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Mechanical Jewels: The Art of the Watch 1500 – 1800, by Jonathan Snellenburg

  • HSNY at the General Society Library 20 West 44th Street New York, NY, 10036 United States (map)

Jonathan Snellenburg, Director of Watch and Clock Sales for Bonhams Auctioneers, New York

Doors open at 6:00pm, lecture begins promptly at 7:00pm. Free tickets are required to attend. Notification of ticket availability will be sent out soon to the HSNY email list. HSNY members receive priority access to all meetings.

Early watches look deceptively like their modern descendants. They are familiar enough to assume the first watches were made to "keep time" as watches do today. Not so. In fact, these early watches were actually indifferent timekeepers, more suited to symbolize time than reliably measure it. Although technical advances over the next 200 years improved their performance, it was not until the end of the 18th century that ordinary watches became truly reliable timekeepers.

The earliest watches were probably carried not so much because civilization required portable timekeepers, but rather because of the Renaissance fashion for pendant jewels that served as both display of wealth and talisman. The early 20th century horologist, G. H. Baillie, referred to this developmental period as the "Age of Decoration." Watches were often fashioned into diverse forms and decorated with scenes from Classical literature. Both the form and decoration of these watches were intended convey a message how to make the best use of time.

Using sources from the fine and decorative arts, this lecture considers the imagery of these early jewel-like watches and illustrates how their appearance reflected society’s evolving attitude toward time and timekeeping. Only when the watch was transformed from metaphor into measuring device in the late 18th century did the “pocket watch” take its familiar modern form.

Jonathan Snellenburg

About Jonathan Snellenburg
Jonathan Snellenburg studied history and geology at Dartmouth College and received a Ph.D. in Geochemistry from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. This led to a post-doctoral fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and later, a position as staff gemologist for the Gemological Institute of America. He then joined Christie's, New York, as head of the Jewelry and Silver Departments at their gallery, Christie's East. By the time he left Christie's, as a Senior Vice President and Head of the Watch and Clock Department, he had organized sales in a variety of fields including watches, clocks, jewelry, silver, and scientific instruments.

For many years, he conducted his own business as dealer, consultant and appraiser, as well as serving as a Vice-President of the National Antique & Art Dealers Association of America. He returned to the salesrooms, joining Bonhams New York as Director of Watches and Clocks in 2009. A Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers in London, he is also a member of the Antiquarian Horological Society and the NAWCC.

Since 1996 Dr. Snellenburg has appeared as an appraiser in the PBS television series The Antiques Roadshow. He contributed the chapter on 17th and 18th century enamel watches for the Catalogue of European Decorative Arts at the Taft Museum, Cincinnati, and catalogued the Proctor Collection of Watches at the Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica, New York.

Earlier Event: June 4
Fluid Time, by Grégory Dourde