Monday, March 12, 2007

Watch built from Bone! Wood you believe?

Ok, 40,000 unique visitors to The Watchismo Times in two days caught my attention - Due in part to the all-wood pocket watch story picked up by Digg and BoingBoing. Well, if you really want to know more, I got the lowdown on who made these amazing handbuilt & handcarved mechanical watches made entirely of wood, ivory or bone (except for mainspring, balance spring and pivots). A horological dynasty is responsible, the Bronnikov family from Vjatka, Russia. The earliest model appearing in 1837 and rumored to have been purchased by the future Czar, Alexander II. A tradition carried out through the 1800s into the early 20th century by Semyon's sons Mikhail and Nicolai - Producing only one watch per month with approximately 500 ever made, and of those only about 250 have survived today. More about the history below the photos...

Pictured above, the 1865 'Bone Watch'.
Double-body, hinged back cover, polished, bezels with turned ribs at the edges, a small circle in the center. Chain: single and double links, carved from bone, 8 mm ring-links. D. Bone with Arabic numerals on circular cartouches, subsidiary seconds. Bone hands. Made entirely made of bone with pinned bone bridges, excluding the main-spring, balance-spring and pivots, with going barrel, cylinder escapement with bone staff, plain bone three-arm balance, bone index regulator. Back cover signed in Cyrillic. Diam. 50 mm. Selling at auction in 2005 for over $25,000 USD. Close-up photo-->Link

1865 'Birch Watch' Wood case, movement, bone hands, numbers and handcarved wood chain.
Close-up photo-->Link

Bronnikov's inventive design features a movement which is an integral part of the case, the dial which serves as the pillar plate and the bridges and cock supported by brackets milled in the back part of the band. The same idea was later employed by the celebrated Albert Potter. Bronnikov, A family living in Vjatka, Russia, which specialized in the making of all-wood, and all-ivory watches. The first recorded member of the family was Ivan Bronnikov (c. 1770 - 1860), a skillful joiner and turner. Upon the occasion of an exhibition in 1837, the Vjatka Industrial Town Council asked Ivan to exhibit some objects of his making. He refused, saying he was too old, but that his son, Semyon Ivanovitch (1800 - 1875) would contribute "some small thing". This turned out to be a pocket watch entirely carved out of wood which greatly impressed everyone. It is said that the future Czar Alexander II, then visiting Vjatka, purchased the watch. Encouraged by this success, Semyon continued the manufacture of wood and ivory watches. Semyon had seven sons. Of them, Mikhail Semyonovitch and Nicolai Semyonovitch continued his work, as did Mikhail's son Nicolai Mikhailovitch, who was the last watchmaker in the family.

Vjatka is an important metallurgical center, which suggests that it was not for the lack of metal in the area that the Bronnikovs made wooden watches. Indeed, it would appear that their predilection for wood and ivory and bone was the result of a specific and deliberate choice. As opposed to metal, wood is not subject to the thermal variations created by very warm and extremely cold temperatures. All-wood watches were more expensive than god ones, selling for approximately 120 rubles whereas a gold watch cost from 90 to 100 rubles. The clockwork parts were made of various woods, including walnut, honeysuckle, boxwood, and hardened bamboo ; the cases from birchwood, or boxwood, and the dials were often decorated with ivory or mother-of-pearl. Bronnikov watches feature an unusual type of construction: rather than having the wheels installed between two plates as is usually the case, the dial also serves as the pillar plate, as well as being an integral part of the case. These watches were not intended for everyday use but rather as expensive and rare souvenirs. This was not the first use of wood as applied to watch mechanisms, however: the Russian mechanician Kulibin used wood for some parts of his clocks and "pendulum watches". Skorodumov, a peasant of the Burga village in the Novgorod region, also used wood as the main material for his watches.

As to the number of Bronnikov watches produced, it seems likely that the three watchmaking generations of the Bronnikov family may have made some 500 watches; the production of a greater number would have required an existing watchmaking industry in the town, which seems not to have been the case. The number of surviving Bronnikov watches has been estimated at approximately 250. Although many - but not all - Bronnikov watches are signed, they do not always carry the initials of the maker, making it sometimes difficult to determine which Bronnikov made the watch. The signature is carved on the inside of the back cover.

History and photos by Antiquorum

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