How to Decipher a Monogram on a Pocket Watch
This article briefly reviews the history of monograms and heraldry, and looks at some of the techniques for reading the monograms found on antique watches.
Any collector, at some stage during their horological meanderings, will stumble across a monogrammed watch. A masterfully executed, high-quality monogram will be ornate, and difficult to decipher. This is because the more skilled the artwork of the jeweler-engraver, the more complex the elements and letters tied together.
A monogram or Wenzel – derived from the Polish word ‘Węzeł-knot’ – is a motif of two or more woven letters, usually of a person’s initials, that overlap to form one symbol. Individuals of noble birth would have their own official monogram, which was affixed to all of their belongings – clothes, carriages, household items such as cutlery, etc. Wealthy families would have monograms that were particularly intricate, decorated with ornate symbols and made with precious stones and jewels.
More often than not, engravers used monogram patterns from a standard catalogues. Local jewelry shops and watch ateliers would offer a selection of different styles and patterns from which to any could be chosen and engraved on a timepiece from the shop stock.
The Popularisation of Monogrammed Pocket Watches
Monograms are an ancient art form, having been found on Greek coins dating as far back as 350 BC. A little closer to the period during which clocks were popularised, monograms are mentioned in 1818 in Rees’s Encyclopaedia, where it says the following:
“… Formerly, when merchants and tradesmen were not allowed to use armorial bearings they had cyphers thus artificially composed in their stead; which mostly consisted of the first letters of their names, curiously intertwined about a cross, &c. of which many instances remain on ancient tombs: but the custom still obtains among persons of various ranks in life, as an ornamental device, especially on seals, or carriages. This practice has, indeed, been increased of late, to avoid the annual tax of two guineas imposed in Great Britain on those who paint their family arms upon carriages.”
Deciphering a Complex Monogram
A skilfully made monogram will be perceivable not as a set of letters, but as a complex work of graphic art. However, it should also be possible to decipher with the naked eye and remembered without difficulty. A traditional monogram contains two letters which are read from left to right, although often artist-jewelers attempted to entertain and confuse the viewer with a more complicated design.
If more than two letters were to be designed into a monogram, then either the letters were put in a row, or they were superimposed onto each other. These types of monograms were called a cypher (“cipher” in French).
To decipher a complex monogram, it must be perceived as a three-dimensional image in which the first letter is pushed to the foreground, with the second letter behind it, and the third in the background.
Monograms for Men and Women
There was no strict rule regarding the ownership of monograms, but it is possible to determine which gender they belonged to, according to some design traditions.
- Men’s monogram: Two letters, first and last name.
- Women’s monogram: First letter of the name with many ornate swirls in an intricate frame.
- Children’s monogram: One easy-to-read letter in a simple frame.
- Wedding (family) monogram: Two letters of the newlywed’s name’s, sometimes with a large third letter of the surname interwoven between them.
Presumably this was a wedding monogram, as the intertwined letters “E” and “K” are made with intentionally different fonts (bride and groom).
Pre-revolutionary Russian monograms are most commonly made according to a catalogue of the European traditions of the time. Below is a typical monogram from the catalogue, hand-carved with a cutter onto the smooth lid of the pocket watch.
Royal monograms are described in detail in the literature and are similar to high-quality Swiss models.
After the revolution of 1917 and the period of New Economic Policy in Russia, monograms on objects was considered a relic of the past, and it almost disappeared from circulation in the Russian-speaking world. At best, you might occasionally find some initials engraved in a rush, without any artistic interpretation.
However, there is always an exception to the rule, here seen in the ‘veteran’ watch ‘Pobeda’ of 1955, with its ornate initials on the lid. The skill of the engraver is clearly much lesser than those who carved the older models, but this problem is overcome by the desire to imitate the great works that came before. To be honest, I still don’t fully understand what kind of letters are used – although it could potentially be the Georgian or Armenian alphabet.
By the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the craft of engraving had reached maturity both in terms of the complication and interweaving of the image, and in manufacturing techniques. Below are three samples of watches from the Swiss company Patek Phillipe, bearing high-end monograms: neat integration of the monogram into the guilloche surface on the lid, coloured thin-walled hot enamel, and an overhead volumetric gold monogram with a circumference of the volume of the lid.
The Art Deco era significantly influenced monogram designs, and from the 1920’s onwards a variety of geometric patterns can be found, as well as some unexpected ways of designing the initials.
After the second half of the 20th century monograms experienced a further simplification in their design, most commonly reduced to a pair of initials in a formal font and without decorations or embellishments. Nevertheless, there can still be found some absolutely wonderful, intricate combinations of letters, in those rare cases where the engraver approached the creation of the case not only with the skill of his hands, but also with the love in his soul.
Of course, a notable historically significant monogram will raise the value of a watch by quite a bit. Forgers use this fact to their advantage, as it is easy to take an inconspicuous old pocket watch, engrave a monogram and/or a gift signature on it, and then charge a high price for it as a significant historical artefact. Often, counterfeit traders will advertise the watch with accompanying notes, documents, or photos of the apparent original owner. It is almost always a con – usually the documents are in no way connected with the watch, the serial number or branding of the watch are not corroborated in the documents, the famous individual in the photo never owned a watch, etc.
With regards to the techniques for creating fakes, modern day scammers have mastered almost all methods – including using complex enamel – and this is very sad. Even reliable auction houses with sometimes sell watches with fake monograms. See the below example of the fake “Masonic” Yusupov watch:
“A few years ago, at the Vernissage market, I was offered a repeater mechanism from the 1820s with a rare Masonic dial. I didn’t buy it, but the photos on my phone were saved. A couple of years later, exactly the same movement with the same serial number appeared at the famous Geneva watch auction. Now it is presented in a gold case with the attributes of the royal family, on the lid is the monogram of Nikolai Borisovich Yusupov.
“The coat of arms and monogram were attached, and in the description everything was convincingly indicated as the original. The item was sold for 45,000 Swiss francs. If it were not for the story of the Vernissage and the coincidence of the serial number, it would be difficult to doubt the originality of the photos…”
Nevertheless, an experienced eye will be able to distinguish the new and fake from the real and old. A useful technique is to look at the object under a microscope and study the technique used for the engraving. If the engraving looks fresher and newer than the rest of the object, without any old dirt stuck in the cracks, then this is cause for suspicion. If there is a shiny new monogram on an old, worn out case then this is also cause for alarm – the case underneath a monogram is protected by the material covering it and so could not be worn out. A fake can almost always be discovered.
It is recommended that you avoid purchasing monogrammed watches over the internet without first having them checked in person, under a microscope or by an experienced expert. You should be especially wary of items sold from Eastern Europe, in particular Bulgaria – either blacklist this country from your search, or make sure that every detail of whatever you consider buying is checked under a microscope by an expert. Bulgarian scammers are literally changing the landscape of antique watch markets, flooding them with very believable fakes of items belonging to royal families. Educate yourself – a well-discerning eye will notice a fake even without the help of an expert.
If you have a desire to delve deeper into the history and techniques for interpreting monograms, there is a whole world of fascinating history and factual knowledge to be discovered. This review only touches on the main points, but I hope it has been interesting and useful all the same.
‘The Artistry of the English Watch’ by Cedric Jagger: