Collection online

watch-case / skull watch

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    1874,0718.41

  • Escapement

  • Description

    SILVER CASED VERGE WATCH IN THE FORM OF A HUMAN SKULL. . MOVEMENT FRAME: Full-plate with circular gilt-brass plates and four baluster pillars. : MAINSPRING & SET-UP: Gilt-brass barrel with tangent-screw set-up mounted on the potence-plate. : FUSEE & STOP-WORK: Gilt-brass fusee with chain and English stop-work. : TRAIN: Four wheel train, the contrate wheel solid. : ESCAPEMENT & BALANCE: Verge escapement, the crown wheel running between riveted potence and counter-potence. There have been extensive alterations to both potence and counter-potence suggesting that the crown wheel is most likely to be a replacement. Verge and steel 2-arm balance not original. The pierced and engraved gilt-brass foliate balance cock is also a replacement. There are a number of vacant holes,both threaded and plain, in the potence-plate where it appears that the original balance cock was replaced by a balance bridge and balance spring. : DIAL & HAND: An engraved border on the front of the pillar-plate surrounds the pinned-on silver dial which has Roman hours I-XII, arrow-head half-hour marks and a quarter circle. The blued-steel hand is a replacement. : CASE: Silver case in the form of a human skull, the lower plate, including the lower jaw being hinged at the back. On top there is a cover for the winding hole. Silver hanging loop. There are inscriptions in various places on the outside of the skull. Movement hinged to case at XII.

    More 

  • Producer name

  • Date

    • 1655-1665
  • Production place

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 38.5 millimetres (case, including loop)
    • Width: 32 millimetres
    • Thickness: 36.5 millimetres
  • Inscriptions

      • Inscription Type

        signature
      • Inscription Content

        J C Vuolf [potence-plate]
      • Inscription Type

        inscription
      • Inscription Position

        all on the outside of the skull.
      • Inscription Content

        vita fugitur
        aesterna respice
        caduca despice
        incertita hora (with an engraved sand-glass]
      • Inscription Comment

        see curators comment for translation
  • Curator's comments

    Bibliography: Good, Richard, WATCHES IN COLOUR, Poole 1978, plate 3.Text from 'Watches', by David Thompson, London, 2008, p. 46-47.

    Johann Conrad Wolf

    SILVER CASED VERGE WATCH IN THE FORM OF A SKULL
    DONAUWÖRTH, GERMANY, c. 1660

    SIGNED: 'J C Vuolf

    The miniature human skull as a memento mori and symbol of death has a long history dating back to the medieval period. During the seventeenth century there was a fashion for watches in this form, which were perhaps taken more seriously than they might be today. Quite a number of examples survive, perhaps the most famous of which is the so-called 'Mary Queen of Scots' skull watch, now in the collections of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers at the Guildhall in London. Recently this has been shown to be spurious: although a genuine example of a large-scale seventeenth-century skull watch, it had no connection with Mary Stuart, who was executed nearly two centuries before the watch was made.
    This watch is signed 'J C Vuolf'; probably this was Johann Conrad Wolf, who was born in Worms but is recorded in 1638 in the town of Donauwörth, just to the north of Augsburg, in the direction of Nuremberg and close to Friedberg. The movement of this watch does not inspire any great interest, being a standard verge with fusee. The existence of a four-wheel going train and a fusee chain suggests that the watch dates from the second half of the seventeenth century, but from before the introduction of the balance spring: a date of 1660-70 would be appropriate. There are also a number of now vacant holes in the movement's back plate where a balance bridge and geared regulator were fixed when the watch was modernized to operate with a balance spring. All these added components have since been removed and a new balance cock and balance installed, which give a seventeenth-century appearance but are nonetheless modern. The early modernization also necessitated the modification of the right-hand blued-steel set-up bracket, which is now riveted to the plate, unlike its left-hand partner, which is properly screwed on. A plain dial with only an engraved chapter ring is also a feature found in German watches of this period, particularly in Friedberg and Augsburg, two active centres of watchmaking at the time.
    More interesting than the movement and dial is the cast silver skull itself. The construction is typical, with the lower jaw and bottom of the skull opening to reveal the dial and all three elements - movement, upper skull and lower skull - hinging together at the back. Around the top of the skull are four inscriptions: 'vita fugitur' (life is fleeting), engraved across the front temple; 'caduca despice' (look down upon a fallen thing), over the right side; 'aesterna respice' (look upon eternity), over the top of the left side; and finally, at the back of the skull, an engraving of an hour glass flanked by the words 'incerta hora' (the hour [of death] is uncertain). All these phrases provide timely reminders of the fleeting nature of life and are, of course, fully in keeping with a memento mori skull watch. A similar watch, containing a movement by Johann Georg Engelschalk, now in the Württembergisches Landesmuseum in Stuttgart, has similar Latin inscriptions on the skull, including 'caduca despice' and 'aeterna respice'. While not identical, these two watches would seem to come from a common tradition and it is possible that the two skulls were made by the same craftsman, perhaps in Augsburg.

