I’ll be honest…I’m not a fan of wristwatches. Never have been, am not now, and never will be. I find them uncomfortable, irritating, pedestrian and boring. Plus, I can never find a dial that I like. I’m a simple person and I hate trying to read a watch-dial that has tiny numbers, that has no numbers, or that has a million other things on it, like day, date, month, moonphase, stopwatch, heartrate-monitor and an inbuilt, nuclear-holocaust-grade gieger-counter.
Unfortunately these days, most watches seem to come in one of those three categories. To add to this, I do a lot of things with my hands: Writing, typing, playing the piano and handling heavy stuff. And when I’m doing stuff like that, a wristwatch just gets in the way. I used to have a really bad habit (according to some), of removing my wristwatch all the time and putting it into my pocket whenever I used it, and only taking it out when I wanted to tell the time. Well, after a few years of this, I gave up and decided that for my 21st birthday a few years ago, I’d buy myself a pocket-watch.
I love pocket-watches. Call me kooky and weird if you must, but I do. They’re a classic piece of men’s jewellery which, sadly, has been out of fashion for the best part of the last fifty or sixty years. The last commercially-produced pocket watches were made in the 1970s, and by that, I mean you found them in shop-windows or in magazines. These days? Not on your life.
I wear a pocket-watch on a daily basis. It’s easy to read, it’s classy, I don’t have some ugly manacle on my wrist all the time…and believe me, the pocket-watch is an amazing conversation-starter!
On watch forums, on history forums and just generally online, I’ve heard of people who want to buy pocket watches, either to wear, or to practice watchmaking on, or to give as a present to a friend or relation. Maybe they want to establish a sort of classic dress-style and want the watch to complete their look. Maybe they’re steampunkists looking for that finishing touch to their outfit. But then they start wondering: “Where the hell do I find a pocket-watch?”
The biggest problem with pocket watches is that, since they’re so rarely worn these days, finding one can be a challenge. This is my guide to shopping for a good-quality antique, vintage or hell, even a modern pocket watch! So let’s get to it. Hopefully, you’ll find it helpful.
Where to Look?
This is probably the hardest thing. Where do you start looking? The days where you could mail-order a pocket-watch from a magazine or buy one in a regular shop are long gone. But there are still places you can go to find a pocket watch. Here they are:
Duuuuuh! Pocket-watches in antiques shops are usually good quality, but keep in mind that these watches are being sold by professional antiques dealers. Their prices could be scarily expensive. And that’s without spending the money to get the watch serviced, as well! Unless you’ve got money to burn, it’s best to avoid these places.
Another rather obvious place. Some watchmakers’ shops do sell pocket-watches. Either modern ones or vintage and antique pocket-watches that they’ve bought, serviced and want to resell, or watches that people have sold or donated to them. Buying a pocket-watch from a watchmaker or a watch-shop is still going to be expensive, but you will at least have the peace-of-mind in knowing that you’re dealing with a professional who not only knows his stuff (hopefully!) but that you’re also buyinig a pocket-watch that has already been serviced, saving you a nice bit of money.
Flea-markets and watch-shows.
Flea-markets, bric-a-brac markets, watch-shows, junk-shops, thrift-shops and other dealers of second-hand junk are another nice place to look for pocket watches, however, these places can be fraught with various dangers, such as the quality of the timepiece, the knowledge of the seller, and of course…the fact that the watch is second-hand, being sold outside of a professional environment.
You might get amazingly lucky and buy a good-quality pocket-watch secondhand. But you still have to pay to get the watch serviced. You wouldn’t buy a car without having it serviced before driving it, would you? No. Neither should do that with a pocket-watch. They’re mechanical devices that require care and attention. If you do find a nice pocket-watch, then you have to deal with the seller. If the seller is ignorant of the quality of the watch, you could probably knock the price down pretty substantially before buying it, or, if the seller knows *exactly* what he’s selling, you might not get anywhere. The last factor is that you’re buying the watch second-hand outside of a professional environment. What do I mean by this?
By this, I mean that the watch most likely has not been serviced. Servicing means that the watch has been taken to a watchmaker, it has been examined, disassembled, examined, cleaned, examined, lubricated, reassembled, examined, timed for accuracy and then put back together into its complete state again. When buying any pocket-watch second-hand, remember that you will need to have it serviced and that you should factor at least $200 into the service-cost. So if you buy a watch for $100, it’ll cost about $300 (or more, depending on what needs to be done) to get the watch to a satisfactory, working condition.
