Timeless Timepieces: Watches in Art


Since its invention, the watch has been a symbol of wealth, a declaration of personal style, and a practical artform for telling time. Watches from a particular era or historical figure reflect unique aesthetics and values. Although early timepieces were considered a nearly unattainable luxury, watches today are worn by nearly everyone. At the same time that watches became a symbol of wealth, they were used in portraits and still-life paintings as symbols of mortality and the inescapable passage of time. 

History of Watches

The origin of watches began with a necessity for a precise navigation tool. As explorers began to travel across the globe, it was vital to have an accurate timepiece. Latitude was determined by the stars, but accurate local time was needed to determine longitude. This new invention would also need to be handheld and portable. At the beginning of the 16th century, German clockmaker Peter Henlein made the first portable clock with a spring mechanism. These early watches were dubbed Nuremberg Eggs for their oval shape. Although it took months to create each movement in the watches, these early timepieces were inaccurate. They soon became luxurious accessories rather than practical tools.


Around the middle of the century, copper gears were used in watches, making the timepiece more accurate. However, this was a very expensive and tedious process, leading to the emergence of watches as a status symbol. Only the wealthiest people could afford these timepieces. Craftsmen learned the skills of creating watches as apprentices for a decade before they could make their own, resulting in the rarity of well-made watches.

Momento Mori Watch
Momento Mori Watch

Form watches also became popular in the 16th century. These handheld clocks were formed in the likeness of other things, such as skulls or animals. Mary, Queen of Scots, gifted a skull form watch to Mary Seton. The watch is engraved with figures of death and Adam and Eve, a reminder of the fall of man.

After the popularization of the pocket watch, the wristwatch was created at the end of the 19th century as women’s jewelry. Because women’s clothing did not have pockets, a wristwatch was the perfect accessory for an upper-class lady. Watches soon became more accessible in the nineteenth century with the emergence of quartz watches, which were cheaper than those crafted by traditional watchmakers of previous centuries.


During World War I, soldiers began wearing wristwatches in order to read time more quickly on the battlefield. Thus, the watch was solidified as a fashionable and practical accessory for all.

Today, watches are regarded as timeless symbols of style and luxury. Some of the most expensive watches in the world are adorned with diamonds and rare gemstones. Celebrities from various industries collect watches that become just as famous as the wearer.  Additionally, social media’s “flex culture” has spawned a new role for the watch as the subject of photographs.

Watches in Artwork

Still Life With a Watch, Willem Van Aelst, 1663

As an artist of the Dutch Golden Age, Willem Van Aelst specialized in still-life paintings rich in symbolism. He had a strong influence on later still-life painters, who admired his ability to use everyday objects as symbols of death. Still Life With a Watch features a watch with a blue ribbon attached, a tradition popularized by Dutch and Flemish still-life artists. The bouquet of flowers surrounding the watch includes French roses, poppies, marigolds, and insects. The watch itself is a recurring symbol throughout Dutch still-lifes of the Vanitas genre. This genre explores the fragility of life, the futility of pleasure, and the inevitability of death. Often, Vanitas is a macabre genre. However, the peaceful ambiance of the painting suggests a tranquil acceptance of the passage of time. 

Watches in Art

Miss Mary Edwards, William Hogarth, 1742

William Hogarth was a Georgian artist renowned for his portraiture. His subjects showed the diversity of Georgian society in England. In 1792, he painted the portrait of his acquaintance and patron, Miss Mary Edwards, who was said to be one of the richest women in England at the time. The portrait was completed shortly before her death. In the portrait, she flaunts a gold chatelaine and watch from the waistband of her red dress, a choice that ultimately symbolized her wealth. Watches of this style would have cost many times the average annual wage of a worker. She is also joined by a dog in the painting, which was usually only common in portraits of men. This choice suggests that Hogarth chose to portray the patroness as a self-reliant and strong woman. Thus, Miss Mary Edwards’s portrait immortalizes her as a fashionable and strong woman. Her watch, though insignificant in comparison to its owner, unknowingly foreshadows her imminent death. 

The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dalí, 1931

Persistence of Memory
Dalí, 1931

Finally, one of the most familiar usages of timepieces in art is the work of 20th-century Surrealist Salvador Dalí. In the dreamlike landscape of the painting, objects become limp and unrecognizable, including the pendulous watches that drape over objects. Dalí compared the transformed watches to overripe cheese, dubbing the symbol “the camembert of time.” In this landscape, time loses its significance as it melts away and becomes swarmed with ants. Many modern timepieces took inspiration from Dalí’s soft melting pocket watches, the most intriguing and expensive being the Cartier Crash. Although the watch is surrounded by legends claiming that it spawned from a damaged watch retrieved from a car accident, many people see similarities between the asymmetrical, distorted watch and Dalí’s painting. The celebrity favorite sold for $1.5 million at an auction last year. 

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