The Chinese Market Watch

by Vince Ho

National Flag of Imperial China, 1872-1890

Bovet Fleurier Chinese Market Watch, c.1830


During the 19th century, Europe, in particular Switzerland, exported millions of a type of special watches into Imperial China. Brands such as Piquet et Meylan, , , Ilbury, Juvet Fleurier, Dimier, Vrard, Tardy et Fils, Borel-Courvoisier, and Jaques Ullmann were particularly succssful and had made a hugh fortune. Many of these special watches were in very ornate enamel cases (like the one shown above), while most have fancily engraved skeletonized movements, like the one example below.

Movement of a Lorimier Caliber Duplex "Montre Pendulum" -- notice the faux pendulum, shown in the reverse plate, generates its motion from the balance.

The watch came in several versions depending on their escapements: the Duplex, the Duplex-Jacot, the Cylinder, the Anchor (Lever), and the Anchor Duplex (Tixier); with the former being the most popular.

Since the Chinese costumes during the 19th century neither have a vest nor pockets suitable for the pocket watches, pocket watches were usually put inside a spotter which hanged on a Chinese purse. The Chinese gentleman would carry his purse by means of looping through it with his belt.

19th century Chinese purse "Dalien"

Today, this specific type of watch is known as the Chinese Market Watch, or La Montre Chinoise, and had become a collectable horological item. The watch can range from the one you can pick up in a flea market for a couple hundred dollars, to the one that is heavily guarded inside a museum. For the rest of this webpage, I will present you a short concise history of the Chinese Market Watch. I hope you'll enjoy as much as I do!

Basic Chinese Horology

Clocks and watches were never devices owned by the everyday citizen of China. The Chinese had been using a public time keeping system that was based on a combination of sun dials, water clocks, and astronomical observations. While the EQUINOCTIAL SYSTEM divides a 24 hour day into 12 equal periods, with each having four quarters (thus each quarter corresponds to an half-hour in western time keeping system), this system was only used by astronomers and astrologers. Because China was an agricultural based society, the PRACTICAL Chinese hours was the TEMPORAL SYSTEM, which were based on sunrise and sunset. Both the day and the night were divided into six equal periods. This obviously made the periods unequal because of seasonal changes: As winter approaches, the "day periods" became shorter; while during the summer, they become longer. To make things even more complicated, in practical use the night was actual divided into five "special" night periods, instead of the theoretical six; and each night period was in turn divided into five "points" equally.

Chinese timekeeping system. Notice the uneven day/night hours.

Citizens would find out the Temporal time by using sun dials, or be notified by public timekeepers. The latter, using water clocks and their astronomical observations, would then walked around town, especially at night, and stroke gongs with the stroke number corresponding to the "special" night period. During the day time, time was relatively unimportant, as the ordinary Chinese farmers would keep on working as long as the sun was shining. Only three times mattered: Sunrise, Midday, and Sunset. One of the few times when they actually needed to know the correct time was their time of birth, purely for astrological inquiries.

The Chinese time system was also adopted by the Japanese.

Chinese Chapter Bovet Fleurier watch, c.1830. Though theoretically correct, the equinoctal system used in this Chinese chapter rendered the watch impractical in everyday use. Courtesy of Pieces of Time.

Jacques Ullmann Lunar Calendar Pocket Watch, c.1900. A good effort from the Swiss firm, but not a practical result: The calendar consists of lunar calendar month/lunar calnedar date/day of the week/moonphase. Lunar calendar months have either 29 or 30 days. The watch is not practical because while a lunar calendar user would have no use for the day of the week dial, the user who would need the day of the week dial would have no use of the lunar calendar. Finally, the use of a non-Chinese timekeeping system makes the watch's function even more confusing. Courtesy of John P. Christians.

