Observing the role of watches during and after the consumer revolution of Eighteenth-century Europe provides insight into the historical trends of the period. Watches can be used to tell time in the obvious and literal sense, but they can also be used to tell us about time. As different watch styles change, they also come and go because tastes themselves change as a result of the social-economic politics of fashion. Specifically, we will see how these watches embody the effects of the consumer revolution (1700s) and French Revolution (1789-1799) on the transformation of watch fashion.
Figure 1: Gold cased verge stop-watch surrounding a white enamel dial. The dial is marked with hours from I-XII, minutes from 5-60, and a winding hole located on “II.” The hour and minute hands are composed of gold while the centre-seconds hand is composed of blue-steel. Made by: Ferdinand Berthoud. Date: 1763. Place of Origin: Paris, France. (The British Museum: 1958,1201.276)
It is important to note first that the changes in consumption habits that pervaded throughout the Atlantic were a direct result of the industrial revolution. In “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-century England,” Neil McKendrick argues that the “democratization of consumption” was essentially reflected in the increase in demand during this period and that consumption of certain goods rose to staggeringly high numbers while only having a minimal increase in the population (29). As such, we can see that as industrialization, production, and wages increased, so too did the taste for consumption and consumer goods. What this also means is that with more wealth in circulation, the general public would then be better able to influence and popularize new style innovations. Likewise, historian Michael Kwass uses the case of taste leaders in “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France” to argue that the process of creating “a new set of consumer values… mediate[s] the relationship between consumption and status” (634). Because of this, McKendrick’s and Kwass’ arguments inherently enhance each other to show how constant changes in demand and taste affect the economic and social value of an object or commodity.
Applying this understanding to the gold watch (Figure 1), we can construct a general outline of the social-economic politics of its particular style. Having been made in 1763, the watch was produced in the latter half of the consumer revolution. By this time, the extravagant tastes characterizing the earlier part of this revolution has been faced with both supporters and dissenters. This leads me to argue that those who sought to appear to have good taste would wear attractive adornments while simultaneously refraining from lavishness. Noting this watch’s style, we can say that it has a fair amount gold which serves to frame the main enamel dial. As for the dial face itself, the presence of both Roman numerals and Arabic numerals may however also be an indicator of higher social-economic status, i.e., the proper amount of extra detailing on a person’s watch would serve as a mark of rank or prestige.
Figure 2: Gilt-brass cased verge watch. The dial is also gilt-brass, with applied enamel chapters. Attributed to: Louis Gauthier. Date: 1705-1715. Place of Origin: Paris, France. (The British Museum: 1958,1201.263)
In comparison with Figure 2, a watch made during the early consumer revolution (early to mid 1700s), it becomes easier to picture how the watch fashion transitioned to the style in Figure 1. The prominence of the etching all over Figure 2 indicates that it may have been a higher quality piece due to the amount of labor needed for precise detailing. Furthermore, despite being brass gilded with gold, the metal case serves as the main attracting component as opposed to the dial’s presence in Figure 1. While Figure 1’s dial is framed and accentuated by its gold case, the watch casing for Figure 2 by contrast is embellished with enamel numbering. This means that even though one of the main facets of the consumer revolution was the ability to show one’s wealth, there is constant development and redefining of said ability in the politics of fashion.
During the time of the French Revolution, new standards of consumption had been enforced which is not just reflected in watch styles, but also in the value of watches. From “Police Reports on Disturbances over Food Supplies (February 1793),” Paris police had said, “the way we knew she had one [a watch] was that when she emerged from the crowd and came over to the counter, she looked for her watch, [and] drew it out, saying, ‘I thought it had been taken.’” By this time though (late Eighteenth Century), watches had begun to exhibit more simplistic tastes (see Figure 3). This leads me to argue that the person’s attachment to the watch was therefore rather pretentious for the time. Eventually by 1810, some people “would have given [away a] watch for a good meal and a dry shirt” indicating that the value of watches had dropped significantly (An Ordinary British Soldier Recounts the Portuguese Campaign (1810)). However, it is also a possibility that for a soldier on the battlefield, a meal would naturally be more valued than a watch given his particular situation. Nonetheless, these accounts still show that with conservative consumption ideals pervading France during its revolution, watches and other luxuries would have been minimalized as a reflection of both modesty and support for a more egalitarian society.
Figure 3: Silver and gold cased watch. White enamel dial, secret signature. Single blued-steel Breguet style moon hand. Silver case, gold bezels. Made by: Abraham Louis Breguet. Case made by: GM. Date: 1798 (case). Place of Origin: Paris, France. (The British Museum: 1927,0513.2)
Watches tell us more than just time. Understanding that watches also tell us about time allows us to understand the social-economic politics of fashion in the age of Atlantic Revolution.
Applewhite, Harriet Branson et. al: editing and translation. “Police Reports on Disturbances over Food Supplies (February 1793),” Women in Revolutionary Paris, (1789–1795). University of Illinois Press: 137–141. Web: Mar. 2014. http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/480/
Hibbert, Christopher. “An Ordinary British Soldier Recounts the Portuguese Campaign (1810),” ed, A Soldier of the Seventy-First: The Journal of a Soldier of the Highland Light Infantry, (1806-1815). London: Leo Cooper, 1975. 48-53. Web: Mar. 2014. http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/520/
Kwass, Michael. “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France,” American Historical Review 111.3 (2006). 631-59. Print.
McKendrick, Neil. “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-century England,” The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England. London Europa Publications Limited (1982). 9-33. Print.