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Nicole, Nielsen & Co.

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.
Nicole, Nielsen & Co, Ltd – High Class English Watches
Nicole, Nielsen & Co, Ltd – High Class English Watches: Click image to enlarge
Available from David Penney's Antique Watch Store.

This company was started by Swiss born watchmakers Charles Victor Adolphe Nicole and Jules Philippe Capt in 1839. It initially traded as Nicole & Capt from 80B Dean Street, Soho, London. By 1858 the company had relocated to larger premises at 14 Soho Square, where it remained until it finally closed in 1934. They made movements or watches for E. J. Dent, Charles Frodsham and others. Robert Roskell & Co Ltd of Liverpool was an important customer.

For a period of about 60 years from circa 1870, Nicole Nielsen manufactured some of the finest and most complicated English watches ever made. The catalogue shown in the photo here is a reprint by David Penney of a circa 1910 original. It illustrates a wide variety of high quality watches made by Nicole, Nielsen & Co at the time, including tourbillions, chronographs and ‘special order’ items, and an introduction to the firm written by David.

Invention of the Chronograph

In 1844, Adolphe Nicole was granted patent No 10,348 for keyless work for fusee watches. Included in the patent were details of chronograph work, including a heart shaped cam that allowed the seconds hand to be returned to zero by a push of a button, the flyback mechanism still used today.

Unlike earlier centre seconds chronograph watches, which stopped the train, and hence stopped keeping time, when the chronograph function was used, in Nicole's invention the chronograph train was independent of the time train and the chronograph seconds hand could be started, stopped and returned to zero without affecting the timekeeping of the watch.

This was the first really useful chronograph and Nicole is regarded as the inventor of modern chronograph and split seconds chronograph watches.

In 1862, Nicole was granted patent No 1,461 for an improved chronograph with a castle ratchet. During a lecture delivered to the Manchester and North of England Horological Society, Charles Guignard said that the first chronographs were exhibited at the London Exhibition of 1862, and again in Paris in 1867. They had the chronograph mechanism under the dial. By about 1870 the first minute recorder was added and the chronograph mechanism moved to above the top plate.

In 1896, Henri-Féréol Piguet claimed that he had invented the modern form of the chronograph in 1861. This was refuted a few days late as follows

Contrary to the assertions of Mr. H.-F. Piguet, the watchmaking houses Nicole, Nielsen & Co in London and Capt & Meylan in Solliat claim the invention of the chronograph as being the work of Adolphe Nicole, who in 1844 took out a patent for a watch with a seconds hand starting from a point, stopping at will, and returning to its starting point. In 1862, he took out a second patent for an improved chronograph, and shortly after, added a split-seconds hand and a chronograph minute counter.

Sponsor's Marks

Adolphe Nicole entered two sponsor's mark punches at the London Assay Office, the first on 4 June 1844 and the second on 6 November the same year. The marks were his initials AN in cameo within a rectangular surround. It is not known whether the company made watch cases in house or whether the punches were given to a separate watch case maker to be used on cases made for the company, which was a common practice. A sponsor's mark only shows who is responsible for an item submitted for hallmarking, it does not show who actually made the item. People and companies often choose to have their own registered marks placed on items they have ordered or commissioned, even if they have no role in making the item. This was explicitly made legal by the Plate (Offences) Act 1738.

A further AN cameo punche was entered on 29 November 1854, the address 80B Dean Street, Soho, being amended on 13 April 1858 to 14 Soho Square, Soho. Another punch of the same description was entered on 6 May 1873.

Nicole, Nielsen & Co

Around 1870, Danish born Sophus Emil Nielsen joined Adolphe Nicole as a partner and the name of the company was changed to Nicole, Nielsen & Co.

Charles Victor Adolphe Nicole died on 7 Aug 1876.

In 1876 the company under the name Nicole, Nielsen & Co, London was given an award for watches at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. In 1881, Nicole, Nielsen & Co, London, was give a second class award at the Melbourne International Exhibition for pocket watches and chronometers.

On 6 August 1878, Charles Nicole & Emil Nielsen trading as Nicole Nielsen & Company, 14 Soho Square, Soho, entered a sponsor's mark of the initials CN over EN in cameo within a rectangular surround with cut corners.

