Restoring & Remaking the Oldest Watch in the World

One of Towson Watch Company’s most notorious horological projects was the restoration and recreation of the world's oldest mechanical watch - Philip Melanchthon's table clock, crafted in 1530.

Philip Melanchthon, born in 1497, was a key Germanian figure of the Renaissance period. As a humanist scholar, he stood alongside Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation. Notably, in 1520, he penned the "Loci Communes," the inaugural comprehensive summary of Luther's doctrine of justification. Melanchthon's educational reforms, driven by humanist principles, earned him the revered title "Praeceptor Germaniae" (Germany's Principal Teacher), signifying his profound impact on the German school and university system.

The preserved clock that belonged to Melanchthon now resides in the esteemed Walters Art Museum Collection, situated in Baltimore, MD near Towson Watch Company's headquarters. Thus, it was only fitting for Towson's founders, Hartwig Balke and George Thomas, Maryland’s most-esteemed master watchmakers that came from Germany, to undertake the restoration of Melanchthon's watch, ensuring the preservation of its significant horological legacy.

Philip Melanchthon's table clock is a marvel of 16th-century craftsmanship. Encased in pierced brass, adorned with intricate engravings, and delicately gilded, this spherical timepiece boasts a diameter of 48mm. Etched with the inscription "PHIL. MELA. GOTT. ALLEIN. DIE EHR. 1530" (Philip Melanchthon. To God alone the honor 1530), the exterior bottom rim bears testament to the religious sentiments of its era.

With George Thomas's expertise, thorough research, and examination of historical literature on 16th-century watchmaking, several crucial revelations emerged before embarking on the restoration of Melanchthon’s watch. Firstly, it became apparent that the movement contained components made of brass, an anomaly for the time period. Additionally, some parts in the movement’s time-train appeared to be installed by a jeweler in a later period, not consistent with the original construction of the 16th century. This led to the realization that Melanchthon’s clock had undergone previous repairs, resulting in the inclusion of non-original parts.

In response, George Thomas meticulously disassembled the movement, identifying the authentic components and discerning them from the later additions. Upon inspection, it was determined that the movement’s ratchet wheel, mainspring barrel, balance cock, and several screws and levers beneath the base-plate were crafted from brass. Moreover, discrepancies were found with the balance-wheel and the mainspring, which had fractured into pieces. Various pivot holes for the fusee, barrel, and wheels had been opened, and brass bushings had been inserted by a previous repairman.

The restoration strategy was clear: to utilize only original parts and return the movement to its authentic state by crafting components by hand, mirroring the techniques and materials employed during the 16th century watchmakers. This approach would preserve the integrity and historical significance of Melanchthon’s historic timepiece.

George Thomas (Co-Founder of TWC & Master Watchmaker)

The restoration process adhered strictly to historical accuracy, employing techniques and materials consistent with 16th-century watchmaking practices. Unlike modern practices, where brass is commonly used, only iron was utilized for the movement, mirroring the standards of the time. The wall for the mainspring barrel was milled from iron, hand-finished, and precisely calibrated to seamlessly integrate with the original components. Similarly, the balance cock, foliot, ratchet wheel, counter potence, and barrel wall were all painstakingly handcrafted from iron using traditional tools and methods.

In addressing specific damages, such as the broken regulator, meticulous care was taken to replicate the original piece, ensuring authenticity. For instance, the pigs bristle in the regulator, vital for adjusting the foliot's oscillation, was sourced from a high-quality paintbrush. Additionally, a new click spring was meticulously forged using cold forging techniques, enhancing its durability and longevity.

To guarantee the long-term preservation of the restored timepiece, certain modifications were made, such as replacing the original cat gut in the fusee train with nylon monofilament line, due to the former's hygroscopic nature. The open case-back of the fully restored watch, located in the lower half sphere of the watch case, showcases George Thomas’s repaired movement and the minute repeater’s bell. The dial has a rotating disc for setting the alarm and a single hour hand. The top case-cover is pierced enabling a view of the dial in order to read the time. 

