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Theodore J.Gates Watch Crystals

Theodore Gates was born in Vestaburg, Michigan. He and his wife were ardent collectors. In 1955, Gates became interested in collecting buttons as he found buttons interesting. Gates found buttons represented art, literature, history, business, occupations, beauty, and materials from which they were made. He was quite fond of the fragile old watch crystal buttons. While repairing an old watch crystal, Gates observed how the button was made. It was at this time he decided he could make them, too. According to the National Button Society, May 1985 bulletin, “his first ones were not with paper but were made by taking old two piece metal buttons apart and embedding the flowers, etc. in coal dust and Elmer’s glue. He use metal shanks from old common buttons…He found Godey prints that were not good enough for framing, so he preserved the ladies, their hands and fans in his watch crystal buttons. He also discovered fine art on the little paper packets of Domino sugar- birds in one series, antique cars in another. These made great cut-outs for his buttons.” His first buttons were not made until 1964. The embedded metals came first, then the bugs in plexiglass, and finally the watch crystals were born. Gates signed all of his buttons “TJG” and usually dated with the year.

Professor Gates was open about his process for others to use. Images were carefully cut with an Exacto blade preparing it for decoupage. Sobo was put on the front of the image and then press on the inside of the crystal with a damp cloth. The back and edges were smeared with Elmer’s glue to seal and harden. At this point, glitter and/or peals, etc. were put on using a lacquer and brush. After it was dry, some buttons were painted a color, such as flat black or an interior decorative enamel paint. The button was again dried. To speed up the drying process he sometimes placed the buttons on a screen setting just above a 15 watt bulb. Next was the process of filling the back of the button. Using a mixture of thin and coarse coal dust along with Elmer’s glue the back of the watch crystal was filled very neatly and carefully. Again the button needed to dry overnight. The shank was put on with glue and fine coal dust and allowed to dry for about 1/2 hour. After it was dried, Gates applied a very thing mixture of coal dust to flow out and level off the back of the button. And prior to its drying he levels off and smooth the edges with a knife then cleans with a wet cloth. The buttons are again dried overnight, then cleaned with a knife and nail polish remover on a saturated pad to clean the entire button. The final step was to add his initials and date with white paint.

Gates had a relatively late start in collecting buttons and collected for about 18 years until his death in 1973. For such a short time in the button world he made a wonderful name for himself and produced some very fabulous watch crystal buttons of many subjects including Romans, The Horribles, cigar box art, buildings, Queen Victoria’s court, Godey’s 1880 prints, Greenaway, religious, English royalty, the lovely Flower Children and more.

For more information see the National Button Bulletin, Vol. 44, No. 2, May 1985.

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