Elys Dolan with her glass ball pocket watch, which fell to pieces moments after she bought it © Si Barber for the FT
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Pocket watch collector Elys Dolan is often patronised by the “typical old white man” dealers and jewellers she meets. “I think people make an assumption from the fact that I’m a moderately young woman that I haven’t got a bloody clue,” she says.

She bought her first piece when she was 11, although she kept her interest hidden from friends as a teenager “because there would have been no end of trouble”. Now 32, she has about 40 vintage pocket watches to her name.

As an author and illustrator of children’s books, her habit of carrying one in her pocket, or on a chain round her neck, is a practical one. “Being in illustration — and having always been making and doing, or colouring or painting — anything that you wear on your hands or your wrists is liable to get ruined instantly,” says Ms Dolan, who lectures at the Cambridge School of Art.

She is interested primarily in the personal history of a watch rather than its maker. “It’s the knowing that somebody’s owned it before and it’s had a bit of a life,” she says. “I’ve never bought a modern watch because they don’t hold the same appeal.”

Ladies’ open face Camerer Kuss & Co (late Victorian)

open-face Camerer Kuss & Co © Si Barber for the FT

Her favourite pocket watch “feels like it’s been through the mill” thanks to the pawnbroker marks scratched on the back, along with horologist marks telling of its service history.

Ms Dolan chose the piece, an 18th birthday present from her parents, at a collectors’ fair, pairing it with a gold double Albert chain (which runs from buttonhole to pocket) from the same stall. But the asking price was too high, so her mum had to play “a cunning long game” to get the dealer to accept a lower sum. “I think that was the first moment that I stopped seeing my mother as my mother but as a proper person, a very clever person,” she says.

She wore the yellow gold watch, which has a “detailed and lavish” case engraved with a rose and leaf motif, to her graduation ceremony.

Ladies’ open-face Waltham (late 1800s)

Ladies’ open-face Waltham © Si Barber for the FT

After Ms Dolan decided that she wanted to mark every major birthday with a watch, her now husband bought her a US-made rose gold Waltham for her 21st.

She wore the delicate piece, which is about the size of a 10 pence coin, on a chain round her neck for the launch of her first book, 2013’s Weasels. “I sat there the 10 minutes before the doors opened . . . rubbing this watch thinking, ‘Oh God, I really hope this whole thing works out’,” she says.

Ladies’ half hunter (Victorian/Edwardian)

Half-hunter © Si Barber for the FT

Before Weasels was published, Ms Dolan came second in the 2011 Macmillan Prize for children’s picture book illustration. Then a student, she spent her winnings on a silver half hunter, a pocket watch with a glass panel in the outer casing that allows the wearer to see the hands.

“I did pay my rent that month but I did have to live on beans for a little while afterwards,” she says. “But it was worth it.”

Men’s open-face James Wadsworth (1903)

Open-face James Wadsworth © Si Barber for the FT

Ms Dolan finds a pocket watch more compelling than a wristwatch because it is “like a kit” in that it has accompanying accessories such as a chain, T-bar to attach it to a button hole and a fob.

Her husband wore her silver Wadsworth on their wedding day in 2017 on a silver single Albert graduated chain that she had bought when she was 16.

Her father-in-law gave Ms Dolan the watch shortly before the marriage. It had been presented to his grandfather to mark 27 years of service at John Marston, the manufacturer of the Sunbeam bicycle.

“I was very, very touched to be given this piece of family history to take care of,” says Ms Dolan.

Glass ball watch (1800s)

Glass ball watch © Si Barber for the FT

She was thrilled to find an unusual silver glass ball watch at an antiques fair five years ago. She likes being able to see the mechanism on one half of the piece without having to open it up, and the face on the other.

A silver band is inscribed with a date. “I’ve got no idea what it relates to, nor who owned this watch beforehand, but I really want to know what happened on the 7th September 1893,” says Ms Dolan, who wears the watch on a chain like a necklace. “It’s like the beginning of a story.”

She thought she had bagged a bargain. However, giving the £50 watch a quick wind back at her car, the crown came away in her hand and “the whole thing fell to bits”. “It had obviously been put together just long enough to sell it,” she says. The dealer, meanwhile, had “disappeared off into the ether”. She has since had the watch repaired.

She finds collecting rather addictive, but she will never sell her existing pieces to fund her habit. “I’m far too much of a hoarder to ever let them go,” she says. “It’s like you’re suggesting that I sell my children.”

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