June 29, 2018

A watch “rescue” saves a historic treasure


Diverting a pocket watch from the melting pot retrieves a timepiece of historical significance

 

I have always considered myself a collector of “tool watches” – precision instruments with technical uses, such as timepieces for divers, the military, sportsmen, engineers, aviators, and astronauts. These timepieces are different from watches that simply mark the hours, or dress watches that are usually smaller, often made of gold, and intended for formal occasions or daily use. There are only a few dress watches in my collection.

I have been following the watch market for the last 20 years, and in that time purchasers have become less interested in dress watches for daily wear, and their value is also declining among collectors; the same trend applies to ordinary pocket watches.

Many of these pieces have lost much of their value, and today they are only worth their weight in gold; most of them end up being melted. Sometimes when these watches are offered to me, I cannot resist, and buy them anyway for the love of watchmaking -- or perhaps for the hope that someday a new generation of collectors will find value in these timepieces.

The U.S. dollar goes up, gold prices go down

In the world economy today, one of the most basic principles is the relationship between the price of gold and the U.S. dollar. In simplest terms, when the world economy is healthy, people invest in businesses and stocks, and the value of the U.S. dollar grows. When the world economy becomes unstable, people are afraid to invest and seek ways to save their money that seem safer.

For thousands of years, gold has been considered one of the safest ways to keep money, so gold is valued in times of crisis. You can see this clearly in the chart below, which shows the relationship between gold and the value of the U.S. dollar from 1992-2011.

Gold X Dollar chart 20 years

I mention all of this because this relationship directly affects the value of gold watches, especially the simplest and least interesting pieces.

Buying gold watches for their weight is always a great deal. When you buy a watch purely for its gold, the total value of the weight is not paid, because a good slice for the profit and cost of the labor is needed to melt the metal and extract the gold to convert it into 24k bars. As a result, it is possible to buy gold for 20% below its nominal value.

So when gold is cheap and the U.S. dollar is highly valued, it is a bargain to buy gold watches.

I have lived through some of these periods, and buying gold watches at those times is very tempting; sometimes I will “rescue” watches that I wouldn’t normally buy.

About 15 years ago, I made one of these “rescues,” and without knowing what I was doing I was rewarded by saving a historic watch. A small piece of the history of Brazil – perhaps even of the world -- was about to be melted, and by a stroke of luck I was able to save it.

A “rescue” preserves a piece of history

In 2003, I was shown a 14k gold American pocket watch made by Mermod & Jaccard Jewelry Co, a trendy and fashionable establishment in the American Midwest at the beginning of the 20th century. Mermod & Jaccard called itself, “The Grandest Jewelry Establishment in the World.” Mermod & Jaccard had stores in St. Louis and New York, and my impression is that they tried to achieve the status of Tiffany's, but it didn’t quite work out.

American watches usually have solid, well-made cases, and I was delighted with the quality of the case and engraving on it. Even though the watch didn’t have its original hands and it was not a typical “tool watch” that better fits my interests, it was otherwise flawless, and I decided to buy it. At the time, gold cost around US $10 a gram – near its lowest price in years (today gold is worth about $41 per gram). The watch was 14k gold and almost 80 grams in total weight. I paid $300 for it.

I often say that in addition to collecting objects, I collect stories and good purchases. Like this Mermod & Jaccard pocket watch, it has revealed its history.

I was intrigued by the inscription on the case that said: “15th Nov 1904 Exp Un. St. Louis Mo.” and on the other side four initials “F. M. S. A.” Quickly searching Google I discovered that I had purchased a watch of enormous importance: it was an artifact of the St. Louis World’s Far of 1904 with historical relevance for my country of Brazil.

Because of the inscriptions, I could conclude that this watch belonged to Colonel Francisco Marcelino de Sousa Aguiar, a military engineer and architect who designed the Brazil Pavilion at the St. Louis World’s fair – a project that earned him the Architecture Gold Medal awarded at the fair. The watch, made by a manufacturer near the fair, was likely part of the award.

A world event for the middle of the U.S

Most of us may not be familiar with the St. Louis World Fair of 1904 (unless you like classic Judy Garland movies and remember “Meet Me in St. Louis”), but the fair was one of the most important public events in the early 20th Century United States. Formally known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition the fair was held to celebratethe 100th  anniversary of the land purchase from France that nearly doubled the size of the United States.

The fair was a huge international spectacle that occupied 1,200 acres (4.9 square kilometers), with 60 countries participating. The fair was held from April 30 to December 1, 1904, and almost 20 million people attended. While the Brazil Pavilion was small compared some of the structures at the fair, it was beautiful, built in the ornate French Renaissance style, and – as we know from the pocket watch – an award-winning design.

After the fair, the Brazil Pavilion was dismantled and reassembled in Rio de Janeiro, then the city was the capital of Brazil, and it became the Senate building. It was renamed the Monroe Palace in honor of the American President James Monroe. The building was demolished in 1975 during the period of the military dictatorship, for reasons not well explained and in spite of public protests. Today there is a public square in its place. You can learn more about the Monroe Palace here.

Watch collecting: preserving our heritage

All of this means that the Mermod & Jaccard pocket watch I purchased for almost nothing had great historical value. If Brazil was a more enlightened country, this watch would be highly valued as a collector’s piece, or even worthy of being in a museum because the descendants of Souza Aguiar would be occupying high positions in the government and in the private sector. However, Brazil today is not enlightened. Although the country has some continental character, because of a sequence of corrupt governments and military coups since the 1960s, Brazil has entered a moral and cultural abyss that may be irreversible; this is the main reason why I can find fantastic watches at incredibly low prices. There is a saying in Portuguese: “Pai rico, filho nobre, neto pobre,” which means “Rich father, noble son, poor grandson.” Unfortunately that premise is all too common here.

This reminds me that one of the benefits of watch collecting is preserving our cultural heritage. In the case of the Mermod & Jaccard pocket watch, I not only acquired a beautiful watch, but was also fortunate to be able to save a small piece of my country’s historic past as well.

Article published by Worn and Wound

gold watch collection 1904 St Louis world fair




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