"Turkish Numerals" on Antique Watches

I've recently come across numerous examples of old pocket watches made for the Ottoman market bearing unfamiliar numerals. I don';t know if they're a stylized version of the standard numerals used in Arabic, or something else entirely. Can anyone shed some light on this subject?

John Hudson's picture

Fascinating. Here is an image of another Serkisoff face, which confirms my thought about the middle symbol at the ‘eight’ and ‘nine’ positions: this looks very much like the Hindi numeral 2. But I can't make any sense of the rest of the symbols.

Are you familiar with Ottoman timekeeping practise? They kept the daily count of hours from sunset, which they called 12 o'clock, so clocks and watches needed to be reset every day.

Przemysław's picture

Exfish:
if they're a stylized version of the standard numerals used in Arabic

Yes, they are.

John Hudson's picture

I'm having a hard time seeing these as stylised forms of standard Arab numerals. Can you explain the system, which form represents which numeral?

froo's picture

It seems to be a symbolic system derived rather from cultural usus (plus astronomy) than from math, so the similarity to numerals is accidental.

Przemysław's picture

John:
Can you explain the system, which form represents which numeral?

Sure thing:

John Hudson's picture

Brilliant! Thank you very much. Now I see it very clearly.

Thomas Milo's picture

Gentle(wo)men,

This is an early case of "matchmaking", but in this case a brilliant design to give the Arabic scripted world a visual equivalent for Roman numbers, typical for watches - with opportunely tapered shapes. It can take its place next to Yaḥyà Boutemène's uniquely profound structural solution for morphing Latin shapes onto Arabic graphemes (see Roland Meynet, L'écriture Arabe en question, plates 57-58).

t

froo's picture

Brilliant. I though that "u" and "cedilla" are multipliers, not "matchmaked" forms, so not everything wanted to work as a system. I should have a look at standard numerals before writing my previous post.

Stephan Kurz's picture


I found a similar watch design in a museum in central Bosnia. Serkisoff is obviously easier to read than the appearent maker behind this one…

Thomas Milo's picture

I wish you could provide a close-up of the logo. It wouldn't surprise me if this was a tuğra adaptation of Serkisoff, apparently the monopolist for this type of watches.

(cf. www.tugra.org)

t

Stephan Kurz's picture


I took the picture with my cell phone through a glass showcase under bad lighting conditions, so I cannot provide anything better unfortunately… There seems to be a date on the lower right hand side (arabic numerals), and it sure does look tuğra-like; in any case: all hints appreciated.

François Charette's picture

Hello everyone,

I have just come across this interesting discussion.

The classic book on the topic is Otto Kurz, European clocks and watches in the Near East, London, Warburg Institute, 1975. You can also find additional useful references on this topic in David King, World-maps for finding the direction and distance to Mecca, Brill, 1999, pp. 285–289. The list in footnote 24 on pp. 286–288 shows that such numeral forms on clocks and watches appeared already in the early-17th c., perhaps even in the 16th c.

Concerning the tuğra above, I can't read it because it is mostly hidden by the minute hand, but it appears to be an Ottoman name, and thus is not related to Serkisoff. The number (327 or 227) at the right could be a serial number, or, far more likely, an abbreviation for the Hijra year 1327 (= 1909) or 1227 (= 1812). Given the photo of the watch displayed above, I would opt for the latter date.

Regards,
FC

Stephan Kurz's picture

François, I am impressed. Thank you very much.

dezcom's picture

Whatever the historic reasoning behind it, it looks fabulous around a circle! Much better than Roman numerals for fit on a clock face.

Beautiful symbols or glyphs for me overcome the need for instant recognition ;-)

notanimposter's picture

Sorry to bump an old thread, but I have a pocket watch very similar to the Serkisoff watches pictured, although mine reads "SERPOS & CIE \ CONSTANTINOPLE". Unable to find anything online without the proper terminology, I was luckily able to decipher the numerals on my own (read: I spent my weekend at the library). The strange thing I noticed was that my watch has two 1s. The face is almost identical to the first picture in the thread, but the face reads '12, 1, 1, 3, 4, 5...7, 8, 9, 10, 11'. It doesn't look worn off or anything, just like they put the wrong numeral on it. I would appreciate any knowledge anyone has regarding my seemingly odd watch.

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