Interview with Silke N.

Interview with Pocket Watch Collector Silke N.

While most vintage watch collectors focus on wristwatches, occasionally we also encounter people, whose passion for watches revolves around an even earlier era – the heyday of pocket watches. This is the very first time that we have an opportunity to interview a pocket watch collector on WahaWatches.

Silke, known as SilkeN on Watchuseek, is an avid collector of antique and vintage pocket watches. She’s very knowledgeable in all things pocket watch and passionate about Zenith.

What started your passion for watches, and pocket watches in particular?

My first interest in pocket watches started in the 1980s. The retro style was hip, I was young, and I like to stand out. I couldn’t wear a wristwatch at work, and therefore two aspects brought me to buy a working, original “old” pocket watch. It was a simple Molnija with the 3602 movement, but I got used to wearing a pocket watch, and I loved it.

Many years later I met my friend, and one of his hobbies was to collect vintage wristwatches based on their technical aspects. Together we visited watch fairs, and I helped to search within the net. I always digress to the pocket watches. I find it much more exciting and beautiful.

One day, I spontaneously bought a pocket watch on a watch market in Hamburg. I wanted to learn more and so I registered at a pocket watch forum. Then I wanted another one, and my obsession began. Now it’s been more than 10 years, and the fascination grows with the knowledge.

You have an affinity for Zenith and every other brand of Georges Favre-Jacot. What was it that attracted you to Zenith and all things GF-J?

This, too, was more a chance development than a deliberate decision. I started to buy technically average quality pocket watches out of the art deco era (1920-1940), because I love the design and these watches are affordable. The idea was to own something from every well-known company. For every watch, I’d visualize the style, profession, and way of life of its owner back in the day.

In time I realized that this is a bottomless pit, and the technical side of it was a bit boring. Then I bought a silver Intact, a brand of Georges Favre-Jacot/Zenith. To me, it’s “the perfect watch”. Nothing special in regard to the details, but its size, weight, dial, and hands together represented the typical pocket watch for me.

It takes a while until I’ve put together the facts like dating, maker, and caliber of the movement. The inquiries made me very curious how little is documented. I looked after more quite unknown brands of Zenith and tried to explain to myself their origins and existence. This was the beginning of my Zenith collection.

With time, I explored the earlier era of Zenith, as well as the later – and until Zenith stopped making pocket watches. Meanwhile, two Zenith books are available (M. Rössler 2008/Ebner Verlag and J. Duval 2015/Albin Michel) – this helps a lot, but still, there’s a lot to explore. Especially about the early era of the watches from the company as well as the secondary brands.

I like the “exploring in the dark.” There is technical development and different designs along the timeline, so it doesn’t get boring. I still collect affordable, standard watches and not worthy “collectors’ items” in the classical way of looking at it. Every time when I lean back and think that I’m nearly done with this era, a really surprising watch crosses my path, and I start looking for answers again.

Around 1900, Zenith was probably the manufacturer of good utility watches with the largest volume. Therefore, I assume that I tend to often be surprised, and there’s no end to that.

Zenith pocket alarm.

Do you have any particular favorites in your collection, and is there a watch that you wear more often than the others?

Yes, of course. I still often wear the Intact I mentioned before. For me, it’s simply the epitome of a beautiful pocket watch without having any specificity to it. Her condition is “used”, with visible wear to the guilloche pattern on the silver, but still, it’s very well maintained.

Lately, especially when I meet watch collectors, I also like to wear a Zenith chronograph. Most collectors are male and they are drawn to mechanically complex movements. The chronograph module is on the visible side of the movement, and you can see the functioning of the large pocket watch movement nicely.

Then there’s this incredibly nice watch. It’s so awesome that I don’t wear it, and just admire it. It’s a Tula silver watch called “Winter”, from the “Four Seasons” series. It’s based on a motif by Alphonse Mucha, designed for Georges Favre-Jacot. The motif was created by Huguenin Freres. A true work of art. I could put this away forever.

I have many watches that I like very much, and all have their own aspects: visual, historical or/and technical. As a whole, they tell a lot of the pocket watch era of Zenith. Many have brought me new insights or had questions raised and answered, the latter very often with the help of collector friends. Some are gifts or were exciting unexpected purchases.

Zenith “Winter” pocket watch from the “Four Seasons” series, with an engraved motif by Alphonse Mucha.

A lot of collectors tend to chase after a “Holy Grail” of theirs. Is there any watch you’d call a Grail of your own, or do you feel like you’ve already got your Grail?

Yes, I’ve found my “Holy Grails.” It’s not one Holy Grail, there are two. One as “the” center of the collection, and the other one to wear.

