Donor’s generosity brings Jane Stanford's wayward watch home

L.A. Cicero watch

The university last week welcomed back a precious gold pocket watch from Jane Stanford's jewelry collection that was sold nearly a century ago to help the university's library get through tight financial times. The storybook ending was made possible with the help of devoted Stanford supporter and software engineer Pierre Schwob.

An engraving on the back of the 18-karat gold watch reads, "J. Lathrop Stanford from Leland Jan. 1st 1868," identifying it as the gift that university founder Leland Stanford gave to his wife on New Year's Day. At that time, she was about four months pregnant with the son whose death would inspire the founding of Leland Stanford Jr. University.

The watch is about the size of a silver dollar, and on the front lid are diamonds clustered in the form of a rosebud. The timepiece was made by famed Swiss jeweler Patek Philippe in 1866 and sold a year later to once prominent San Francisco jeweler J. W. Tucker. The watch was then sold to Leland Stanford, and it remained with his wife until about 1899, when she authorized university trustees to let her jewelry collection be auctioned off. The trustees established the "Jewel Fund" in 1908—initially valued at $500,000—and the watch probably left Palo Alto around that time, according to University Archivist Maggie Kimball.

Last spring, Pennsylvania jeweler William Paul contacted the university that he was the current owner of the wayward watch. Paul, of South Park, Pa., received the item from his father, who also was a jeweler and who had previously bought the watch from a Catholic priest in their neighborhood, Kimball said. Paul kept the watch in a safe-deposit box for many years, but after noticing the engraving in a snapshot one day, he and his wife, Lori, delved into the Stanfords' history—eventually learning of the hardships that the family and the university faced after its founding.

The Pauls then spotted the watch in a book with a photo of the oil painting that Jane Stanford commissioned in 1899 to document her jewelry collection before it was to be sold off. Toward the middle of the painting, marked as number "16," is the watch. And although keenly interested by the discovery, Kimball said an attempt by the university to purchase the watch directly from Paul would have negated Jane Stanford's original intent.

Then just over a month ago, the Pauls put the watch up for bid on eBay, with Schwob's bid of $28,000 clinching the prize when the auction closed on Oct. 10. A staunch supporter of the university, Schwob had endowed the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) and the Fred Kavli Building project with a $1 million donation in December 2003 for the foundation of the P. R. Schwob Computing and Information Center, based at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

Schwob owns several patents and is a web pioneer. The Palo Alto entrepreneur developed the technology now licensed to Sony, Panasonic and other electronics giants that allows radios to seek and identify stations by call letters, music type and location. He has written several books, and in 1994 he started the Classical Music Archives, the largest online collection of classical music files.

"It was the right thing to do, and it was a romantic thing to do," Schwob said, crediting Daniel DeYoung, a friend and retired director of service operations for the university, for pointing out the watch's whereabouts. Schwob personally delivered the artifact to Kimball last Wednesday and made one request: that the watch not be sold again.

That seems highly unlikely, given its historical value. Now under Kimball's care, the watch will be on display soon at the Cantor Arts Center—most likely, near the painting of Jane Stanford's jewelry collection. It is the only piece ever to re-emerge, let alone be returned to Stanford. The hands are stopped at 7:37, and the watch would need to be repaired to get it ticking again.

But as it is, the Stanford family artifact is already one of the most valuable to come in under Kimball's watch.

"Yeah, it was purchased for $28,000," Kimball said, "but in many ways, you can't put a price on it."