The Spherical Table Watch, The Oldest Watch in Existence

The Walters Art Museum is the greatest kind of American museum, built by eccentric, Gilded Age tycoons to house their private collections. New York is full of them—The Frick, The Morgan Library, and The Forbes Gallery—but the Walters, built on the back of a rye-whiskey and railroad empire, is the jewel of Baltimore, my new hometown.

I’m Natty Adams. This is my first post for Alexander, and I’m happy to be here. I’m the clothing designer and tailor of my eponymous label, Natty Adams, and co-author of I Am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman and We Are Dandy: The Elegant Gentleman Around the WorldI’m a lover of all things elegant and refined, including watches and museums. 

Clocks abound in these museums. Henry Clay Frick had an excellent collection—but the Walters Art Museum has the distinction of housing the earliest known watch in existence. It is called the Spherical Table Watch and it is slightly larger than a ping-pong ball.

A Matter of Placement or Carrying

Despite the watch’s relatively small size, its spherical shape would indeed induce me to leave it on a table, as its name suggests. A good deal of tailoring, as my experience has taught me, involves hiding unsightly bulges, and I’m not sure even I could hide this one. 

Public domain image, courtesy of Walters Art Museum via Wikipedia

This may not have been a problem for the watch’s original owner, an early German Lutheran reformer named Philip Melanchthon who went about in somber black robes.

Melanchthon, one of the most well-educated theologians of his day, would quite naturally have taken an interest in the art and science of horology, and this watch would have been a great mechanical marvel of its time.

What separates a watch from a clock is the use of a mainspring to wind the device, rather than a system of weights or pendulums, and Melanchthon’s watch would have been a portable novelty, something to whip out show off in front of all the other Lutheran reformers hanging around the hotspots of mid-16th century Wittenberg.

The case has a small loop at its top, suggesting it may have been worn on a chain. This would have turned it into a fetching, shiny bauble, standing out against the famously dwarfish and misshapen Melanchthon’s pious black outfit.

“Oh this little thing?” he might have said, “Oh, this is just a clock I can carry around with me.” Thus, he would undoubtedly blow minds.

The Endurance of a Fine Watch

Alas, unlike our modern watches, with their vibrating crystals and precision micro-mechanisms, these earliest watches weren’t very good at the actual business of keeping time. The watch had to be re-wound at least twice a day, and it was only accurate to within half an hour, so a good Lutheran man might still have to listen for the bells to know when to rush off to church.

Nevertheless, this gorgeous golden ball—engraved in the German for “Philip Melanchthon, to God alone the glory, 1530”—is perfect evidence of the watch’s origins as both fashion statement and mechanical status symbol, one enduring in elegance through five centuries. It’s enough to convince me we’ll be wearing them for another five. 

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