A watch key is a key which has been created to wind a pocket watch. Pocket watches were first made in the 16th century and required a key to keep them running, both to set the time and wind the watch. Key wind pocket watches remained in use up until the mid 19th century when, in 1842, Adrien Philippe invented the stem wind watch. It was commercialized by Patek Philippe & Co in the 1850s. These watches required the owner to turn a a little handle on a stem to wind the watch. A later version of a stem wind watch involved a lever which was pulled out and turned, to set the time and wind the watch. Wrist watches replaced pocket watches during WWI. Seiko introduced the first quartz battery powered watch in 1969 and digital watches started to be mass produced in 1975.
So watch keys belong to a period before the 1870s. There was a crossover from the 1850s to the 1870s when both key and stem wind watches were being produced. In fact, there are some patents for various versions of watch keys still being granted towards the end of the 1870s. There is a huge range of different types of watch keys, some very ornate, others very simple metal keys. The difference can be explained by the fact that the very ornate ones were intended to be worn on a watch chain or chatelaine and displayed publicly. The simple plain ones were not meant for pubic display.
The ornate watch keys were made of gold or silver, with most being gold cased. The two watch keys in the photo at the top of the post have engraved borders and are fairly typical example of this category of watch key. They may have had a matching seal to hang next to on the chain. However, there was another category of ornate watch key which were more striking. Some were in the shape of animals or pistols, while others were set with gemstones, cameos or micro mosaics.
This gold watch key is a fabulous piece, created in the shape of an eagle’s head, with three sections, each with different types of feathers engraved on it.
These watch keys still look great worn on a Albert chain but around the neck instead of across the stomach.