The History of Chinese Watches up till the reign of Ch'ien-lung

The first Chinese watches were originally constructed by the Mandarin Jesuit missionaries for the Chinese emperors since the late Ming dynasty (late 16th century to 1644). The emperors considered the watches as both astrological toys and jewelry. In fact, horological and astronomical instruments were the items that caught the emperors' eyes and allowed the missionaries to obtain their feet in the Chinese door.

By the Manuchu (Ch'ing) dynasty (1644 - 1911), watches imported from Switzerland had become the Emperors' favorite toys. The watches came in different shapes and types (such as a gun form watch, a musical watch, or a singing bird box with a watch), and no expense was spared in terms of jewelry ornamentations. Both the Emperors K'ang-hsi (Kang Xi) (1661-1722) and his grandson, Ch'ien-lung (Chien-Lung) (1735-1796) were well-known watch collectors, the latter had an amazing collection of over a hundred clocks and watches. Today you could still see part of his collection in the National Museum in Beijing. While K'ang-hsi had commissioned watches from his missionaries and Swiss horologers, Ch'ien-lung was more nationalistic by ordering Cantonese artisans to construct clocks in the "western fashion".

Emperor Ch'ien-lung (reigned 1735-1796), a horological buff

National Clock Museum in Beijing's Forbidden City

Examples of Emperor Ch'ien-lung (reigned 1735-1796)'s collection, now in the Clock Museum.

In conclusion, European watches before the 19th century were either specially imported individually (by firms such as Terrot et Fazy), or produced by European expat horologers who followed their missionaries or ambassadors as part of a cultural exchange. The most famous of these horologers were Francois-Louis Stadlin (1658-1740), imperial horologer of K'ang-hsi; and Charles-Henry Petitpierre-Boy (b.1769), who entered the court while following the ambassador of Holland, and built a pendulum clock inside the Old Imperial Summer Palace Yuen-Ming-Yuen.

Examples of a Chinese Verge Fusee Market Watch, sent to China during the reign of Emperor Ch'ien-lung (reigned 1735-1796)

The success of Piquet et Meylan

By Ch'ien-lung's son, Chia-Ching's (1796-1820) reign, several Swiss jewelry and automaton companies, led by Piquet et Meylan and Jacquet-Droz, imported successfully a cylinder watch that was fit inside a gold and enamel empire case with seeded pearls ("Montre D'or Empire", the French Empire Style Gold Watch). The enamel painting was frequently a depiction of flowers.

Montre Empire

The fact that the automaton companies were the leading horological importers of China showed that the Chinese continued to consider watches as mechanical toys. The Chinese were still using the temporal time system in everyday life. Even though some clever watchmakers did create watches that had an adjustable chapter to accommodate the changing time periods, the requirement of having a horologer to adjust the chapter daily rendered the adjustable watch impractical. The normal, "non-adjustable" version, continued to be only used by astrologers. Hence it was no suprise for the automaton companies that their wealthy Mandarin customers were mainly interested in Jewelry watches, or Repeaters. Save for the emperors and his court mathematicians, scientists and astronomers, no one seemed to be interested in purchasing a chronometer, a chronograph, or a calendar watch because no one would use a watch for actual timekeeping. The latter type of watches was particularly impractical in China, because the Chinese had always been using the lunar calendar.

The Classical Fleurier Chinese Market Watches

William Ilbery (1780-1851) of London, who made watches using the Lepine movement while retaining the "Montre d'Or Empire" case, began to import watches to affluent Chinese clients during the 1800s. Meanwhile, also jumped the bandwagon, selling watches using the cylinder movement.

By Tao-kuang's reign (1820-1850), a Swiss student of Ilbery, Eduoard Bovet (1797-1849), discovered that Ilbery's Lepine watches, when engraved with beautiful patterns and skeletonized, were big sells in China. He discovered that the Chinese were particularly enamored with the idea of viewing the "beating heart" of the skeletonized watch. After his return to his native town of Fleurier, Bovet founded the firm , and began to produce engraved Lepine movement watches for the Chinese market. He would also choose the duplex escapement for the Lepine movement because of its inexpensive cost. He opened a store in London as a distribution center, an obviously smart commercial move, because the Swiss had no ships, while England was then the watchmaking captial of the world, and also had a sizable merchant marine that specialized in the China trade.

