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Vintage Harwood Watches For Sale
The vintage self-winding Harwood watch is of enormous interest to the horological scholar and serious collector. These models were the first ever commercially produced automatic wristwatches and are rare and collectible today, not least because they were only produced for less than two and a half years. They first appeared at the Basle Fair in 1929 and the company closed its doors for the final time in September 1931, largely due to it not having the financial resources to weather the enormous decline in the luxury goods market that accompanied the worldwide depression that occurred in the late 20’s and early 30’s after the Wall Street Crash.
The sheer build quality and ingenuity of these Harwood automatics is quite remarkable, and it is of the tragic stories of the development of the wristwatch that the company never enjoyed the success that in a more favourable economic climate it would have undoubtedly enjoyed and most certainly deserved.
Though produced in Switzerland, the fascinating story of the Harwood Company is a proudly British one. John Harwood, the son of a watchmaker himself, came from Bolton, Lancashire and first had the idea for an automatic, self-winding watch while serving at the front in France during World War I. In the appalling trench warfare conditions, Harwood noticed that his conventionally wound wristwatch stopped regularly, the cause of this being usually either the ingress of dust or water into the watch case, or simply because, distracted understandably by the carnage and activity around him, he had failed to wind his timepiece.
In what can only be classed as a stroke of inspired genius, this innovative young man realised that a solution to both problems could be potentially be found by creating an automatic watch that wound itself. This would continue to run for as long as its wearer wore the watch for normal everyday tasks and, because a manual winding crown was no longer needed to wind the watch, the case could be made both water and dust proof, the difficulty with creating waterproof watches in the past always having been the problems associated with effectively sealing a winding crown. In Harwood’s design, the setting of the hands would be accomplished by the rotating of a milled bezel, a feature that in terms of elegance and satisfaction of use, has ever been improved upon.
Technically, the winding system utilised on these models was the “bumper” type, so nicknamed by wristwatch enthusiasts due to it relying on a pivoted oscillating weight that “bumps” backward and forward through an arc of roughly 300 degrees with the motion of the wearer’s wrist. This winding mass was mounted on both sides of the movement, but was capable of winding the watch when moving in only one direction. To prevent this weight from causing shock to the rest of the movement, its travel was arrested in both directions by a pair of perfectly finished buffer springs that additionally help to “bounce” the winding hammer back in the direction from whence it came. To prevent over-winding, Harwood invented, and eventually included in his patent, a blade spring mechanism that held the friction plate in position, therefore creating a clutch that disengaged the winding operation when maximum operating spring tension was attained.
For something developed in the early 1920’s, these beautiful movements are incredibly advanced, a feat all the more remarkable as the first prototypes were developed and tested, not by one of the major Swiss horological houses, but by John Harwood himself, together with his financial backer businessman Harry Cutts, in the former’s tiny watchmaker’s workshop back in Douglas on the Isle of Man, where Harwood settled after his return from the trenches. The whole story of the vintage Harwood watch is one dogged with irony, as despite having applied for formal registration of their idea of a self winding wristwatch on October 16th 1923 and having this granted relatively quickly with the Patent Number 106583 on September 1st 1924, it proved almost impossible to find a Swiss manufacturer to agree to produce these items, so lacking in confidence were they in this alien new concept of the watch that wound itself.
It took another four years, and two separate trips to Switzerland, the first of which met with almost no enthusiasm, before Harwood was able to persuade a manufacturer, Anton Schild S.A. to produce a run of these movements for him. This arrangement only came about after Harwood managed to gain backing from two brothers in Manchester, Louis and Phillip Alexander, who had the foresight to appreciate that self-winding timepieces were a viable proposition. This funding was used to cover the cost of all tooling and labour for the start of manufacture, therefore ensuring that the endeavour was risk free from the point of view of the Swiss producer, regardless of whether the watches were sold or not.
Considering now the all pervasive success of the automatic watch in the following decades, it is quite astonishing that the major Swiss houses were so conservative in their thinking that only Schild and Walter Vogt, the owner of the Fortis company, who agreed to supply the complicated cases for Harwood could see that this concept was the way forward for the future.
Despite this rather slow start, John Harwood retained his conviction that the automatic watch was a major breakthrough and prudently retained all commercial rights to his idea. This proved to be a wise move, as in 1928, he issued production licences to both Blancpain, who manufactured the Harwood calibre for exclusive sale in France and Spain, and to the specially formed “Perpetual Selfwinding Watch company” in the United States and Canada. As an aside, notice how, after the demise of Harwood, the “Perpetual” tag was taken up and trademarked as the title of the self winding watches by the most famous of all the Swiss watch making concerns.
As an investment, the Harwood must be the almost perfect vintage watch. Trends in wristwatches come and go, often in a cyclical fashion over several decades, but the significance of the Harwood is forever cast in stone as the very first automatic, self winding wristwatch. There is a silver cased Harwood, also from 1929, on permanent display in the British Museum ( catalogue number CAI 1179) and John Harwood received the British Horological Institute’s Gold Medal in 1957, this only having been given on a handful of occasions in the last century, to such luminaries as Frank Dyson, the Astronomer Royal, in 1928, Harold Spencer Jones, the inventor of the Broadcast Time Service in 1947, and, more recently, George Daniels, the gentleman almost universally considered today to be the most talented living watchmaker. If vintage watches are collected five hundred years from now, this achievement still remains unchanged and because of this, the definitive nature of the Harwood’s place in horological history, it can never fall from favour or become passé.
Finding the best surviving Harwood watches isn’t an easy task. We’ve dealt in these models for over twenty years and are well aware that the majority that circulate today are mechanically life expired, having all too often been neglected for decades. It is noticeable that we don’t get offered as many Harwoods as we did even a decade ago, simply because most of the collectors who own them are well aware of their investment potential and have no intention of selling.
At any given point, we typically have five or six vintage Harwood watches for sale, maybe a couple in silver and another three or four in gold. While certainly not the cheapest, these do represent the most original and best cared for examples of their type and would be perfectly suited to museum display. It is hard to imagine anyone attempting to wear a vintage Harwood as their everyday wristwatch, but they do make spectacular and quirky pieces in any serious collection and are something will always be a talking point when shown to other antique watch enthusiasts.