My Grandfather, The Watch Collector
Once upon a time, there was a man whose young grandson loved him very much.
And, as it turns out, the man owned a watch. Not just any watch, but, as seen by the young boy, a gilded wonder of a pocket watch with a gleaming white dial, delicate hands, and the image of a proud stag carved into its case.
When the grandfather passed away, he left the watch in safekeeping for the boy, who a dozen years later proudly took possession of it on the occasion of his high school graduation. He treasures it to this day.
Not a bad happily-ever-after tale, I’d say, but there’s more: fully forty years later, the boy, now your faithful scribe, inherited a previously unseen box of his grandfather’s watches revealing him to have been what the boy had become: a watch collector.
My grandfather (let’s call him Grandpap from now on, although he also liked Großvater) was born in May of 1894 in a small town in what is now the Kaunas region of Lithuania. His parents, Alexandrine and Carl, were German-speaking descendants of East Prussian farmers who had immigrated to the area in the 1700s.
They named him Constantine Augustus. Royal names must have been in favor: his brothers were named Julius, Alexander, and Edward, and given family tradition it’s a bit of a relief to me that I did not end up as Hadrian or Ghengis!
Although the story of the oldest watch in this collection is lost to history, I like to think that Constantine’s own grandfather, pictured above, gave him a piece that he in turn treasured: the small, silver-cased pocket watch you see below.
Inside this watch is a Swiss-made cylinder escapement movement, common in less expensive watches of the era and recognizable from the location and shape of the escape wheel. In the cylinder design initially developed by Thomas Tompion in 1695, the escape wheel interacts directly with a slotted cylinder beneath the balance wheel rather than being controlled by an intermediary fork ending in pallet jewels as in the lever escapement.
Coming to America
Around 1910, Julius and Alexander immigrated to America; Grandpap followed in 1913. All found work in Pittsburgh with the Pennsylvania Railroad: Uncle Julius as a hose coupler, Uncle Alec in the mailroom, and Grandpap as a brakeman.
Likely soon after, Grandpap acquired two pocket watches: the first was the gilded object of my childhood desire, while the second was a much plainer work watch from Hampden Watch Company of Canton, Ohio with “special adjusted” movement as shown below.
A bit of a mystery is that both the Hampden watch and fancy dress watch apparently pre-date Grandpap and his brothers’ arrival in this country; their serial numbers place their dates of manufacture at around 1896, suggesting that they may have been second-hand purchases. Another watch in the collection also pre-dates his arrival: this one is labeled Worcester Watch Company and is apparently a “Jeweler’s Special” private label piece containing a Swiss movement.
The serial number on the “Defiance” case of this watch from the Star Watch Case Company of Ludington, Michigan places its manufacture at about 1906, suggesting that it may actually have belonged to my grandmother, who immigrated in 1909.
My grandmother Amalia, who I never knew, came from the same area of Lithuania as Grandpap and lived in Pittsburgh with her sister Olga, Olga’s husband Adolf, and two boarders: my uncles Julius and Alec. As they say, one thing led to another, and ultimately to a relationship between Constantine and Amalia and the gift of a watch.
If you look at my grandmother’s wrist in the photograph above, you’ll see the same one shown in my recent photo below.
The movement serial number places its production in 1917 or 1918, at a time when the wristwatch was still being derided as a “silly-ass fad” in the popular press. While this piece appears to be a pocket watch adapted to wrist wear, the fitted presentation case suggests that this may well have been done at the time of production rather than as a later conversion, which would have made my grandparents very fashion-forward indeed.
That’s consistent with photos from the time and from later in life as well as with Grandpap’s collection of not only watches, but also various rings and stickpins; he looks to have been more than a bit of a dandy!
Run for the roundhouse, Nellie, they can’t corner you there
The late 1910s were quite eventful for Grandpap, bringing the pride of United States citizenship, the blessing of his marriage to Amalia, and the tragedy of a terrible fall under a locomotive that nearly killed him and ultimately led to the amputation of one of his legs.
After his recovery, Grandpap returned to the railroad as a turntable operator in the roundhouse and ultimately completed more than 40 years’ service with the “Pennsy.”
One benefit of continuous railroad service was insulation, at least to some extent, from the rigors of the Great Depression. During the 1930s, two new pieces, both wristwatches, joined his collection: one Swiss and one American in origin.
Moeris is a Swiss brand with which I hadn’t been familiar, but no less than Kari Voutilainen had kind things to say about it when I showed him this watch. A particularly attractive feature to me of the Moeris is its shaped movement, Caliber 20/26T, shown below. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that in my own collecting I have been drawn to the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso series with shaped movements fitted into rectangular cases.
The case back of the Moeris has another nice touch: Grandpap’s initials engraved, linking the watch even more closely to him for me.
While both of these watches admittedly look a bit rough, after servicing by my local expert watchmaker they run quite well and see wrist time on occasion.
Daughter to father to grandson
The final addition to Grandpap’s collection has an additional family connection. After graduating high school, my mother Dorothy (known to all as “Dot” or “Dottie”) took a job as a teletype operator at the telegraph company.
Over time, she saved enough to present Grandpap with a gift: a very pretty (and from appearances, sparingly worn) Hamilton watch, again in rectangular form with fabulous decorative lugs and applied hour markers on the dial.
On the reverse, there’s an inscription that touches me every time I think of it.
Inheritance and inspiration
“Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” – Matthew 17:20
But what of that original object of desire from my youth? It was another jeweler’s contract piece, sold by August Loch and Co., a jeweler then located on Federal Street just across from what is now the left field fence of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ PNC Park.
While the movement was also labeled August Loch, it is in fact a Grade 173, 15-jewel movement from the Illinois Watch Company of Springfield, Illinois. Approximately 200 examples were made of this movement with features that include beveled edges on the crescent-shaped click and screwed chatons.
I will always treasure this piece for the magical, almost unattainable, status that it had for me during my youth. More importantly, I will love the way that it reminds me of my beloved Grandpap and his kindness.
But perhaps the most important thing in my grandfather’s collection is something that you can’t see in any of the photos; inside the small locket on the fob of his dress watch chain is something he put there to remind him, and now me, that with perseverance all things are possible: a tiny mustard seed.