Not Just Numbers: Personalized Watch and Clock Dials
by ADAM HARRIS
Have you ever seen a watch dial with letters replacing the numbers? The Eaton Quarter Century manufactured by Rolex is probably the most famous example of this type of watch.
The earliest watch with a personalized dial that I could find is an English Fusee with a verge escapement made by Colston of London circa 1700.
But during my research I came across a most interesting piece. Personalized dials normally have the owner’s name or the name of a company, like ‘Eaton’ who awarded these lovely pieces to employees for 25 years of service.
Rolex Eaton Quarter Century
Colston English Fusee
However, the next watch seems to have just random letters, neither denoting a a company or indeed anything at all! The explanation comes from a Mr Ted Denton of Los Angeles, California, who explains as follows:
“As a one time wireless operator myself, I am able to speculate on the possible advantages of communicating in code the time expressed in these letters rather than in the usual way.
For example: the number of dots and dashes employed to send a time of 12.46pm would be twenty six; whereas, the same information “MIR” would only require seven.”
I checked exact the differences in morse code and discovered that all numbers are always five dots or dashes versus on average two or three for characters plus with this system there is no need for a.m. or p.m. This really does save a huge amount of transmission typing and time. Can you figure out how "MIR" translates to 12:46 p.m.?”
The story of time does not stop here and with a little more research, I was astonished to find so many examples and variations of personalized timepieces. We are so used to telling the time from dials that we don’t really need the hour numerals. Some dial designs omit them altogether – distinctly uncluttered but also perhaps a bit dull. The personalized dial adds a bit of fun to what has become the traditional way of depicting hours on a watch face.
Watches can be personalized by substituting the letters of the owner’s name for the hour numerals. As Cedric Jagger writes in his book The Artistry of the English Watch, this was by no means uncommon. If the name did not have exactly twelve letters, the designer had to be inventive, as the three watch photos here demonstrate. The one with JAMES CATLING, dated 1814, gave no problems, but for GEORGE CATLING, dated 1815, NG had to be linked. On the other hand, for the eleven-lettered THO[MA]S STEVENS, dated c. 1840, the designer used a fox’s head at 12 o’clock. Was this randomly chosen or was the owner perhaps an avid fox hunter?
All Saints Church clock dial
The dial of the clock at All Saints Church in West Acre, has the words “Watch and Pray.” These are the first words from Matthew 26:41, where Jesus is addressing his disciples on the Mount of Olives just before his crucifixion, “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
The church at Buckland in the Moor has a clock face with letters instead of numbers. The letters spell out "My dear mother."
Buckland in the Moor clock dial
Here is another very cool American clock; SulAmérica is the fourth largest insurance company in Brazil with more than 6.3 million customers. The company was founded in 1895 and is controlled by Larragoiti Family SUL AMERICA.
One country where all their timepieces use letters rather than numbers is Israel, or Israelis where numbers are depicted by the first 10 letters of the hebrew alphabet.
Here at the NAWCC Museum also have on permanent display a 1906 Swiss pocket watch, of unknown maker with dial numerals in Hebrew, the watch is inscribed “Sol Miller 1906” Accession number: 82.64.145.
Ted Denton article in Antiquarian Horology, Blog Spot: http://arth474virtualexhibition.blogspot.com/2012_04_21_archive.html,
The Story of Time: http://blog.ahsoc.org/?paged=8, Dave Stables (who published on the Catling watches in Antiquarian Horology of June 2011
Nancy Dyer – Archivist and Researcher, NAWCC