What is a Watchcock?

This page includes large graphics, please be patient.

In the 17th and 18th century Baroque art period, time was less insisting, and artisans of the old world devoted countless hours fashioning intricate covers to protect the delicate balance wheels of fine watches. These covers, or watchcocks were placed on the movement and inside the watch cases, thereafter seen only on infrequent occasions when the cases were opened.

A verge fusee watch by E. Hollison Liverpool #332 ca. 1800.

The back of a watch movement, showing the watchcock

All illustrations are approximately three times actual size.

Each watchcock usually began as a thin piece of brass. Once cut to shape, the round plate was pierced, filed painstakingly and hand engraved with intricate designs, and finally firegilded. The composition of the design was usually very elaborate and based on a star, wheel, rosette, architectural form, or even the artisan's name or initials.

Here is the most richly detailed English watchcock
I have ever seen

Examine the Remarkable Coinon Collection

Some interesting cocks owned by an English collector

Three Watchcocks

In the design of each watchcock, one may find birds, dragons, dolphins, lions, snakes, cherubs, heraldic and Masonic symbols, bizarre and grotesque faces, mythological animals, baskets of flowers, urns, or even human heads in full face or profile. The most wondrous fact of all is that each watchcock is truly unique.  No two exactly alike have ever been discovered.

Three Watchcocks

Here is a Gallery of Watchcocks with indications of their age

If you would like to see some of the watches that used these cocks, here is a link to Pieces of Time in Mayfair, London. These are excellent pages by a dealer in antique watches. Click on the early dates in the left frame, then click on a specific watch in the left frame.

Clicking the picture of the watch will show the movement and its cock, clicking the picture of the movement will enlarge it so you can see the detail in the cock.

If you get lost on the pages, click on BY DATE in the extreme upper left of the page to return to the BY DATE listing.

So what happened to the watches?

The short answer - they were scrapped for the gold and silver cases.

Long answer -

These watchcocks were used on watches that utilized the verge escapement for timekeeping. The verge escapement required a constant source of power which necessitated the fusee. The fusee in turn made the watch quite thick and bulky.

The verge escapement had been in use since the 1300's. During the 18th century a number of new escapements emerged. The cylinder, the duplex, and most significantly - the lever. All of these escapements were better timekeepers than the verge and none required the fusee so the watches could be thinner.

Almost overnight the verge watch became obsolete and old-fashioned. Everyone who could afford a watch wanted the new thin stylish watches that kept time.

The watchmakers took in the obsolete verge watches and melted down the precious metal cases for scrap. They threw the movements away. But... some of them took the time to loosen one screw and remove and keep the balance cock. These are the watchcocks you see on these pages. The thousands of beautiful watches they graced are gone for good.

Photographs courtesy of Pieces of Time
More details of the coachwatch illustrated.

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