrinsic significance to me and, now that I’ve discovered some of its history, I value it that much more.
I just rediscovered this pocket watch during a recent move into my new home, as it had become buried amongst the piles of things one accumulates over the years. And, quite honestly, I had forgotten about it. So, before committing to paying a quality watchmaker to fix the negligence of my boyhood, I decided to do a little research about this watch’s history.
Much to my surprise, this watch dates back as far as 1912 and an interesting period in American watchmaking. Edward Howard, one of the most respected names in American watchmaking, started the Howard Watch Company in 1858 with the tools and leftover parts from the then recently defunct Boston Watch Company. During his first year of production, Howard retooled the machinery from the Boston Watch Company and completed manufacturing just a number of timepieces with the leftover movements from Boston. These early watches had “E. Howard & Co.” printed on the dials and “Howard & Rice”, a nod to Mr. Howard’s financial partner Charles Rice, stamped on the movements.
By late 1858, Edward Howard had already begun manufacturing watches of his own design, moving forward with his ultimate goal of developing several watches of the highest quality, all using interchangeable machine-made parts. As many know, Adrien Philippe (Patek Philippe) was the creator of the stem-wind movement, however Howard has been credited as the first American watch manufacturer to introduce the stem-wind system and put it into full production. He first marketed his stem-winding watches in 1868 and by 1878 the manufacture of key-wind movements had been discontinued entirely. Other notable firsts for Howard in American horology included being the first to use the Reed patented micrometer regulator, and he was the first to offer watches adjusted to six positions.
Edward Howard retired in 1882, but his company continued to sell watch movements until 1903. The year prior, Keystone Watch Case Company purchased the rights to the Howard Watch Co. brand-name in 1902 and subsequently produced a line of watches labeled “E. Howard Watch Co., Boston, U.S.A.” For collectors, these watches are known as simply “Keystone-Howards.”
The markings and serial number on this particular Howard movement designate this as a 1912 to 1914 production Keystone Howard. It features Howard’s 17-jewel ¾ plate movement, referred to as the Series 9. There were various iterations of the 17-jewel movement, however the checkerboard damascening designates this as being the higher-grade series 9. Howard also produced a bridge version of the 17J Series 9, which are some of the rarest and hardest to find models. This movement also uses Howard’s bimetallic compensation balance with gold screws and features Howard’s patented steel motor barrel. Prior to 1868, George Reed’s patented mainspring barrels were used throughout the Howard lineup.
As for the aesthetics, the case is 14k gold with a unique flower engraving on the screw-off caseback. In scouring the internet, I’ve yet to see another caseback with this design. I’ve found many Hamilton and Waltham examples with this type of engraving, but none from Howard. Many casebacks are either blank/polished, feature a pattern or crest/shield, or have the owner’s initials engraved. Also apparently unique to this watch is its screw-off caseback. Most were typically hinge back.
While I’ve done this bit of research, I still feel there’s much more to be learned about my particular watch. Not only in family provenance, as this watch dates to 1912-era and my grandfather was born in 1907. Thus, I could assume this was a hand-me-down from his father, but I would love to know for sure. Then there’s also the exact date of manufacture and the unique engraving on the non-standard caseback.
It’s these surreptitious elements about vintage watches that make this hobby of watch collecting so appealing. Every piece has a story to tell – some stories are based in fact. Some need a bit of interpreting. And some never discovered and will remain a mystery. Either way, I’m a born-again mechanical watch guy. And I’ve got my late grandfather, and perhaps his father before him, to thank for it.
Credit to www.pocketwatchrepair.com and American Watch Company (www.awco.org) for many of the historical facts represented in this post.