Passion collecting: time to buy vintage naval chronometers

Words by
Simon De Burton

17th February 2017

Once an essential tool for sailors navigating the high seas, ship’s chronometers are now seen as a collectable object of beauty and craftsmanship.

Anyone with a passing interest in vintage wristwatches will know that the market has soared during the past decade with the rarest models by such sought-after makers as Patek Philippe and Rolex routinely achieving seven-figure sums at auction. 

More recently, this has had the knock-on effect of elevating previously overlooked brands to the point that certain pieces that could have been bought for perhaps £1,000-£2,000 only a few years ago are now making five, 10, even 20 times as much.

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One type of collectable clockwork that still seems relatively undervalued, however, is the ship’s chronometer. 

Before the electronic age, any vessel capable of covering a worthwhile distance would have been equipped with several chronometers since safe and accurate navigation depended on precise timekeeping — a fact brought to the fore in the English horologist John Harrison’s celebrated 43-year struggle to achieve Parliamentary recognition for his efforts to develop a sufficiently accurate clock at sea that would enable the calculation of longitude.

The difficulties of making such a timekeeper, of course, lie in the fact that ships pitch and list, the air around them is often humid and salty and temperatures are ever changing.

All this can send a mechanical movement haywire or cause it to stop altogether. For navigational purposes, a ship’s clock that is 10 minutes slow could result in a miscalculation of 150 nautical miles.

Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres, the official Swiss body for chronometer testing, only certifies a watch or clock that is accurate between minus-four and plus-six seconds per day across a 10-day period in a variety of different positions and temperatures. 

The fact that most ship’s chronometers made a century or more ago can still keep time to at least those tolerances today says something about their quality. Attractive examples can also still be bought for as little as £1,500.

Such prices are due to the vast numbers of ship’s chronometers produced. The highly regarded Swiss maker Ulysse Nardin, for example, is said to have supplied no fewer than 50 of the world’s navies during its chronometer-making heyday in the mid to late 19th century. Other Swiss manufacturers were also making high-grade ship’s chronometers in Germany, France, Italy, America, the Netherlands and the UK. 

An important 19th-century marine chronometer by William Frodsham, used on HMS Beagle, sold at auction for £74,500 in 2014
An important 19th-century marine chronometer by William Frodsham, used on HMS Beagle, sold at auction for £74,500 in 2014

An important 19th-century marine chronometer by William Frodsham, used on HMS Beagle, sold at auction for £74,500 in 2014

If a ship succeeded in making it back to base in one piece, its chronometers invariably survived, too. 

To facilitate the protection of such a vital piece of equipment, most were supplied in beautifully crafted wooden boxes, often with brass bindings and nearly always fitted with a gimbal device from which the instrument was suspended to ensure it remained in as level a position as possible at all times.

Yet while every vintage chronometer that has spent time at sea has a tale to tell, some are more significant than others. In 2014, Bonhams sold a 19th-century example by the respected London maker William Frodsham, which had travelled on HMS Beagle from 1831-1836 when Charles Darwin was conducting studies that led to his famous work On the Origin of Species. Estimated to fetch £30,000- £50,000, it finally sold for £74,500. 

Less than six months later, a Robert Molyneux chronometer that had been used on the Beagle’s second and third voyages also exceeded its estimate, selling for £100,900.

Such prices represent the exception rather than the rule, as the majority of good quality chronometers at auction carry pre-sale estimates of less than £10,000 with most being in the £2,000-5,000 range. 

“Interest in ship’s chronometers has grown during the past 20 years, partly due to Dava Sobel’s book Longitude and the subsequent film, but values only seem to rise very gradually,” says Nigel Rafferty, owner of Rafferty Fine Antique Clocks, one of the UK’s longest established specialists. 

“They are, however, wonderful things in terms of their decorative value, the history behind them and the fact that, by their very nature, they keep almost perfect time.” Raffety says prices depend largely on the maker and the amount of time a chronograph will run for before needing re-winding. 

“Two-day chronometers are usually the most affordable with good quality examples retailing for £5,000-£7,000 , while eight-day examples sell for £10,000-£15,000. We tend to sell to two different types of people — the ones who buy after researching the voyages and history of certain chronometers, and the ones who buy simply because they find them attractive.”

He warns, however, against the temptation to snap up those at apparently bargain prices that aren’t working: “While they were made to withstand life at sea, a chronometer movement that is a century old or more can be very delicate. 

Nowadays, there are very few specialists who can repair them and it is usually an expensive business, so it’s often worth spending a bit extra to buy an example in perfect working order rather than one that needs restoring.”

However, adds Rafferty: “Buy right and you’ll end up with something that’s not only a practical timekeeper, but which looks great on a desk or in a study and will always provide a talking point. Even people with no interest in clocks tend to be fascinated by them.”