I spotted this hitherto-unnoticed detail during our annual (ritual) holiday season viewing of the classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The ornate skull on the evil Mr. Potter’s desk is a nice piece of sinister foreshadowing, but – curiosity piqued – it took some detective work to identify the actual prop, which is an antique death’s head pocket watch.
Produced as functional memento mori and especially popular during the 17th and 18th centuries, these hefty pocket watches are about the size of billiard balls. Individually crafted by skilled artisans, they are frequently engraved with mortality symbols such as Grim Reaper imagery and mottoes in Latin reading “Pale death knocks with the same tempo upon the huts of the poor and the towers of Kings” or “Life is fleeting, Look down upon a fallen thing, Look upon eternity, the hour of death is uncertain”. The actual timepiece is visible only by opening the skull’s jaw.