Memoirs of a Watch Case Engraver - By Fritz Baumgartner

Memoirs of a Watch Case Engraver – The Autobiography of Fritz A. Baumgartner (1866-1943); by Fritz A. Baumgartner, translated and Edited by Brian Pittman. Published 2007 by, softcover, 297 pages, many black and white illustrations, ISBN 1-4303-2311-2), available from ), approx. $22 (softcover) or $34 (hardcover) plus postage.

The text portion of this book was written down as a manuscript from 1941 to 1942 by Fritz Baumgartner and translated from German to English in 2007 by his great-grandson Brian Pittman. This story re- counts the hardships and successes in the life of one individual during the late 19th and early 20th cen- turies. Central to his autobiography are the Swiss immigrant experience and a struggling watch case industry confronting the Industrial Revolution. Upon immigrating to the United States in 1904, Fritz was one of 27 employees at the fledgling Star Watch Case Company, where he remained for over 25 years as an engraver and designer of watchcases. When the factory moved from Elgin, Illinois to Ludington, Michigan, Fritz remained with the Engraving Department until his retirement in 1931. Much of his work seems to have involved special order, one of a kind designs of gold watch cases that were fashionable among the affluent in the 1920s.

This narrative (including the reproductions of a score of surviving pertinent family photographs takes up 87 pages. It focuses on family history and offers glimpses into the socio-economic environment of a highly skilled manual laborer in the horological industry of that time. In the opinion of this reviewer the text is quite tedious to read: For one thing Fritz was certainly a better engraver than a writer and the quality of the translation is disappointing. The descendent who painstakingly undertook the huge task to first transcribe the hard to decipher handwriting and then translate it from colloquial, allemanic German into English admits to not knowing German and using primarily online translation software to make sense of the text. It is obvious that the translator is neither familiar with the late 19th century environ- ment in Switzerland covered in the first half of the text, nor the watch case industry. Based on my knowledge of the subject matter and the language of the original I was able to spot at least one serious error on most pages: All too often, whenever the published text seemed strange, I was able to guess the intended meaning only reverse translating, searching for a German word that had an alternative meaning from the chosen by the translator and his software. There are numerous instances where one or two misinterpreted letters from the manuscript led to an English word that makes little sense in the context. In the view of this reviewer translation software can give you a rough outline of the story, but the details and nuances get lost.

For the horologist the meat of the book is the middle part, where 137 pages are devoted to full page reproductions of the sketchbooks and worksheets of Fritz Baumgartner. There you find images of liter- ally hundreds of hand drawn designs for pocket watch cases, monograms etc. There is everything from vague sketches to fully executed drawings to make master pantograph plates. There are geometric pat- tern, decorative ornaments and representational drawings of locomotives, wildlife, portraits and figures. Unfortunately that vast trove of information is completely unstructured and unlabeled. We don’t know when Fritz created them, which were ever used, etc. That section of the book contains much “raw ma- terial” for research on watch case iconography, but the book contains no research on the subject of watch cases or their engraving.

The third part of the book (52 pages) probably is of little interest to anybody but members of the Baumgartner clan. It reproduces about 100 old family photographs from the estate of Fritz Baumgartner, many of them unlabeled or unidentified. I applaud the translator for making the huge effort to make this material available to a readership be- yond the family, but fear that both, the morsels of horological history within the text and the visual in- formation from the central part of the book, are unlikely to be consulted or used by horologists because they are presented in such an unfinished, unstructured and “user-un-friendly” way.

Bookreview by Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Sussex NJ July 12, 2007