Gandhi’s Pocket Watch – Who Cares?

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1935

Gandhi's pocket watch

“A ‘worn and broken’ pocket watch once owned by Mahatma Gandhi sold at auction for £12,000 ($16k),” bbc.co.uk reports. “The silver plated Swiss watch was given to the owner’s grandfather by Gandhi in 1944 as a thank-you for his devotion.” The sale of Gandhi’s pocket watch raises some important questions, like . . .

Whatever happened to Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence thing? When did rioting and looting (a.k.a., affirmative shopping) become a politically correct way to “protest” injustice? Nothing to do with Gandhi’s pocket watch. Just wondering . . .

According to East Bristol Auction’s catalogue (unavailable online), Gandhi’s pocket watch was a reward for the man who helped design Gandhi’s famous ambar charkha or Spinning Wheel. “Impressed by [Mohanlal Sharma’s] work ethics and commitment to Gandhian ideology, Mahatma Gandhi gifted [him] this Swiss made pocket watch.” Picture or it didn’t happen?

Gandhi 1923

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? How did Gandhi carry his pocket watch? A little research reveals the anti-imperialist activist probably did so in the traditional manner – before April 6, 1919.

Mahatma Gandhi in suit

Early in his career (as a barrister in South Africa), Gandhi dressed like a “proper” gentleman, waistcoat and all. His job required promptness, and thus, a reliable watch. No doubt he had one, maybe even this one. But there’s no pic of pocket watch or watch chain in situ.

Gandhi’s penchant for western-style dress ended the day he responded to British troops firing on Indian protestors demonstrating against the heinous Rowlatt Act. He advised his countrymen to boycott British products and burn British-style clothing. From then on, Gandhi dressed in a traditional, non-pocket-watch-friendly Indian loincloth.

Gandhi's pocket watch on its side

Gandhi’s [abandoned] Swiss pocket watch sold for 16 large despite being beat to shit. “The fact it is so worn and broken adds to its charm” auctioneer Andrew Stowe opined. Well he would say that, wouldn’t he? And he has the cash to prove it.

But what was Gandhi’s pocket watch like when it was new, and how much did it cost?

If those are the remnants of luminescent radium paint on the dial, Gandhi’s pocket watch was deadly. Probably still is. Lethality aside, Gandhi’s pocket watch was a Fixit by Systeme Roskopf. I doubt Gandhi was aware of his timepiece’s genesis, but the story of its inventor and manufacturer – Georges Frederic Roskopf – is remarkably similar. wikipedia.org:

Georges Frederic Roskopf

Roskopf was an idealist who dreamed of making a good quality, cheap watch for working men. To accomplish this he used an old idea and reworked it, that of having the hands driven directly by the mainspring.

Systeme Roskopf 1a caseback

In 1860 he began to design such a watch, which could be sold for 20 francs, and would still be of excellent quality, simple and solid. The watch had a large barrel in the center. a “Perron” pin-pallet escapement, and a monometallic balance. After discussions with Moritz J. Grossman he adopted the simple detached pin lever escapement.

Like Gandhi, Roskopf faced institutional opposition. Like Gandhi, Roskopf succeeded in uplifting those at the bottom of society.

Just as Gandhi helped usher in the end of British rule and the birth of democracy in India, Roskopf’s inexpensive and robust pocket watch brought accurate time to the European working man and woman. Not exactly the same thing, but empowering nonetheless.

Systeme Roskopf 1A

Because Systeme Roskopf made so many pocket watches, because they didn’t have the cachet of a Patek, Vacheron, Tissot or any number of American pocket watches, you can buy a working Systeme Roskopf for peanuts. The above watch is selling on eBay for $159.99 or best offer.

Three years ago, Paul Newman’s Rolex fetched $17.5m at auction. Super cool movie star and admirable race driver/team owner that he was, Paul Newman’s influence on the course of human history was practically nil.

Mahatma Gandhi changed the world, enabling the world’s largest democracy. I reckon the U.S. buyer who secured Gandhi’s pocket watch for his collection picked-up a bargain – as long as he gets that radium dial “restored” (assuming it is). As Gandhi taught us, some things are worth dying for. Some things are not.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Antiques Roadshow has taught me not to polish antiques. I guess it’s fitting that he had the cheap watch of the day. I’m not sure how relevant a watch allegedly owned, and probably not used when he was noteworthy, is to anyone but the purchaser. Previously his spectacles drew big bucks, but those were worn by him every day, chronicled in almost every photograph taken. A little different.

