NICOLE, NIELSEN & Co

By the time the young Victoria succeeded to the English throne in 1837, London was at the centre of the watchmaking world, its only rival being Paris. Anyone with ambition would have looked to one of these two European capitols as the place to work and make their mark.

As such, London was a magnet for the skills of many young Swiss and Scandinavian watchmakers throughout Victoria’s reign. One of the more interesting of these was the firm of Nicole & Capt which had its beginnings in Switzerland in the very year of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838. Two years later the firm had set up in London, at 80B Dean Street, and was being run by Adolphe Nicole and Jules Capt. The firm later moved to 14 Soho Square where it remained until the company finally closed in 1934.

Jules Capt died in 1876 and his place as partner in the firm was taken by the Danish born Sophus Emil Nielsen, at which time the firm became Nicole, Nielsen & Co. This name is recognisable to watch collectors as the firm is known to have produced many of the very finest ‘London made’ watches of the period. Their output includes tourbillons and other watches with repeating, chronograph and perpetual calendar complications. Many of their best watches bear the names of London’s premier retailers, Charles Frodsham and Dent, and these names, in conjunction with Nicole’s quality of manufacture, ensure these watches now command a high price among collectors and at auction.

From the beginning, Nicole and Capt were producing well made and interesting watches, most of which bear a wide variety of retailers names. The best features of this firm’s earlier work are fairly easy to recognise and most stem from the designs as described in the important Patent No 10,348 taken out by Adolphe Nicole in 1844. The patent includes the first practical keyless work for both going-barrel and fusee watches, though very few of the latter seem to have been made by the firm as they were strong believers in the Swiss practise of getting rid of the costly and troublesome (as they saw it) fusee. The patent includes chronograph work that allowed a seconds recording hand to be ‘returned to zero’ by means of a heart shaped cam, a most important feature of all mechanical chronographs that is still in use today.

Also shown is a clever and simple way of providing resilient banking in watches with a Duplex escapement. Nicole & Capt were great admirers of this escapement and seemed to understand that it worked best with a light escape wheel and a light load on the locking and impulse jewels. While earlier English watches with Duplex escapements often show troublesome signs of wear, making them poor timekeepers and expensive to repair, much of Nicole & Capt’s output has survived in wearable condition.

Having mentioned the heart shaped cam in their chronograph design of 1844, it should be said that no example from this date is known to have survived and it may be that the firm was not able to make it work reliably. It was only with a later Nicole Patent, No 1461 of 1862, which shows a castle-wheel (also called a column-wheel) combined with the heart shape cam, that the firm is known to have manufactured such chronographs. Even Nicole, Nielsen & Co, in their trade catalogue of circa 1910, attribute their invention of the true, return to zero, chronograph to 1862, not the earlier date. By 1871 they were also making ‘split-seconds' chronographs in which two seconds hands can be operated independently and returned to zero, allowing two events to be timed.

This term ‘split-seconds’ can be very confusing as most of the earliest simple chronographs, including Nicole’s in the 1844 patent, were designed to have two concentric seconds hands moving as one. Pushing a pin in the watch band would stop one of the hands, leaving the other to rotate with the running of the watch. On releasing the pin the stopped hand would immediately catch up with the moving hand, neither of which could be returned to zero. Such chronograph work was, for the obvious reason, called split-seconds, but the term has since come to be universally used with the later, post 1871 meaning.

It is Nicole & Capt’s keyless work that is most recognisable and yet even this seemingly simple design, shows differences and development worthy of attention. The mechanism is mounted on the upper plate of the watch and can be clearly seen when opening the watch back. The earliest type, as shown in the 1844 patent, has the large winding wheel operating the hand setting wheel in the centre of the plate by an intermediate wheel which is permanently attached to the setting wheel. It has one drawback that, when fully wound, the hands can only be set by turning them backwards. Later watches, almost certainly dating from 1855 when a provisional patent was taken out in the name of Adolphe’s nephew David L A Nicole, has the intermediate wheel attached to the winding wheel which overcame the problem.

