Rapaport Magazine

Borrowing from Men

Antique watch chains, fobs and other pieces originally designed for men have morphed into prized additions to the modern woman’s jewelry wardrobe.

By Phyllis Schiller

Oversize “Invictus Maneo” Victorian 15-karat yellow gold carnelian seal fob
with diamonds, emeralds and rubies,
circa 1880.
Photo by Katie Karlsen, courtesy A. Brandt and Son Antique and Estate Jewelry.

What the well-dressed gentlemen of the nineteenth and early twentieth century wore in terms of jewelry has long since faded from the masculine wardrobe, along with top hats and cravats. But happily, the imaginative pieces created to adorn these masculine fashions of a bygone day are now appreciated by a whole new audience — contemporary women.

“We sell men’s jewelry to women every day,” says Annette Brandt, A. Brandt and Son Antique and Estate Jewelry in Narberth, Pennsylvania. Included in the pieces women have “taken over,” Brandt says, are watch fobs and chains and cufflinks, the latter often bought to be converted into earrings. Agrees Lisa Stockhammer-Mial, president, The Three Graces, an online retailer of fine antique and estate jewelry, “Most of the fobs we have had were purchased by women for their own use, as are many men’s rings and some cufflinks.”


The term “fob” today refers to a pendant-like ornament that was worn suspended from a watch chain. The origin of the word, however, Stockhammer-Mial points out, “refers to a small pocket, i.e., fob, sewn into the waistband of men’s trousers or breeches to hold a watch.” In the eighteenth century, when it became fashionable for men to wear a vest, a fob pocket was added to contain a watch, which was attached to a chain. Over time, continues Stockhammer-Mial, “the word referred to the object that was used to keep a watch chain in place or to counterbalance the watch and prevent the watch chain from becoming tangled.”

A fob, says Brandt, served both a practical and decorative purpose. “Hung from the watch chain, it was used to both decorate and add weight to the chain, which itself was used to help the watch be easily withdrawn from a pocket. The types of fobs ranged from simple seals that had an intaglio at the bottom of the fob that could be used to create a personal wax seal on letters to intricate designs made from precious metals and decorated with gemstones.”

Brandt says most of the fobs she sells are from the 1880s. “Victorian fobs are more ornate. They have a lot of repoussé and chasing, metalworking techniques that add textural interest.” Fobs often had a personal significance to the wearer, and were decorated with everything from crests and club insignia to hunting themes. Brandt finds seal fobs are popular with women, as well as those with more “feminine” motifs, such as angels and cherubs. “Women also like swivel fobs,” says Brandt, “which are three-sided and turn within a movable bracket. These types of fobs are usually made out of semiprecious stones, like rock quartz crystal or citrine; I’ve even seen them in amethyst.”

“Women love fobs,” says Stockhammer-Mial. “They put them on a chain like a pendant, often wearing several that they mix and match. They generally choose the fancier types, especially the Georgian and Victorian fobs.”


“Strong survivors of the Victorian period are pocket watches and pocket watch chains,” says Kimberley Thompson, vintage and estate buyer, JB Hudson Jewelers, Minneapolis, Minnesota. “They were the go-to wardrobe staple of just about every man in Victorian England and America who was upwardly mobile and successful or who wanted to be perceived that way. It was something handed down from father to son. These watch chains have now become women’s jewelry.”

When men wore a vest, there was a button in the vest from which hung an “Albert” chain or watch chain, usually anywhere from 11 inches to about 16, 17 or 18 inches, explains Stockhammer-Mial. “The name refers to Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, who delighted in wearing these chains as an accessory with his morning attire. One end of the chain had a flat, tubular t-bar that went into a button hole on the vest and then there was a loop that swung down to hold the pocket watch, on whose links were hung one or more fobs.” Stockhammer-Mial says she sells these watch chains to women, “who wear them like a necklace, with the fobs dangling like pendants. But you need to have chain lengths that are long enough to fit around the neck.”

Brandt says she likes to pair the many fobs she has in her store with Victorian chains for a “perfect marriage.” But, she cautions, “The chains need to be matched to the fob in terms of weight and length.”

Fancy watch chains, Brandt goes on to say, are something else women have co-opted from men’s jewelry. “The Victorian watch chains are such interesting lengths. They’re really beautiful. We even have a gold quartz chain that dates from the California gold rush. These chains are quite expensive, and usually short in length. Women often put two together to make a nice length of 20 inches. Women don’t mind wearing them really short with a fob hanging from them.

“You can also find these watch chains in sterling,” adds Brandt. “We sell a lot of them and there are sterling fobs, as well. But these are not as plentiful as the gold ones.”

Jeff Russak, Lawrence Jeffrey Estate Jewelers, Litchfield, Connecticut, creates “fantasy charm bracelets from fobs and fob necklaces.” It’s a trend, he says, that was popular in the 1920s, when the advent of the wristwatch made the pocket watch and fobs no longer the up-to-the-minute fashion. “About the same time, you’d see slide bracelets made from the slides that adjusted women’s watch chains that they wore around their necks.”


Women do wear men’s rings, says Brandt, “especially the intaglios with a family crest or seal, which are either all gold or decorated with an agate. Men do come in and ask for intaglio rings but not as much as the women — we sell more rings to the women clientele.”

Russak says signet rings with some sort of carved intaglio emblem sell quite well to men and to women. “Women especially like intaglios cut into colored stones like citrine or amethyst.” And the chunky but still tasteful “gentleman’s dress rings,” he points out, “also have feminine appeal.”

Thompson reports “Occasionally, I’ll run across a wonderful American men’s diamond ring with a big, important stone, which would had been worn by a man who made his fortune and wanted the world to know it. They’re always in those Belcher settings — where the prominent prongs that hold the stone secure are cut into the shank of the ring — and they’re great pieces. And often now, I’m sizing them down for women to wear. I just don’t see a lot of them.”

Along with watch fobs and chains, worn as necklaces and bracelets, Russak says women are also “definitely wearing their fathers’ watches. It’s very New York to wear a big gold Rolex Presidential. I find it fun that women wear them floppy, not fitted, along with a tangle of chain bracelets. To me, it’s the next step in the boho look. I love it.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2012. To subscribe click here.

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