John Wright, New York City

The earliest American watch known

John Wright was one of the first clock & watchmakers in America, sailing from Liverpool, England to New York in about 1711. This watch was made circa 1715-1720 and features an amazing silver sun and moon automation dial. It surfaced in a New Hampshire auction for the first time in 2010. How it escaped notice for the last 300 years is a complete mystery, but its existence evidences that colonial watchmaking and the transatlantic watch trade between England (Liverpool) and America was taking place much earlier than previously thought. An extensive article about this watch was published in 2014, John Wright and the Discovery of America's Oldest Watch.

The gilded movement has a verge escapement, fusee and chain, and worm setup between the plates that are all characteristic of the period. The pierced and engraved balance table on the back of the watch to protect the hairspring is made of silver. The wonderful silver champlevé dial is signed John Wright, New York. It is unusually convex (the center is about 2mm higher than the edge) and may have been made in colonial New York. The movement itself was likely imported from the Liverpool, England area; what work or finishing performed by Wright in NY, if any, is unknown.

Sun and moon dials first appeared in the last quarter of the 17th century in England, after the invention of the balance spring made accurate timekeeping possible and makers began experimenting with ways to indicate the passing of both hours and minutes on a watch dial. The concept is to differentiate daytime from nighttime hours by displaying a rotating sun or moon that points to the hour. The single hand attached at the center points to the minutes.

The John Wright watch also features a subsidiary seconds dial that is very rarely seen on early watches and nicely balances out the overall design. The silver pair cases have a maker’s mark of “WL” with a coronet above that was likely made by William Laithewaite of Liverpool. Both the movement and dial is signed.

This watch was exhibited at the American Clock and Watch Museum, Bristol, Connecticut in 2014.

One other American colonial watch is known to survive from the first half of the 18th century. It is by Samuel Bagnall of Boston, Massachusetts.

America's Oldest Watch Article

References and recommended reading:

  • James Gibbs, Who Was America's First Watchmaker, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 185 (December, 1976), pp. 556-565
  • R.J. Griffiths, The Early Watchmakers of Toxteth Park Near Liverpool, Antiquarian Horology, Vol. 27 (2002), pp. 163-178
  • J. R. Harris, Liverpool and Merseyside, Frank Cass & Co. LTD, 1969
  • Dr. Robert Kemp, Watch Movement Making in Prescot, Antiquarian Horology, Vol. 13 (1981), pp. 77-81
  • Richard Newman, New York Colonial Watchmaker John Wright and the Discovery of America's Oldest Watch, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 408 (March/April, 2014), pp. 115-126
  • Philip Priestley, Watch Case Makers of England, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin Supplement No. 20 (1994)
  • Alan Smith, An Early 18th Century Watchmaker’s Notebook, Richard Wright of Cronton and the Lancashire-London Connection, Antiquarian Horology Vol. 15/6, 1985, p. 605-625
  • A. A. Treherne, The Contribution of South-West Lancashire to Horology, Antiquarian Horology, Vol. 31 (2011), pp. 457-476