Not covered in the patent, but as distinctive as the keyless work, are the gold and silver cases that hold the movements. Also made by Nicole & Capt ‘in house’ they were designed to be as fashionably slim as possible and this was achieved by doing away with the inner of two back covers, ‘dome’ being the correct English term. A single back cover was made to push ‘snap’ onto the band, as was the front bezel. However, some of Nicole’s customers were obviously not appreciative of this new style as standard English cases were also supplied by the firm - even these were admirably slim for the period. 

Along with their distinctive cases, various designs of dials, for both plain and complicated work, show much innovation and beauty. Such beautiful work is today much underrated as enamel dial making, to the English standard, is one of the few truly lost arts. I know of no present day firm that can reproduce the quality of work equal to the best Nicole, Nielsen dials.

Nicole & Capt and its successors were regular exhibitors at various International Shows that, post 1851, had become so popular. They won awards as far afield as Paris in 1855 and 1867, Philadelphia in 1876, Sydney in 1879, Melbourne in 1880 and Antwerp in 1894. This international exposure created new opportunities and their watches can be found signed for retailers from around the world including America, Australia, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

By 1880 the business was being run by Emil Nielsen together with three of Adolphe’s children, one of whom, Harriet, had married Emil. Business was good, judging by the firm’s output, and they continued to innovate and improve, taking out a further significant patent, No 13,336, in 1884. This covered a method for indicating the state of wind of the watch on the dial as well as a new form of keyless work which moved the winding mechanism to between the plates. This heralded the end of Nicole’s distinctive keyless work and from 1884 it becomes much harder to distinguish their work from other English manufacturers.

In December 1885 the partnership was dissolved, presumably because of the death of Adolphe Nicole, and in 1888 the firm was converted into a limited liability company under the title Nicole, Nielsen & Co Ltd. The main shareholders were the North Family and Harrison Mill Frodsham, the later was then owner of the London firm of Charles Frodsham. From this point on the Frodsham firm was to become an increasingly important part of the story, retailing many of Nicole Nielsen’s more expensive watches. Nicole, Nielsen did, however, retain their independence with Robert Benson North taking over the position of Manager from the ailing Emil Nielsen in 1898. Emil died the next year and Robert North became Managing Director in 1900 and was elected Life Governing Director in 1910.

North’s importance to the firm was not only financial as he took out an interesting Patent, No 6737 in 1903, for improvements in “Revolving Escapements for Watches and other Portable Timekeepers”. It was during this period that many of the firm’s most expensive watches were made, as well as a range of fabulous silver carriage clocks with tourbillon lever escapements.

Understanding the firm’s output at this time is greatly helped by the survival of a trade catalogue of circa 1910 of which my facsimile reprint is available – see my list of Books for sale. An added bonus is that the original catalogue retained its Price List which is included in the reprint, and it is most instructive to compare prices.

By the end of the century times were changing and the newly invented internal combustion engine was subject to worldwide interest and burgeoning development. The firm of Nicole, Nielsen was aware of the new opportunities and, by 1904, had begun to diversify into the new motor vehicle business. At the outbreak of the First World War they were manufacturing speedometers, taxi meters, magnetos and motor accessories from additional premises in Watford, north of London. In 1917 the company name was changed to North & Sons Ltd and, by 1922, had also begun to manufacture motor clocks - though it must be said not with movements of the same high quality as their watches.

As the 20th century advanced the firm was faced with accumulating problems. First came the war and the lack of suitably trained staff returning to work afterwards. This was followed by fundamental change in the industry bought about by the fashion for wearing wrist not pocket watches, and the subsequent emphasis on smaller movements. The coup-de-grace to their business, and that of many other watchmaking firms, was the Depression which affected the buying potential of their wealthy clients. Though they remained registered as watchmakers at 14 Soho Square until the end, they finally went into liquidation in 1933.

Not quite reaching their centenary, the firm started by Adolphe Nicole & Jules Capt, has left a wonderful legacy for today’s watch collectors, much of which, in real terms, is cheaper to buy now than when it was first sold. I try always to have items by the firm in stock and available, and would always be pleased to hear from anyone considering selling either a single item or a collection.

  

David Penney - Copyright 2011