  2. I wasn’t going to comment on this post, but having read a few of those “up for auction” pieces on Hodinkee, these was a smart contrarian take on that kind of reporting.

  3. The survivability of any time piece will depend greatly opon the intentions of current owners as the sands of time continues its relentlessly advance. I am a second generation, well seasoned, American/Swiss trained watch and clock maker from the northern state of Maine, with 20 years of personal bench (repair) time and fabrication of custom built clocks and watches. Over the years i have seen many heirlooms fall from there familys embrace and meet unfortunately ends to their loved and respected positions in their families life and history. Either being sold, thown away, and after many years of hard use and reliable service are deemed “un useable” by untrained eyes, or simply no interest from the next generation who have all but lost touch with close family history and deem it unimportant compared to the ever changing world of technology and a disposable society. Out of the thousands of watches and clocks we have had the honor of restoring over the years at “Peter Rioux Clock Service” it has become quite clear that the ones that have the highest probability to survive and continue to be passed down are the ones that are restored to proper running order and therefor giving it new life as a useable timepiece onece more, able to keep time as well as they loyaly did many years ago. As an example, an old 1930s car that sits behind gramps garage unattended and unmaintained for 40+ years isn’t going to be as desired or likely to be loved and taken care of than if it was properly maintained. Now take that same car and if it ran as it should and was polished up for a sunday car show…. It would be the envy of the Neighborhood. So as a professional in the field of watchmaking and an advocate for the professional restoration and preservation of historical timepieces, I am of the opinion that such a watch as this should be restored back to its former glory, so it may be enjoyed by many generations to come and be an example to our human resilience to let our memories not be forgotten even as the perpetual tick of time slowly judges us all. If only to pay respect to the man who in his youthful days may have carried this simple, but beautifully reliable pocket watch. Respectfully. Richard A Stafford ll.

    • Richard, I would like to disagree with the complete restoration of this watch, though under normal circumstances I would rather have the watch completely restored(which Richard has restored several of my watches to perfection). Even though Gandhi had the watch for only part of his life, it was probably right there in his watch pocket when he was thinking about changing all that he changed, including himself. Maybe he put some of the wear and scratches on it, maybe it was in pristine condition when he was finished with it. That is something you can wonder about when you wear it.
      As for the restoration of this watch, I would have the movement overhauled to perfection, but leave the case in it’s current historic glory. I suppose you would probably have to put a new bow on the watch in order to wear it correctly, and I could live with that. I do believe someone should wear this watch occasionally, while being mindful of course.

      Posted with sincere respect for my watchmaker friend

      Cody W Bednarz

  4. My dear friend Cody. I agree with you 100%. I in no way discourage other’s or am attempting to sway the opinion of different individuals and professionals as yourself from making your own statement of what “should or shouldn’t” be done to time pieces of personal ownership, or that of historical significance, no matter the subject or depth. I simply have shared my “personal and professional” option of what I personally would do, to preserve the time piece in question if I myself had the honor for it to grace my bench for repair. I remind ALL that read and show interest in the preservation and history of this, and ALL timepieces, that we ALL have very different and various options on what should and shouldn’t be done, and by discussing the possible outcomes of the surviving history and its artifacts, both great and small, personal or not. I admire and applaud “ALL” who choose to have the courage to state your opinion in a world in which has a swift and cruel way, of smothering out those whose options would otherwise be criticized to the point of submission or slandered into non existence in a digital world of fake news and lack of honorable intentions, where the opinions of the masses are judged by there sway on social media. So i tip my hat to you Cody W Bednarz for stating your honest opinion.
    My up most respect, to ALL.
    Richard A Stafford⌚.

    • Richard, I am for only getting it to be able to tell time. Not complete restoration, not even a partial one, an internal fix to keep time. Its a piece of history that should stay original and untouched for the most part.
      Make sense?

      Happy New Year Richard to you and yours!

  5. Thank you very much for your post! And a very Happy New Year to you and yours as well!!!
    As i had sed before, the whole concept of this discussion is to accumulate as many options of the fate of such a historical timepiece from all walks of life and to leave no option unheard or respected as if we had the power to do something about it. To be able to come together and discuss the importance of the project without having any harshly spoken words between the different opinions. After all, Isn’t the peaceful discussion to resolve a problem what Gandhi would have wanted?

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