For the collection, it’s a late, simple key-winder, where the bridges form the letters GFJ. My collection tells a lot about the image of Georges Favre-Jacot, the founder of Zenith. This movement was a homage to him during his lifetime. Technically good, but basically without a chronometer-grade escapement, temperature-compensated balance, chatons, micro-regulation, and all other fine stuff that Zenith could have used at the time. It’s a solid movement, and this is typical for his “down-to-earth” watches within the early era of Zenith in the 19th century. The watches were not high-precision timepieces for quarter-second-fetishists, but very solidly crafted, very reliable watches for daily use.

The other Holy Grail is a key-winder and “Sunday wear watch” from 1870. A key-winder is no good for the hectic, everyday life. It’s not by GFJ, but by the uncle of his wife, Charles E. Jacot. It’s a perfectly finished movement with a surprising and nice design. Doesn’t have any complications or extras – just a 15 jewel lever movement, but perfectly hand-crafted. 150 years later, it still runs great. I already saw this movement in the beginnings of my passion for collecting, at the pocket watch forum, and I was very excited. I never thought it possible that I’d ever have such a nice watch to tell me the time. Now it’s been doing it for several years, and I’m always happy when I wear it.

Of course, there are a lot of interesting and fantastic watches out there, but both watches which I’ve specifically searched for years are mine. I’m sure some watches are still on my radar for a long time, but no Holy Grails.

Zenith “GFJ bridges” movement.

If you had to name a brand to collect if you didn’t collect Zenith, what would it be?

I collect a high volume brand because I try to get a feel of the times, the life then, as well as how and what was being traded. My vouchers to that are beautiful watches.

I’m not a brand fan in the sense of saying that Zenith made the best watches ever. They range mainly from good to very good, but I guess that in this “class” Longines or Omega would also provide a reflection of the times. Their production volume was a bit smaller.

Personally, I’d prefer Longines, because I like their movement design and variety a bit more. In fact, certain technical watch topics tease me more with time, and I’d rather keep the collecting independent from a manufacturer.

Pocket watch collector - Zenith pocket watch
High-grade Zenith pocket chronograph, the movement designed and made by Le Phare (then owned by Zenith).

You’re a pocket watch collector, but I’d also like to ask you about your take on wristwatches. Are there any watches that you like? If so, which one would be your “number 1” choice?

Of course, I like some wrist watches very much, but I have to think a bit about your question. These watches are generally not within my budget. Of course, for my collection, the Zenith caliber 135 would be sensational. The movement is a beauty, and you find the big balance again within the 5011 pocket watch caliber.

Technically really funny and interesting are some of the early “dead ends” in the development of automatic movements, like the Wyler pump-action, Pierce linear automatic, Frey, etc.

If I’d be a rich man, I guess I’d get a classic wristwatch to wear often, like the ultra-flat, but of course mechanical, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak with a dark blue dial, steel case, and without a second hand.

What would be the three most important things that you’d advise to a new and inexperienced collector?

At first, be relaxed, and take your time to get a feel of which watches “touch” you, and learn about assessing the condition and how to detect frankenwatches. It’s a hobby, and it should be fun.

Second: Buy your first watch where you can physically examine it before buying – in a shop, by attending an auction with preview, from another collector, or on a market where you can see the real proportions of it, and check if it runs properly. On this path you probably won’t find the “big score”, but it’ll be a good start, more likely.

At last: Forums are wonderful to get information, help, and to exchange knowledge with other collectors, but try to stay true to yourself and develop your personal taste and interest. Don’t follow any forum hypes.

Do you have any plans for the future of your collection? More Zeniths, maybe a different brand? Or a wristwatch, perhaps? 

Not really a plan, but I keep my eyes open. Of course, I’m always looking for as-early-as-possible watches by Georges Favre-Jacot. It’s not the single watch, but the story they tell together. Same with the secondary brands of GFJ, or unusual movements. Because a lot isn’t documented, I’ve no idea what I’m looking for and can’t make a plan. This has been an exciting situation for years.

Personally, I like the Art Nouveau Zenith pocket watches very much and would buy again if it’d match me, as well as unusual watches. You can’t make a plan if you collect such old watches. You have to wait like a spider in the web until an interesting watch comes along. Then you have to look if the budget, the price and the “must have” factor match.

High-end, such as observatory chronometers or repeaters are unfortunately out of my budget. Early wristwatches with what’s technically still small pocket watch movements would complement the younger pocket watches nicely. Therefore, I sometimes look out for wristwatches as well.

Another brand is not within the focus. Sometimes I buy something else than Zenith because the watch is very interesting, or simply lovely. But these are all happenstances.

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