In 1890, in a lecture on recent progress in watch and clockmaking, Julien Tripplin remarked that “In the important matter of watchmaking by machinery we have, during the past ten years, vigorously pushed ourselves to the front rank in quality and organisation, for, besides the large factory of Messrs. Rotherham, we have in London those of Messrs. Guye and Company, and Nicole, Nielsen, and Company.”

Nicole, Nielsen & co. were half way between a traditional craft watchmaker and a machine based mass-production factory. They made their own movements, rather than buying them in from a movement maker. Their machines were initially powered by foot or hand in the traditional way, but at the Soho factory an Otto gas engine was installed in the basement and drove line shafting. Parts were made to gauged sizes so that they were interchangeable.

Nicole, Nielsen & Co, Ltd – High Class English Watches
Nicole, Nielsen & Co, Ltd – High Class English Watches: Click image to enlarge

The page from the catalogue reproduced here shows a Type 24 Gentlemen’s 20 size, 18 carat gold, fusee keyless dome watch with up and down indicator. It has a tourbillon lever escapement revolving once a minute, a ¾-plate movement jewelled in 14 holes, double roller lever escapement, Breguet balance spring and is compensated and adjusted for position errors.

It is interesting that the description continues “We guarantee to obtain a National Laboratory A Certificate with at least 90 marks for every watch we manufacture of this type ; they are the outcome of many years of experiment, and the finest production of the watchmaker’s art.”

The factory differed from a typical mass-production factory where large numbers of identical parts were turned out by automatic machinery. In the Nicole, Nielsen factory, watches were customised for each customer so that they had their own unique design. This meant that different jigs and dies were required for each customer and consequently fewer parts were made in each batch. Adding to the difficulty was that in addition to simple time-only watches, minute recording chronographs, split seconds chronographs and a variety of other complicated watches were produced.

Unlike other companies that made watches by mass-production methods, Nicole, Nielsen & Co did not publicise their use of machinery, preferring to be more associated with the traditional hand craft methods of English watchmaking.

This firm did not desire any notice of the merits of their tools and machinery given to the world, as they did not wish their watches to be known as machine made, their business being of a select and aristocratic character.

When Adolphe Nicole retired, the company was run as a partnership by Sophus Emil Nielsen, who had married Adolphe Nicole's daughter Harriet Victoire, and Adolphe Nicole's two other children Charles and Zelia Louise. In July 1885, it was announced that the partnership had been dissolved by mutual consent on 31 December 1884 and that Charles and Zelia had left. The business was continued by Sophus Emil and Harriet Victoire Nielsen.

In 1888 the firm was sold by Sophus Emil and Harriet Victoire Nielson to Robert Benson North. The business was converted into a limited liability company under the title Nicole, Nielsen & Co Ltd. Sophus Emil Nielson died shortly afterwards, after a long illness, in June 1899. In his obituary it was said that “under his guidance the machine system of manufacture was introduced”.

In 1891, at the Kew watch trials, a watch entered by Nicole, Nielsen & Co, London, came 10th of the 27 watches that obtained the highest marks during the year with 82.7 marks. The watch had the serial number 10115 and had a duo-in-uno balance spring, a double roller and a going barrel. It gained 31.8 out of 40 marks (79.5% of the possible total) for daily variation of rate, 36.2 out of 40 marks (90.5%) for change of rate with change of position and 14.7 out of 20 marks (73.5%) for temperature compensation. This was a respectable result because the watch had the complications of a minute and split seconds chronograph, which were more difficult to achieve high accuracy with than a simple time-only watch.

In 1901, Robert Benson North, trading as Nicole, Nielsen & Co, Watch Manufacturer, 14 Soho Square, entered a sponsor's mark of the initials RN in cameo within a rectangular surround at the London Assay Office. A second punch of the same description was entered on 30 October 1901.

In March 1903, Robert Benson North was granted Patent No 6,737 for “Improvements in Revolving Escapements for Watches and other Portable Timekeepers”. This was a type of slow-moving tourbillion or Karrusel, where the escapement revolves around a fixed train wheel.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated February 2024. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.