Of Fausses Montres, or Dummy Watches

Curious as it may seem, there was a fashion in England for wearing fake or dummy watches which began in the late eighteenth century and that fashion contined into the latter half of the nineteenth century. There were quite a few people who followed that fashion during the Regency, both men and women. In addition, there were many false watches which had been worn in the years before the Regency which could still have been found in the accessory drawers and jewel boxes of many homes across Britain during our favorite period. One of these quaint and singular personal objects might be just the thing to incorporate into the plot of a Regency romance.

A brief chronicle of fake watches through the Regency . . .

The first timepieces which were made small enough to be carried by people on their persons were developed in Germany in the sixteenth century. Called "clock-watches" in England, they were large, bulky, heavy objects which had only an hour hand and the dial was protected with a filigree metal cover. Typically, these early timepieces had to be wound at least twice a day and they kept very poor time. These clock-watches were primarily worn around the neck as status symbols by wealthy men. The name for these devices is believed to have derived in part from the fact that the watchmen who moved through the streets of most cities and towns each night regularly called out the hour as they passed. These watchmen also had to keep track of the time in order to know when to begin and end their shifts. Thus, though these small, portable timepieces were initially called "clock-watches" in Britain, before the end of the century, the name was shortened to simply "watch."

By the seventeenth century, watches had become smaller, a minute hand had been added to the hour hand, and the dial was then usually covered with glass rather than filigree metal. These watches were more accurate than those that had come before and many could run for a at least twenty-four hours when fully wound. Though these more modern watches were smaller than those from the previous century, they were still so large and heavy that men, rather than women, typically wore watches. However, after King Charles II set the fashion for wearing waistcoats, watches were no longer worn around the neck. Instead, they were carried in the waistcoat pocket. For that reason, they came to be known as pocket watches and over time, they were designed to fit even more conveniently into a waistcoat pocket. Though these small timepieces had originally been invented in Germany, by the seventeenth century, British watch-makers were acknowledged as the premier watch designers and craftsmen in all Europe. British watchmakers maintained their reputation for producing high-quality timepieces for the affluent and the elite right though the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth.

In the 1770s, a number of macaronis, the extreme male fashionistas of the eighteenth century, were looking for some means by which to distinguish themselves from the average man on the street. At that time, most men of means carried a watch, but watches had become smaller and more decorative. At the same time, waistcoats had become much shorter. Therefore, watches emerged from waistcoat pockets and were being worn as fobs which were suspended from the waistbands of breeches. Naturally, macaronis, who had to do fashion one better, took it into their heads that they would wear two watches, with the chains and seals for each dangling down on either side of their breeches. The most affluent macaronis could afford to own two watches. However, watches were still very expensive and not all of those who aspired to follow the new double-watch fashion could afford to own two of them. By the 1780s, that problem had been solved with the introduction of false or dummy watches, usually known as fausses montres, since the French term was considered much more elegant and sophisticated. At about the same time, many of the most fashionable ladies began wearing a pair of watches at their waist as well.

Initially, a fausse montre or a dummy watch, was a simple gilt metal or pinchbeck disk about the size of a watch case, with a false watch dial often decorated with colored foil. These inexpensive fake watches could be worn to give the impression the owner was wearing two watches, in keeping with the current fashion, without breaking their budget. In some cases, the dummy watches were made to match the real watch worn by that person, in other cases, they might be of a very different style. A matching dummy watch was typically hung from chains which matched the one from which the real watch was hung, while mis-matched watches were often hung from very different styles of chains. According to the rules of the double-watch fashion, the real watch was to be worn on the person’s left side while the dummy watch, the fausse montre, was to be worn on their right side.

Even before the 1780s came to an end, fashionable people with deep pockets began to acquire fausses montres which were just as richly embellished as their real watches. False watches were made of gold or silver, with enamelled watch dials and many were encrusted with multiple precious and semi-precious gem stones. Some dummy watches had enamelled pictures, often miniature portraits, on the back, while others were made like a locket with the image on the inside of the back cover. Some ladies had their fausse montre made with a pincushion on the back, to hold a few pins while they were out and about. Typically, these pincushions were made with sumptuous fabrics such as velvets, silk damasks or brocades. A few of the most luxurious false watch pincushions were made with richly embroidered fabrics or petit point. Some of the most complex fausses montres had a pincushion on the back and that opened to reveal an enameled or hand-painted miniature inside.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, though fausses montres did not tell time, some of them were nearly as complex internally as an actual watch. Among the most costly were those which had small wheel-works inside that played a musical tune when a catch was released. In others, the wheel-works mechanism animated a small vignette. One of the most favored of these mechanisms was a tiny moving model of the solar system, to the extent it was then known. Smaller false watches might contain just the moon and a few stars which revolved when the mechanism was wound up. A very few of the most ostentatious fausses montres had internal mechanisms which could play a tune and animate a small scene simultaneously. In some cases, the fausse montre might cost as much, or more, than the real watch that was worn with it.

