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What is Damaskeening on a Pocket Watch Movement?

Damaskeening: Decorative Visual Embellishment of the Watch Movement

Damascus steel showing intricate patterns

Forging patterns in Damascus steel

The term "damaskeening" or "damascening" refers to the technique of decorating or embellishing the plates or bridges of the watch movement with beautiful and intricate engine-applied patterns. While the origin of the term "damaskeening" is unclear, it may be a reference to the swirling patterns found in Damascus steel.

Damaskeening is a term that was unique to the American watch industry. Similar embellishment techniques were used in Europe, but they bore names which described the particular style of embellishment. For instance, "pearlage" is a pattern of repeating dots or circles (example below), and "Cotes de Geneve" refers to a pattern of stripes.

But nowhere was the art of embellishment carried to the levels seen on American pocket watch movements produced in the late 1800s and early 1900s. High-grade American movements from that era were, in this watchmaker's opinion, some of the most spectacular examples of watch embellishment ever achieved.

Origins and Engines of Damaskeening

The practice of damaskeening was first introduced to American watchmakers by F. Wilmot of Imier Switzerland, who first taught the technique to the movement finishers at U.S. Watch Company of Marion, New Jersey in about 1868, and then to other watch manufacturers. Specialized machines or "engines" were produced to apply the intricate patterns to the watch plates using spinning abrasive laps, often made of wood or ivory.

"Rose-engines" were capable of producing intricate circular patterns, similar in style to a child's "Spirograph" toy. "Line-engines" produced line-oriented patterns, with intricate waves and ripples that can appear almost 3-dimensional. Line engines can also produce "basket-weave" and checker-board patterns. Multiple patterns were often combined on one watch, and the damaskeening tool could be "centered" on any point of the watch plate. These engines, similar in appearance to a machinist's lathe, often employed a movable headstock which was controlled by a cam called a "rosette." In the hands of a skilled operator, the patterns produced could be endlessly varied by changing the cams which would then alter the oscillation of the watch plate to produce amazingly intricate designs.

Waltham began damaskeening their movements in the late 1860s, and Elgin followed suit by the early 1870s. By the late 1870s the practice was widespread with companies like Waltham, Elgin, Hamilton, Illinois, Rockford, Seth Thomas and others striving to outdo eachother with the beauty and intricacy of their damaskeened movements.

Hamilton continued to use a simplified bar damaskeening, similar to Geneva Stripes or "Cotes de Geneve," with concentric circles on the winding and ratchet wheels, on many of their higher-end movements well into the mid-1900s (see Hamilton 950B below). Other makers also continued to embellish their movements with simple damaskeening, but the practice of elaborate, intricate damaskeening peaked in the early 1900s.

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Gallery of Damaskeened American Pocket Watch Movements

Below are just a few examples of beautifully damaskeened American pocket watch movements. It's very difficult to capture the intricate damaskeening patterns with a photograph, nor can a photo capture the 3-dimensional spirals and rays that can dance across the movement when the light reflects in a certain way. But these photos give an idea of the extraordinary lengths that watch manufacturers went to in order to embellish their watches.

Left: Waltham "Crescent St.", 16s, Mod 1908, ca. 1915; Right: Illinois "Sears-Roebuck", 6s, Grade 164, ca. 1898.

Left: Hamilton Mod 2, Grade 927,18s, ca. 1909; Right: Elgin Mod 7, Grade No. 349,18s, ca. 1909

Left: Hamilton Mod 6, Grade 950B, 16s, ca. 1955; Right: Hamilton 926, ca. 1905

Left: Waltham Vanguard, Mod 1892, ca. 1902; Right: Waltham Appleton-Tracy, Mod 1892, ca. 1898

Left: Illinois 18s Model 6 "Bunn", ca. 1908; Right: Rockford 18s Model 9, Grade 910, ca. 1898

Beauty in Unexpected Places

The efforts of American watch manufacturers to make their watch movements beautiful extended to the embellishment of interior surfaces of the watch which were not even visible to the watch-buying public. As a watchmaker, I often marvel at how much effort was expended to decorate a watch in places that no one ever sees except another watchmaker when working on the watch. I doubt that any manufacturer today would invest the time and labor necessary to embellish a watch in places the customer would never see. If you are a person who values precision craftsmanship, this is yet another reason why higher-grade vintage American pocket watches represent a level of hand-crafted quality that simply can't be found anymore... at any price!

Left: "Pearlage" on entire base-plate of Elgin movement;
Right: Damaskeeing on lid of mainspring barrel (englarged, of course)