As a child, little could enchant me more than the splendor of my mother’s jewelry: the shine of silver, the glow of gold, the starlike flash and spark of precious stones.
But what captured my imagination most was the piece that we both called “the Rosie watch” — though in fact, it wasn’t just a timepiece.
The watch was inside a small gold purse, about the size of a woman’s palm, its surface ornamented with elaborate scroll engravings and a cobalt blue enamel panel on the front. Tiny diamond brilliants across the blue panel spelled the word “souvenir” — French for “to remember.”
If you pressed a tiny catch, the panel opened, like a secret door, and revealed the little compartment that held the small pendant watch. The back of its case also was covered with cobalt enamel and decorated with a posy of diamond flowers.
And inside the panel door, an inscription told the treasure’s story: “To Rosie, From Papa to her 15th birthday, 10 June 89” — an exquisite gift to my great-grandmother Rosa from her father. Although my family does not know his name, we know they lived in New York City at the time.
I thought the set was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen.
I was 16 when my mother, also named Rosa, gave the Rosie watch and its gold and diamond purse to me. When I married in 2008, I wore my mother’s wedding gown and my great-grandmother’s watch around my neck, my choice of “something blue.”
Such watches — including, probably, my own — were produced between 1820 and 1880 by Terond et Ravier, a small watchmaker and retailer in Geneva, according to George Somlo, a vintage and antique watch specialist based in London.
Other small Swiss watch retailers, he said, made similar versions, usually creating the watches under their own names, with the gold purses created by other companies based on the retailers’ designs. “Probably no more than 100 of them were ever made,” Mr. Somlo said, adding that they usually were gifts “to affluent ladies, young or old. What do you give to somebody who has everything else?”
The watch, about the size of a quarter, usually would be worn as a pendant, or hung, as a locket often was, to decorate a brooch, Mr. Somlo said in a recent email. And the purse most likely would hang from a ring or a chatelaine — a set of decorative chains holding household items, like a thimble or small scissors, that was popular in the late Victorian era.
Most of the purses were decorated with blue enamel, like mine, but Mr. Somlo said he had also seen them “in green, red, and turquoise, all set with diamond decoration,” all elaborately engraved and highly detailed.
“They really were just decorative objects which were used as status symbols rather than practical items,” he said. “The level of workmanship tended to be very high.”
While the gold, the diamonds and the detailing all made the purse watches extremely costly at the time, such pieces, despite their rarity today, tend to sell for less than one might expect.
For example, in 2016, Mr. Somlo offered one purse with diamonds set in cobalt blue enamel for 10,000 euros ($11,740) at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands. He said he had seen others in prices ranging from €5,000 to €15,000 in recent years. “They are really inexpensive for what they are,” he wrote, “but not that many people collect such pieces anymore.”
For those of us fortunate enough to own one, though, the real value lies in something else: to carry a souvenir — a remembrance — of a woman we never had a chance to know.