Bovet's business was so good that he had to contract other Fleurier ebauche manufacturers to make parts for him. For example, Bovet contracted the firm to make movements for his watches. Other watchmakers in Fleurier also jumped the bandwagon, with the most famous being the Juvet family. Unlike the early Automaton companies, these Fleurier companies were willing to make a watch in plain silver Empire case, because they realized that even though the ordinary Chinese middle class could not afford to buy a Piquet et Meylan enamel repeater, they would still willing to purchase a plain one simply because of the pretty ornately engraved skeletonized movement. Sometimes to make the "toy" even more fun and attractive, a modification would be made to the movement so that it would have a faux pendulum or even a moving windmill: Cheap horological gadgets which were popular and sold well in Europe during the 1800s. Within a couple of decades, the entire Fleurier region became a producer of Chinese Market watches.

Anonymous Swiss Montre Pendulum with Duplex escapement, circa 1860. Courtesy of Pieces of Time.

By the late 1830s Bovet had went to China and set up watch factories in Canton, but the opium war forced him to move his family and his business to the Portuguese Colony of Macau. After the war the Bovets were frequent travelers between Switzerland and China. Along with other companies such as Juvet, Vrard, Dimier, Jacques Ullmann and Borel-Courvoisier, they continued to successfully sell the same watch originally designed by William Ilbery well into the 1870s. Most watch companies had their base in the Canton province, and adopted a Cantonese name and trademark. Since their clients were no longer just the few affluent Mandarin courtiers, but the less-educated general public, in particular the Cantonese; and the products were mostly in the middle to low end; "cantonization" of their names and products made perfect sense to the watch companies. Thus Bovet Fleurier, for example, became "Bo-vay"; while Borel-Courvoisier had a Cantonese name of "Koh-Wa-See". Notice that all of these names were in CANTONESE, not Chinese. The Mandarin courtiers would still prefer their high end watches signed "Bovet Fleurier" and "Borel-Courvoisier": neither Chinese nor Cantonese were needed.

"Bo-vay" -- 19th century Bovet Fleurier Chinese trademark: Cantonese characters over blue background.

In addition to the twin reasons of client bases and product lines, the adoption of Cantonese names and trademarks also reflected that most of the horological importing, manufacturing, marketing, and distribution activities was in the Canton province. Only a few non-Cantonese cities like Shanghai and Tientsin were involved with the watch trade. In fact, Hankow, a small British settlement port in the upper Yangtze River, was the only successful inland city that had a horological trade presence. The Swiss watch merchants, by then, had concluded that transportation in the Chinese inland was hopelessly expensive and inefficient.

Off all the watch companies, Bovet Fleurier and Juvet Fleurier were the most successful, and were to enjoy a particularly friendly rivalry, as both had shops in Shanghai. It is not impossible nowadays to find a Bovet watch using a Juvet movement, as both firms were both rivals and partners.

Other watch companies also set up factories all over the far east. For example, La-Chaux-de-fonds' Jacques Ullmann had shops in Fleurier, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tientsin, Paris, and Vladivostock; with the factory located in Fleurier, the headquarters in La-chaux-de-fonds', the jobber factory and distribution center in Hong Kong, and with the store fronts in the rest of the Oriental cities. Vrard, meanwhile, set up its shop in Tientsin, a convenient place for the high end manufacturer to keep in touch with its high profile Mandarin customers in Beijing.

Jacques Ullmann's shops in Paris and Vladivostok also showed a side of Chinese Market Watches that we sometimes forget: these watches were also sold in Arabia, Russia, Singapore, South America, and Algeria. Even though its primary customers are Chinese, the Chinese Market Watch was also an internationally successful merchandise.

