I’ve been a fan of pocket watches as far back as I can remember—even before I saw Steve McQueen wearing that killer gold Patek hunter case watch with all those timeless Douglas Hayward three-piece suits in The Thomas Crown Affair. Just try to watch McQueen in that role and then tell me a pocket watch can’t still look amazing and yes, cool, in a modern setting.
McQueen as Thomas Crown
Pocket watches are experiencing something of a renaissance. The past few years have seen top designers like Tom Ford giving them a fresh look as well as top Swiss manufactures such as Vacheron Constantin introducing new pocket watches like their Patrimony model. This watch harkens back to the the golden age of pocket watches before the Great Depression, but with some modern twists.
Thomas Crown didn’t wear a three-piece suit every day. Not many of us do. Even back in the heyday of pocket watches, circa 1870 to 1930, gentlemen sometimes found themselves required to wear their watch without a vest, or waistcoat as they're known on the other side of the pond.
Dapper Straw Boater-Wearing Gent Strolling with His Watch in Breast Pocket
Some of the people who resorted to wearing their pocket watch in their breast pocket are still well known to us today.
Of Watch Guards, Albert Straps and Button Chains
Leather straps for securing the pocket watch in a breast pocket became quite popular among British officers during World War I. There’s both buckle strap and metal T-bar versions of these leather straps. Vintage examples can still be found, and specialist dealers like Chris Balm are now offering excellent newly-made straps.
I’ve seen English dealers call them “Albert Straps” but then everyone seems to enjoy calling watch chains and straps Albert something-or-other; there’s Single Albert and Double Albert watch chains, too.
Watch guard is another accepted term for pocket watch straps made for the breast pocket. I have a nice vintage leather watch guard with a T-Bar that came from England. The guards with buckle straps are said to be harder to come by, and that seems true in my experience.
Watch Guard and 1925 Green Gold Hamilton 922
The T-Bar can also be worn hidden on the back side of the lapel with the leather strap running across front
I recently found a vintage plaited buckle strap for a decent price and it’s on the way from the UK. We’ll update this post when it arrives.
Another neat variant in breast pocket wear are the button chains. These were made specifically to be worn fastened to the jacket pocket’s buttonhole, and I think they look a little cleaner than the T-bar chains do when worn in the breast pocket, at least when worn with the T-Bar exposed.
My button chain was made by the jewelry company of Oscar M. Draper (no relation to Don). Here it is with a 1919 vintage Hamilton 920.
Keep in mind, the T-bar on a watch chain was originally meant to be hidden by the vest and not to be worn visibly in the buttonhole of a jacket. The button chain achieves a clean look and solves the problem some have with a T-bar showing on their lapel.
The T-bar showing was evidently not a problem for FDR, who was fond of using his T-bar watch chains in his breast pocket. Numerous photos show him wearing his watch this way.
You can, too. With a watch guard or button chain in your sartorial arsenal, you'll have another option beyond wearing a vest or wearing the watch in a trouser pocket with a chain clipped to a belt loop.
Classic pocket watches show the best side of humanity, in terms of the centuries of scientific achievement embodied in them as well as the beauty of their elegant designs.
They are too nice to keep hidden away in the dark confines of jewelry and safety deposit boxes.