Throughout the six-month restoration period, a significant portion of the time was dedicated to research, ensuring a comprehensive understanding of the authentic components and techniques from the period. Overall, the restoration process was a meticulous endeavor, aiming not only to repair the timepiece but to faithfully revive its historical essence, preserving its integrity and significance for generations to come.

The restoration of Melanchthon's table clock not only revived a priceless artifact but also served as a source of inspiration for Towson Watch Company's commemorative clocks below. Drawing from the spherical shape and ornate decorations of 16th-century pomander watches, Hartwig and George crafted silver and gold pieces with late 19th-century movements. These reproductions of the oldest mechanical watch in the world built the classical approach to watchmaking that defines Towson Watch Company today.

Towson Watch Company's "Melanchthon Clock"
Jochen Benzinger hand-engraving the case of the Melanchthon Clock.

Crafted with silver and gold cases and equipped with late 19th-century movements, our commemorative Towson Watch Clocks pay homage to the historical significance of restorative work. One model features a split-second chronograph with a minute repeater, while the other boasts the distinction of housing the second smallest movement ever made. Drawing inspiration from the timeless elegance and innovation of the 16th century, these commemorative timepieces embody the rich heritage of horology while embracing modern craftsmanship.

The silver spherical watch, boasting a substantial diameter of 75mm, houses a remarkable split-second chronograph with minute repetition. Crafted from sterling silver, the case mirrors the intricate pierced and engraved design reminiscent of the Melanchthon watch meticulously restored by TWC. Its top and bottom halves are hinged at the back to a central plate that cradles the case housing the movement, with two front hooks securing all components together.

Within this exquisite case, the movement sits integrated into the center plate of the spherical case. The screw-on back, fastening the case to the center plate, features a sapphire crystal, allowing a captivating display of the intricate movement. Notably, the underside of the center plate bears the names of all the skilled artists and craftsmen involved in its creation.

Jochen Benzinger hand-engraving Towson's "Melanchthon Clock"

The movement components, including bridges, balance cock, and 3/4 plate, were meticulously engraved and engine-turned by our master engraver in Germany. The 3/4 plate, adorned with the TWC insignia in a small oval field, exudes elegance and craftsmanship. Further enhancing its allure, the balance cock, escape wheel bridge, and chronograph bridges are hand-engraved, adding a touch of bespoke artistry.

The pillar plate showcases a perlage finish, reminiscent of the original state of the movement, evoking a sense of timeless sophistication. Upon receiving all finished components, the movement was meticulously assembled, with a new balance and click springs expertly crafted and installed. Additionally, a new hour rack was meticulously fashioned and integrated into the mechanism.

Adorning the silver dial are meticulously engine-turned Roman numerals, while the bezel features Arabic numerals from 13 to 24, facilitating precise timekeeping. The top side of the center plate is intricately engraved, reflecting the elegant style of watches from the period, culminating in a masterpiece that seamlessly marries tradition with innovation.

The miniature 18k watch we crafted housed a movement smaller than a cent coin, a rare find that had been in our possession for quite some time. It was a rim wind mechanism with an 11mm diameter and remarkably, required only minor repairs, despite dating back to 1865. Inspired by Melanchthon's historic timepiece, we opted to utilize this antique restored movement to create a smaller version of the spherical watch, but crafted in 18ct gold.

The process involved disassembling the movement to thoroughly clean and remove any remnants of conservation substances. During this process, it was discovered that the cap jewel in the balance cock was broken and required replacement. After reassembly and lubrication, the movement was delicately mounted into a cylindrical 18k gold case, affixed to the center plate that divided the top and bottom halves of the spherical case. The resulting gold spherical watch, with a diminutive diameter of 25mm, was about the size of a walnut. 

The 18ct gold case, intricately pierced and engraved akin to its larger silver counterpart, showcased the artistry and attention to detail synonymous with Towson Watch Company. The top and bottom halves, hinged to a central section housing the movement, could be effortlessly opened, with two hooks securing all three parts together, allowing for a glimpse into the exquisite inner workings of this horological masterpiece. The dial we restored, fashioned from copper with an enamel base, featured Arabic-style black numerals, with the 12:00 marker highlighted in red, and gold-colored minute markers, all impeccably preserved.

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