Tales From a Vintage Collector: That Time I Saved a Piece of History From Being Melted Down for Gold

Most of you likely know of Dan Henry from his eponymous, vintage-inspired line of value-driven timepieces. But Dan Henry is also a seasoned watch collector and the owner of what may very well be the most expansive personal collection in existence, a fraction of which you can see at Timeline.Watch. Today, we continue our series, Tales From a Vintage Collector, in which Dan recounts some of his most memorable moments as a longtime watch collector. 

I have always considered myself a collector of “tool watches”—precision instruments with technical uses, such as those made for divers, the military, engineers, aviators, astronauts, among many others. These timepieces are often very different from watches that simply mark the hours, or from dress watches that are usually smaller, often made of gold, and intended for formal occasions or daily use. There are only a few such dress watches in my collection.

As a collector, I have been following the watch market for the last 20 years. In that time, consumers have become less interested in dress watches for daily wear, and their value has also seen decline among collectors. This same trend applies to ordinary pocket watches.

Generally speaking, pocket watches have lost much of their value, and, as a result, many are only worth their weight in gold and are often melted down for the metal. Nevertheless, it’s hard to resist when these watches are offered to me, and I buy them anyway because, simply put, I love them, and a small part of me hopes that someday a new generation of collectors will find value in these timepieces.

As you can see, I’ve got quite a few gold timepieces in my collection.

The U.S. Dollar Goes Up, the Price of Gold Comes Down

In the world economy today, one of the most basic principles is the relationship between the price of gold and the U.S. dollar. In simplest terms, when the world economy is healthy, people invest in businesses and stocks, and the value of the U.S. dollar grows. When the world economy becomes unstable, people are afraid to invest and often seek safer ways to save their money.

For thousands of years, gold has been considered one of the safest ways to keep money, so gold is valued in times of crisis. You can see this clearly in the chart below, which shows the relationship between gold and the value of the U.S. dollar from 1992 through 2011.

It’s worth knowing that when one buys a watch purely for its gold, the total value of the weight is not paid out in full because there are expenses associated with melting down the metal, extract the gold, and converting it into 24k bars.

I only mention this relationship because it directly impacts the value of gold watches—when gold is cheap and the U.S. dollar is highly valued, it is a bargain to buy gold watches. I have lived through some of these periods, and buying gold watches at these times is very tempting. I’ve picked up and “rescued” a few watches this way—watches that I normally would not buy.

About 15 years ago, I made one of these “rescues.” A small piece of the history of Brazil—perhaps of the world—was about to be melted, and by a total stroke of luck I saved it.

A “Rescue” Captures a Moment in Time

In 2003, I was shown a 14k gold American pocket watch from the once great American retailer, Mermod & Jaccard Jewelry Co. The company once dubbed itself, “The Grandest Jewelry Establishment in the World,” and had stores in St. Louis and New York. My impression is that they tried to achieve the status of Tiffany’s, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

American watches usually have solid, well-made cases, and I was delighted with the quality of the case and engraving on it. Although the watch didn’t have its original hands, it was otherwise flawless, and so I decided to buy it.

At the time, the cost of gold was around $10 a gram—near its lowest price in years (today, gold is worth about $41 per gram). The watch was 14k gold and almost 80 grams in total weight. I paid $300.

I often say that in addition to collecting objects, I collect stories. That was certainly the case with this Mermod & Jaccard pocket watch.

I first noticed an inscription on the case. It read “15th Nov 1904 Exp Un. St. Louis Mo.” on one side, and “F. M. S. A.” on the other. A quick Google search revealed that I had purchased a watch of enormous historical significance. It was an artifact of the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, and the one-time owner of this pocket watch had a connection to my country, Brazil.

The initials led me to conclude that the watch was once owned by Colonel Francisco Marcelino de Sousa Aguiar, a military engineer and architect who designed the Brazil Pavilion at the St. Louis World’s Fair. The project earned him the Architecture Gold Medal Award, and the watch was likely a part of that prize.

Bringing the World Together

Most today are likely unfamiliar with the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 (unless you’re a fan of classic Judy Garland movies and have seen Meet Me in St. Louis), but the fair was one of the most important public events of the early 20th Century in the United States. Formally known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the fair was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the land purchase from France that nearly doubled the size of the United States.

The fair was a huge international spectacle with 60 participating nations occupying 1,200 acres (4.9 square kilometers). It was held from April 30th to December 1st, 1904, and nearly 20 million people attended.

Rio de Janeiro, 1910.

While the Brazil Pavilion was small compared some of the other structures at the fair, it was nevertheless beautiful, built in the ornate French Renaissance style, and—as we know from the pocket watch—it was an award-winning design.

After the fair, the Brazil Pavilion was dismantled and reassembled in Rio de Janeiro, which was at the time the capital of Brazil, and it became the Senate building. It was renamed the Monroe Palace in honor of the American President, James Monroe. The building was demolished in 1975 during a period of military dictatorship for reasons not well explained and in spite of public protests. Today, there is a public square in its place.

Watch Collecting and the Preservation of History

This reminds me that one of the most interesting facets of watch collecting, and it’s something that I think gets lost in all the chatter and hype, is the preservation of cultural heritage. In the case of the Mermod & Jaccard pocket watch, I not only acquired a beautiful time piece, but I was also be able to save a small piece of my country’s historic past as well.

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