The Nuremberg Eggs

The Nuremberg Eggs

Sculpted from chocolate, boiled and dyed, rolled down hills, decorated or just scrambled on toast; this Easter weekend, there’s almost a guarantee that there’ll be an egg or two around. And while we are, of course, partial to the large chocolatey variety, we thought it only apt to take more of a horological look at our ovoid friends.

Nuremberg, in the mid 16th century, was the most wealthy and powerful city in Europe, leading the way in the worlds of art and craftsmanship. There lived a locksmith named Peter Henlein, the man responsible for the miniaturisation of the torsion pendulum and coil spring mechanism. His work enabled the creation of portable watches driven by wound-up clockwork rather than cumbersome weights; he had, for all intents and purposes, invented the first watch. At the time, this step forwards in horological design took the form of Dosenuhr cylindrical drum-watches, which were designed to be carried in a purse or hung around the neck in a pomander. They were primarily novelty items; something to flaunt, indicative of one’s status. With only one hand, they were only able to indicate the time to the nearest half hour, and their accuracy was very questionable.

Then came the work that would print Henlein’s name in the history books in indelible ink; an oval version of the Dosenuhr; the Nuremberg Egg. An engraved and ornamented version of the clunky cylinders that had come before, the golden Nuremberg Egg was several inches in diameter, designed to be worn around the neck or attached to clothing, and to be seen. The dial of the watch itself had only an hour hand, partially concealed by an elaborate grillwork cover so that the time could be read without fully opening the watch. Made of steel, the movement worked through a mainspring that gradually unwound - just like the mainspring you’ll find in our watches - and it required winding twice a day. It’s difficult to comprehend just how much work and innovation must have gone into that golden egg; if we were to consider even just the steel from which the movement was partially made, for example, it’s important to remember that at this point, the making of steel from iron was in its infancy. To have created the fine work that he did, Henlein showed mastery far beyond the era. Each part was beautifully made, often finely engraved so as to reflect the fact that this was a piece of jewellery, designed to be seen. The balance was regulated by means of a carefully placed coarse pig’s bristle. While the Nuremberg Eggs weren’t exactly accurate in today’s terms, it’s a miracle that they worked as well as they did, with such intricate work coming together with raw, undeveloped materials and techniques inside their gilded outers.

While it would make sense to assume that the Nuremberg Eggs were so named because of their shape, it’s believed that they were so named because of some confusion in the translation of the German word ‘ueurlein’, which means little clock, and ‘eyerlein’, which means little egg. Spoken in English, the two sound almost identical.

The Nuremberg Eggs were one of the first options for portable time-telling and they marked a huge step forwards in not only functional innovation but in aesthetic consideration. For the first time, people were marvelling at the intriguing mechanisms within; and applauding the designs which surrounded them. It was the start of humanity’s love affair with watches; with portable, functional objects which look great and serve their purpose. It wasn’t long before the ever-sartorial King Charles II was introducing the cutting edge waistcoat to his court, and was thus requiring an accessory for his pocket, which meant that the egg-shaped Nuremberg watches had to be adapted to have a flat back so that they could slide into the pocket easily. So popular was this newly adapted shape it has remained largely unchanged in pocket watches - and, as a result, wristwatches - ever since.

No Nuremberg Eggs are known to exist in the present day. It is known that they were sent from Nuremberg to Kings around the world as gifts, and that they were worn with great pride, and likely to have been treasured; but perhaps only until the next best thing came along. Replicas have been made, giving us the opportunity to appreciate the form and technique that went into making these earliest watch designs. They would be of huge value today; both monetarily but also in helping to unravel the mystery of how Henlein and his unknown manufacturer were able to create such miniature marvels, and as the first examples of portable watches. Those of us who are of the more fanciful and romantic nature might like to believe that they’re out there somewhere; hidden in a collector’s cave of treasures or unknowingly resting in a dusty box, awaiting discovery. Now there’s an Easter egg hunt we’d like to win.

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  • Great bit of history. Thanks very much for the post

    Selwyn McFaul
  • Oliver, that was a most interesting article on the Nuremberg Eggs.
    So! No originals are known to exist, therefore I must keep my beedy eyes open at the local antique fairs and car boot sales, and when I find one the Antiques Road Show beckons 🙂👍

    George Redpath
  • Really interesting – thanks for that guys.


    David Narro

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