The popularity of photography by 1870 helped enemal painters to actually paint potraits on the watch case, a new selling point which could not be missed by the Fleurier companies. This made the watches not just more attractive to the Chinese customers, but also to European expats who would prefer to have their love ones' or sovereigns' potraits on their watches.

1895 14"' 13 jewels Jacques Ullmann "Ina" brand Chinese Market Enamel Hunting Case keywind pocket watch. The movement was made in England. Notice that the lady in the potrait is a westerner in Chinese costume, which is highly unusual. Starting from the 1870s, watchmakers began to take photos of Chinese women and brought the photos back to their shops so that the enamel painters could paint realistic potraits. Courtesy of R. Brockett.

The Decline and Demise of the Chinese Market Watches

But as the modernization of China began to gather steam, watches were no longer considered toys by the 1880s. People began to use the standard, western time keeping system that has twenty-four "hours". Watch companies with high tech and high manufacturing standards, would produce practical timekeepers to exploit this change of market climate. Firms like , , , , , to name a few, came into mind. The Chinese had taken their timekeeping so seriously that they even built their first oberservatory in Shanghai. The days of depending on a public timekeeper who would patrol the streets and then told everyone that it was midnight by striking his gongs were long gone.

The popularity of modern watches began to accelerate the demise of the traditional Fleurier "La Montre Chinoise". The invention and popularity of stem-wind watches also struck a blow to the Fleurier watchmakers, because the beauty of the keywind skeletonized Lepine movement had been the major selling point of the watch, and had been the bread and butter of the Fleurier watchmakers. A skeletonized stemwind just could not quite show the spirit of the beating heart anymore. One by one the old companies went out of business. Some, like Vrard, decided to go into the high end market segment and competed with the likes of Tardy et Fils and in jewelry watches. The latter firm was famous for selling lots of Beetle and Button watches to China.

Beetle watch by Des Arts & Cie of Switzerland, circa 1790. Courtesy of Pieces of Time. Vacheron Constantin sold a lot of Beetle watches to China during the 19th century.

By the beginning of the twentieth centry, off the old guards who still sold specialized Chinese market watches, only Jacques Ullmann and Vrard were still in business, the former would later purchase Bovet Fleurier. When the Manchu dynesty expired in 1911, so did the Chinese Market Watches.

The Survivor

Today, off the firms who who built their reputation solely on selling Chinese Market watches, only still exists. Gaining their independance from the defunct Jacques Ullmann, Bovet was even a major chronograph wristwatch makers during the 1940s. However, even though its management still took some marketing interests in its oriental past with historical curiosity; the classical Chinese Market watches, including those from Bovet, now can only be confined to horological history, much like George and Edward Prior's Turkish Market watches.

For an accurate historical summary of the firm Bovet Fleurier, please click the old Bovet trademark.

My Chinese Market Watches

1860 12"' 6J Bovet Fleurier Fine silver gilt and enamel, half pearl-set, centre-seconds, lady's pendant watch, made for the Chinese market. Caliber Besancon Lorimier.

1860 21"' KWKS DuPasquier Duplex-Jacot Chinese Market Watch. Caliber Tixier.

Flag of Imperial China, 1890-1911

For more info about Chinese market watches, you can read Chapuis' La Montre Chinoise, Pritchard's Swiss Time Keepers, The Ehrhadrt's European Repeaters & Clock Watches and European Pocket Watches, Clutton & Daniels' Pocket Watches , Ullyett's Watch Collecting, Jacquet & Chapuis' La Montre Suisse, Milham's The Chinese Watch (NAWCC Bulletin Feb 1949 #7), Lee's Antique Watches(), Sasaki's World Wrist Watch Time Spec No.30: "Manchu Dynasty Watches" (), and Britten's Old Clocks and Watches and Their Makers.

Special thanks to Johnny Wachsmann of Pieces of Time, R. Brockett and John P. Christians for the gracious permission of reproducing, or continuous using some of the images.

To read some of the visitors' comments on this webpage, please click the imperial chinese flag.

This page has been last updated at 10 June 98
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