During the last decades of the eighteenth century, and into the first decades of the nineteenth century, it had become common practice to give fausses montres as gifts. This practice was particularly popular among members of the British royal family. The royal children of King George III were known to give elegant custom-made fausses montres to one another to mark special occasions. Other people also gave fausses montres as gifts, though they were more likely to purchase standard designs from the local jeweler or goldsmith in their area than have one custom-made. These false watches could range from very simple, inexpensive metal disks with a watch dial on one side, to extremely complex objects which contained miniature paintings as well as delicate wheel-work mechanisms which played music or animated tiny scenes. A great many of these fausses montres had been made by the time the Regency began. Whether or not they were still being worn, they could be found in the jewel boxes and toiletry cases of quite a number of people throughout Britain.

The practice of wearing two watches went in and out of fashion over the course of the century, between 1770 and 1870. They seem to have been particularly popular during the 1780s and 1790s, with both men and women. In the early years of the nineteenth century the practice was considered rather old-fashioned, though a few older folks still continued to wear two watches. However, by the middle of the Regency, it appears that the practice was coming back into fashion, though more often with women than with men. The Regency men most likely to wear a pair of watches were the most frivolous of the dandies, those who did not follow the dictums of Beau Brummell, who urged restraint in personal ornament for men.

Today, reliable watches can be had a quite reasonable prices, and there are some people who do wear two of them. But in most cases, both of those watches are real and their owners typically wear them in order to keep track of the time in two separate time zones. During the Regency, the concept of time zones had not yet been introduced, everyone lived their lives based on their local time. Those folks who wore a real and a dummy watch during the Regency did so to observe a fashion which had been introduced decades before. Many of the fausses montres which had been made in those earlier decades had survived into the Regency, and could be found in a number of British homes, even if the residents of those homes no longer chose to wear them paired with a real watch.

Dear Regency Authors, might you be able to find a use for a fausse montre in one of your upcoming romances? Perhaps a crotchety elderly lady has always worn her two watches and becomes quite cross when someone criticizes her fashion choice. Or, will she become extremely agitated when her fausse montre goes missing because it contained her favorite miniature portrait of her deceased husband? Mayhap the heroine treasures a fausse montre which belonged to her mother, finding the pincushion on the back convenient to carry in her reticule. But is she unaware of the secret hidden inside, a mechanism which animates a tiny scene that triggers long-suppressed memories of important events in her youth? Then again, the hero, who plays the part of an extreme fop as he spies for the Crown, might carry secret message inside his fausse montre. Will that same fausse montre also play a tune by which he identifies himself to his fellow agents of espionage? How else might a false watch, a fausse montre play a part in an upcoming Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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9 Responses to Of Fausses Montres, or Dummy Watches

  1. Funnily enough I have a supposed fop who is a spy; I’ve already used a frisky snuff box which was used to conceal secrets. I’ve just had a thought about using a pin cushion to pass messages, with the patterns set in pins meaning something to one who sees them… but I might well use these in a house party I’m writing at the moment, as small prizes for games played.

  2. it’s eighteen twelve, so maybe the timing is wrong.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      “timing is wrong.” Nice pun! 😉

      So far as I could discover, the fashion lasted for about a century, on and off over the years. But even when dummy watches were supposedly out of style, some people still wore them. So, I think you can use one in a story whenever you like. Plus, I can see where wearing a false watch when they were not in style would make people think the person doing so was a little out of step with the rest of the world, which could work well for someone trying to construct a cover of not being especially sharp.



  3. elfahearn says:

    What a charming custom! I love the idea of having these fake watches play tiny scenes or show the passing of the moon.
    But I have a totally unrelated question, Kat. I’ve been looking for a source explaining what happens at a lavish come out ball. Is the debutant announced by a Master of Ceremonies at the summit of an majestic staircase, or is there a receiving line, or both? Do you have any ideas where I can look?

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