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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

Watch Papers Offer More Than Protection
by Bob Brooke


Watch papers have long been neglected by collectors, but now they’re becoming popular. Originally used as a packing between the inner and outer case of a watch to protect its works, they became keepsakes in the mid-18th century. Women embroidered flower patterns on silk watch papers and made cutout or pinpricked designs of hearts, doves, forget-me-nots and wreaths. They also made them of woven hair or crocheted them from fine silk thread or quilted them. Hand-stitched monograms in wreaths of laurel or moss roses and hand-painted watch papers were especially popular. Often early handmade watch papers took the form of a valentine or birthday greeting or a memorial for dead loved ones, showing a tombstone shadowed by a weeping willow. Examples have also been found with the Lord's Prayer in minute hand-writing and with a miniature map of part of the United States.

The watch papers which have become the most popular with today’s collectors are those engraved papers used as an advertising medium by watchmakers or as labels are often usually attractive. Many well-known American artists engraved them so that they may have real esthetic value.

By the beginning of the 19th century, watchmakers realized they could use small, round papers in the back of a watch as an advertising medium. It soon became the custom, when they cleaned and repaired a watch, for watchmakers to insert their own papers, perhaps showing an engraved scene with their name and the location of their shops. On the reverse of the paper the watchmaker might note the price and date of repairs.

You won’t find watch papers in every old watch, for the tiny papers were easily destroyed, but there are many watches stored away in collections and safe-deposit boxes that contain old engraved papers, and many watches contain more than one paper.

In 1758, Hugh Gaine ran the first notice of an American watch paper in an ad in a New York paper. Other engravers followed suit.

Collectors gather watch papers because of the watchmaker's name or they may be concerned only with the design of the watch paper and the artist who engraved it. While every engraved watch paper has the name of the watchmaker or watch repairman, the beauty of the designs varies. Few engravers marked their names on their watch papers. Although the designs differ, there are certain subjects such as hourglasses, Father Time, watches, eagles, Justice, ships, anchors, draped figures, and cherubs that were the most popular.

Watch papers were both printed and engraved on white, cream, buff, orange, blue, green, yellow or rose paper. Sometimes, engravers printed them in combinations of colors such as white on silver, gold on blue, blue on gold or red or green on white. The round papers vary in size from 1 1/2 inches to 21/2 inches in diameter, but the common size seems to be about 2 inches in diameter. Though watch papers also varied in thickness, the earliest ones are on thicker and higher-grade paper.

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