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Volume 45, Number 5September/October 1994

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Watches for the Middle East

Written by Rosalind Mazzawi
Photographs courtesy of Antiquorum Auctioneers

Watches—portable timepieces—were developed from clocks soon after 1500, when the invention of the mainspring in Germany freed clockmakers from weight-driven mechanisms. The first dated watch was made in Nuremberg in 1548, and there are watches dated around 1580 from Switzerland, the Netherlands and England. These were, technically, portable, though not very conveniently so: They measured some 10 to 15 centimeters (four to six inches) across, and were heavy enough that engravings of the time—possibly humorous—show them carried by servants rather than by the gentleman owners themselves.

It was in the 17th century that the real development of watchmaking technology began. Brass and steel parts, replacing iron, came into use around 1625, and in 1660 the hairspring provided a regulating mechanism that acted to moderate the balance wheel of a watch just as gravity moderated the pendulum of a clock. Toward the end of that same century, the export of watches to the East—the Ottoman Empire, Persia and India—began.

The particular interest of watches made for the Islamic countries is that they were usually the finest examples of the watchmaker's art, often intended as prestigious gifts. Most were excellent timepieces when properly maintained, but timekeeping was not necessarily their primary purpose. For the sultan or prince or court official who owned one—just as for the very rich of the present day—these watches possessed the charm of the exotic, the fascination of an intricate mechanism, the elegance of a piece of jewelry and the inherent value of the precious materials of which they were made. There has been no comprehensive study of these timepieces or their market, though they are eagerly collected. Auction catalogues sometimes note that a certain item was "made for the Turkish [or Persian or Indian] market," and there are a few watches actually made in Istanbul or Cairo, often by European horologists who settled there, that appear from time to time at auction, or become known when some private collection is documented. Here we have gathered photographs of a few of these beautiful timepieces, samples from an engrossing history that has yet to be written.

Rosalind Mazzawi lives in France and writes on Islamic arts.

This article appeared on pages 12-15 of the September/October 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1994 images.