    More 

  • Bibliography

    • Thompson 2014 bibliographic details
    • Wood 1866 p.300 bibliographic details
    • Thompson 2008 pp.46-47 bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G39/dc14/no14

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1874

  • Department

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory

  • Registration number

    1874,0718.41

SILVER CASED VERGE WATCH IN THE FORM OF A HUMAN SKULL. . MOVEMENT FRAME: Full-plate with circular gilt-brass plates and four baluster pillars. : MAINSPRING & SET-UP: Gilt-brass barrel with tangent-screw set-up mounted on the potence-plate. : FUSEE & STOP-WORK: Gilt-brass fusee with chain and English stop-work. : TRAIN: Four wheel train, the contrate wheel solid. : ESCAPEMENT & BALANCE: Verge escapement, the crown wheel running between riveted potence and counter-potence. There have been extensive alterations to both potence and counter-potence suggesting that the crown wheel is most likely to be a replacement. Verge and steel 2-arm balance not original. The pierced and engraved gilt-brass foliate balance cock is also a replacement. There are a number of vacant holes,both threaded and plain, in the potence-plate where it appears that the original balance cock was replaced by a balance bridge and balance spring. : DIAL & HAND: An engraved border on the front of the pillar-plate surrounds the pinned-on silver dial which has Roman hours I-XII, arrow-head half-hour marks and a quarter circle. The blued-steel hand is a replacement. : CASE: Silver case in the form of a human skull, the lower plate, including the lower jaw being hinged at the back. On top there is a cover for the winding hole. Silver hanging loop. There are inscriptions in various places on the outside of the skull. Movement hinged to case at XII.

3/4: Left

SILVER CASED VERGE WATCH IN THE FORM OF A HUMAN SKULL. . MOVEMENT FRAME: Full-plate with circular gilt-brass plates and four baluster pillars. : MAINSPRING & SET-UP: Gilt-brass barrel with tangent-screw set-up mounted on the potence-plate. : FUSEE & STOP-WORK: Gilt-brass fusee with chain and English stop-work. : TRAIN: Four wheel train, the contrate wheel solid. : ESCAPEMENT & BALANCE: Verge escapement, the crown wheel running between riveted potence and counter-potence. There have been extensive alterations to both potence and counter-potence suggesting that the crown wheel is most likely to be a replacement. Verge and steel 2-arm balance not original. The pierced and engraved gilt-brass foliate balance cock is also a replacement. There are a number of vacant holes,both threaded and plain, in the potence-plate where it appears that the original balance cock was replaced by a balance bridge and balance spring. : DIAL & HAND: An engraved border on the front of the pillar-plate surrounds the pinned-on silver dial which has Roman hours I-XII, arrow-head half-hour marks and a quarter circle. The blued-steel hand is a replacement. : CASE: Silver case in the form of a human skull, the lower plate, including the lower jaw being hinged at the back. On top there is a cover for the winding hole. Silver hanging loop. There are inscriptions in various places on the outside of the skull. Movement hinged to case at XII.

Image description

Recommend


Feedback

If you’ve noticed a mistake or have any further information about this object, please email: collectiondatabase@britishmuseum.org 

View open data for this object with SPARQL endpoint

Object reference number: MCC375

British Museum collection data is also available in the W3C open data standard, RDF, allowing it to join and relate to a growing body of linked data published by organisations around the world.

View this object

Support the Museum:
donate online

The Museum makes its collection database available to be used by scholars around the world. Donations will help support curatorial, documentation and digitisation projects.

About the database

The British Museum collection database is a work in progress. New records, updates and images are added every week.

More about the database 

Supporters

Work on this database is supported by a range of sponsors, donors and volunteers.

More about supporters and how you
can help  

Loading...