For those of us who consider the Granthams our surrogate, albeit fictional, family, waiting for series five of Downton Abbey has been a form of torture. However, it is now a mere matter of days before we get to follow Isis across those familiar grounds and in through the front doors. This time things are getting a little more louche as we follow the family into the 1920s. That means Charlestons, drop-waisted frocks and lots of Art Deco accessories to admire.
We thought this was an ideal opportunity to pay a visit to the London Silver Vaults – the most fascinating ‘shopping mall’ under Chancery Lane where all the shops are actually vaults – and more specifically to Anthony Green’s establishment. Green specialises in rare and vintage watches making him in possession of the ideal brain to pick if you want to know how to adorn your wrist in the style of Lady Mary.
Because wrist watches were still in their infancy – men considered wearing them to be for women only or for the military – there was still a lot of pocket watches around. “The daytime piece for women would probably still have been a small pocket watch,” explains Green, “but in a more utilitarian style.”
However, getting your hands on one of these will be incredibly difficult because, as Green says, these would have been worn everyday so the wear and tear would be considerable. “A cocktail watch, despite being over 80 years old, would probably only have been worn for around a year in total. You wore it for two hours then came home and put it in the safe, which is why you see so many more cocktail watches (such as the one above) for sale from this period.”
Businesses not brands
Think you should be looking for a familiar name on the dial or the case back? Think again. Watches from the 1920s will probably bear names that you’ve never heard of and for very good reason.
“Branding only really came into its own in the 1940s,” says Green. “Until then where you bought the watch was more important. A lot of watches have the name of the retailer on them.”
In that era, your jeweller was as much of an adviser as a retailer. He would know what your tastes were and would, more often than not, buy in pieces he knew you’d like. Bit different from what happens when you go into your local branch of Ernest Jones.
It’s all about the geometrics for this period. The Deco style, which interestingly was only called that from the 1960s onwards, emanated from cubism. It was the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, or Decorative Arts Exhibition as it has become more catchably known, in Paris that really showcased this Style Moderne. This was a design style that represented the world around it, one concerned with modern industry, speed and strident displays of power. It isn’t surprising that some of the most extreme examples of Style Moderne are found in Fascist architecture.
In terms of watch design, this means rectangular dials, uniform links, geometric shapes and fans.
Another trend that emerge in the 1920s for women’s cocktail watches was the hidden watch. “Clear perspex was not used on watch dials until the late 1930s,” says Green. “Until that point glass was used, which was breakable. The standard protection was a Hunter case, either full or half, but that wasn’t particularly elegant.” People making women’s watches made these forms of protection more feminine by making a covering that was more like jewellery.
Green also has an interesting theory about why hidden watches rose to prominence in the 1920s. “Just think about what an energetic dance like the Charleston could do to a glass-covered dial. No wonder they wanted a more robust form of protection.”
Or “let the buyer beware”, which is Green’s final advice to anyone looking to purchase a vintage watch. “Anything can happen, especially when buying at auction. The only way you can tell the condition is by looking inside and you don’t get to do that at auctions.” Green also points out that auction houses aren’t covered by the Sale of Goods and Trades Description Acts so those descriptions in catalogues are generally viewed as the auctioneers opinion rather than stated fact.
Green recommends only dealing with people who are part of Lapada – The Association of Art and Antiques Dealers – which means they have standards they have to abide by.
This may make it seem like there are loads of daunting things to consider when trying to find a vintage watch but once you find that special piece it will make all the leg work feel worth it.
After all, in the words of the Dowager Countess: “Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle class.”
All watches in this post are available from Anthony Green Antiques. Downton Abbey, series five, starts on ITV on Sunday, September 21 at 9pm.