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Skull Form Watch

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Skull Form Watch

Date: 1725-1750
Medium: Silver
Dimensions:
52.4 x 41.3 x 31.8 mm
Markings: Pendant: French eagle control mark
Credit Line: Proctor Collection, Thomas R. Proctor Watch Collection
Object number: PC. 272
Label Text
The fashion for skull-shaped watches in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reflects an interest in memento mori, which means "remember you must die." This form was intended to remind wearers of their mortality, an appropriate collateral function, perhaps, for an artifact whose main purpose is to tick away the passing time.

Text Entries

The fashion for skull-shaped watches in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reflects an interest in memento mori, which, literally, means “Remember you must die.” Not to be confused with memorial jewelry worn in remembrance of deceased loved ones, these pieces were intended to remind wearers of their mortality, perhaps an appropriate collateral function for an artifact whose main purpose is to tick away the passing of time. In this respect, skull watches resemble old sundials and clocks with quaint memento mori inscriptions such as “For our time is a very shadow that passeth away,” the phrase inscribed on a clock at Rye in Sussex, England.(1)

Skull form watches, elaborately engraved or repoussé chased with religious scenes accompanied by moral aphorisms, were first manufactured in the seventeenth century. Often, the top of the skull was pierced through to depict flower and leaf designs and to allow the striking movement to be heard. The skull-shaped watches from the eighteenth century, while resembling earlier examples, lacked embellishment on the top of the skull; engraved hatching on the skull surface occasionally took its place. Skull forms also appeared on pomanders in which the interior is divided into compartments to accommodate perfumes and spices.

This cast-silver case is realistically modeled as a human skull. The top of the cranium is hand engraved in a linear pattern that demarcates the sections of the skull. The jaw is hinged so that, when opened, it reveals a dial with a Roman chapter ring enclosing a scroll design, tucked into the cranium.

1. For an illustration, see Eric Bruton, History of Clocks and Watches (New York: Cresent Books, 1989), p. 40.