In the mid-1700s, men’s waistcoats had several pockets and it was fashionable to carry a watch in each pocket. Usually, one watch was functional and the others were purely fashion statements. A chain or leather attached to the watch made it easier for the wearer to retrieve the watch from these small pockets. These chains were frequently decorated with a fob, a silver or enamel charm that enhanced the look of the watch and acted as a weight to keep the chain close to the body so that the chain did not accidentally catch on something and be pulled from the pocket. If there were two watches, there were two chains and fobs.
Up until World War II, most people kept time with a pocket watch and the watch fob added a sense of style to an otherwise mundane timepiece. Over time, watch fob designs became quite elaborate and they were made of various materials. In fact, fobs are one of the earliest forms of advertising, as well as the smallest hallmarked antiques commonly available. Fobs are an interesting combination of historical function and charm. They became small badges of allegiance, status or achievement, sometimes recognizable only to others of a group.
In the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution in America had engendered more than 2,000 manufacturers of farm and construction equipment. To help sell their products, manufacturers organized trade fairs to expose the public to many of the new products developed each year. A large percentage of Americans at the time could not read or write, and manufacturers realized that many prospective buyers did not recognize a trademark. So, early fobs had an engraving of the product on the front, and perhaps a trademark symbol, and a brief message on the back for those who could read. Fobs were widely used by most any company that made a product to be sold to the public. Railroads also used watch fobs to advertise their lines. Hence, the fob became the earliest advertising giveaway.
To Victorians, the fob was the ideal fashion accessory. For those who considered the pocket watch, or the ladies lapel pin watch, the fob was an important and stylish part of the wardrobe. In the late 19th- and early 20th-century England, silver and gold medals were struck to honor sporting and gardening achievements. These fobs were given as prizes at various sporting events and depict curling, shooting, bocce, golf, running, automobile racing and billiards. There were even medals for the best gardening and shrubbery. Typically, these finely engraved medals are made of silver and some have rose gold cartouches, or are of 9-carat gold and stamped Birmingham with the hallmark of the maker.
Some fraternal organizations’ fobs are made from animal teeth or even claws and were ubiquitous enough to cause a dust-up at the White House level. Sometime between the founding of the Order of the Elks in 1868 and the end of the 19th century, it became fashionable for members of the Benevolent Order of Elks to wear a genuine elk’s tooth. The tooth was polished and mounted in a gold casing and was commonly worn as a fob. The elk’s tooth fob became so popular that in 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt suggested that elk herds were being slaughtered to obtain their teeth to make into fobs, and were in danger of disappearing. President Roosevelt appealed to the Grand Exulted Ruler, Henry Melvin, stating the wearing of the elks’ teeth by members was causing a great slaughter of elk and asked him to abolish members from wearing the teeth for decorative purposes.
In 1908, a special commission spent two weeks in elk territory talking to settlers, game wardens and hunters. They concluded that it was the advance of civilization that was cutting the animals off from their natural grazing grounds and causing them to die out, and that killing them for their teeth had a minimal impact on the herds. Ultimately, however, the President’s recommendations were adopted and thereafter, manufacturers of fraternal fobs listed their charms as being “genuine walrus ivory teeth.”
With the advent of the wristwatch and the scarcity of metal caused by World War ll, the fob slowly disappeared. Relentlessly pursued by collectors, these pieces serve as a nostalgic or sentimental nod to a bygone era, which many collectors find interesting. Also of interest to collectors is that, although fobs were made in myriad materials and designs, what they all seem to have in common is that their backs are often engraved with wonderful historical details — dates, names or initials and sometimes cryptic letters.
Many collectors string their fobs on chains to become a unique and attention-grabbing necklace or charm bracelet. It is important to note that antique watch fobs are considered those that are 100 years old or older, as opposed to an earlier watch fob that may actually be considered a vintage item instead. Collectors should know that most advertising fobs stamped “sterling silver” are not authentic period pieces, although there are exceptions. Most mid-19th-century and later fobs can be found for between $75 to $300, depending on the materials, design, condition and historical significance.
There are a wide range of different types and styles of watch fobs that have been crafted through the generations, and potential buyers should be aware of several factors before purchasing a watch fob. More common are brass and nickel-plated fobs. Some rare ones incorporate compasses and celluloid buttons, and some old ones use colorful enamelwork in their designs.
It is important to recognize what constitutes and defines an item as an old watch fob. Being aware of the history and style of antique watch fobs can also help purchasers in gaining a better understanding of the many types of watch fobs available. Exploring the many different styles and materials are keys to finding a watch fob that is the ideal match for any watch, outfit or collection.
Michelle Galler is an antiques dealer, design consultant and realtor based in Georgetown. Her shop is in Rare Finds, in Washington, Va. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org