Some watch-collectors or watchmakers or watch-sellers love selling stuff on eBay, and this can be a very nice place to look for watches, provided that you know what you’re looking for. As pocket-watches can be expensive, people aren’t likely to try and cheat you out of money, because if you buy a dud from them, they know that they’re probably never going to hear the end of it from you. Stick to online shops or sellers with high reputations.
Apart from eBay, there are also plenty of watch-sites online that sell new or used pocket-watches. These are also excellent places to search for pocket-watches, as each watch-listing will usually include all the important details about the watch’s manufacture, quality, age and service-history. Prices might be a bit high, so keep that in mind.
What to Look For?
Now you know where to look, the next thing to know is what to look for. Don’t forget that pocket watches have been around for about five hundred years. There were literally hundreds, if not thousands of watchmakers, making everything from the sensible, to the sensational, to the senseless! Making…er…sense…of all these watches and the varying qualities is important, so that you know what to look for.
Wanting to buy a pocket-watch is only half the battle. Knowing what makes quality is the other half. As most pocket-watches these days are ones that you’ll be buying second-hand, keep an eye on the following:
Pocket-watches have been around for centuries. There are millions of pocket-watches out there made by thousands of watchmakers. How do you know what’s good quailty? A general rule of thumb is: Never buy a pocket-watch if you can’t type the name of the watch-company or watchmaker into a Google Search, and find information on it. If nobody’s bothered to write about this company or watchmaker and post it online, there’s probably a damn good reason. The two main reasons are: Rarity (which means if your watch breaks, you can’t find parts for it!) or poor quality (which means you’re wasting money having it serviced!).
Stick to well-known watchmakers. Companies such as: Waltham, Hamilton, Elgin, South Bend, Rockford, Illinois, Patek-Philippe (if you can afford it!), Breuget (again, if you can afford it!), Tissot, Ball and Omega, to name just a few. All these companies made watches of good quality which are worth looking at.
Never…ever…buy a broken pocket-watch. Buying a nonfunctioning watch is fine, but not a broken one. What’s the difference?
A ‘nonfunctioning’ watch is a watch which is in perfect mechanical condition. It just won’t run. This can be remedied by a trip to the watchmaker. Once it’s cleaned and reassembled, it should work wonderfully! So if you find a watch that’s in good condition but which doesn’t run, buy it and send it to the watchmaker.
A broken watch is…a broken watch. One with damaged components, one with missing components (even worse!) or one which is being sold ‘for parts’. If you’re unlucky enough to buy a broken watch, depending on the brand of watch, it may be possible to get the watch fixed and working, but this could mean a higher servicing-bill. Keep that in mind.
The next thing to look for in buying a watch is general condition…
Case and Caseback
In the strictest term, a ‘watch’ is the movement, the mechanics inside the case. The case around the watch is just something to keep it safe. Watch-cases are made up of various components:
– Bow. (Pronounced like ‘throw’). The bow is the round metal ring or loop on the top of the watch-case. This is where you clip your watch-chain to. A good bow should be centered properly and not too loose or likely to part company with the case.
– Bezel. The bezel is the metal securing-ring around the crystal. A nice bezel should be free from brassing, scratches and dents.
– Crystal. The crystal (some people like to call them the ‘glass’) is the circle of glass, plastic or crystal over the watch-dial. Crystals should be free from scratches, chips and cracks.
– Caseback. The caseback is the back of the case (duh!). Some casebacks have small cartouches or blank, empty spots on them. These were there for people to engrave their monograms or initials on. A good caseback should be free from scratches, dents and brassing.
– Crown. The crown is the round, corrugated knob at the top of the watch, above the pendant and below the bow. The crown is used to wind the watch, and in most cases, set it to the right time. A crown shouldn’t be too loose and wobbly. It should turn smoothly and evenly when you wind the watch and it should pop out smoothly and click back down smoothly when you set the time.
Watch-dials should be clean and easy to read, without any hairline cracks or chips or faded lettering and markings. A small note: A hairline crack does NOT damage the whole integrity of the dial: Dials were placed on metal backing-plates which secured them to the watch-movement, so a crack on the dial doesn’t mean that it’s going to fall to pieces.
A pocket-watch typically has three hands. Hour, Minute and Second. In most pocket-watches, the second-hand is a tiny thing which spins around the ‘seconds subdial’, which is a smaller, inset dial at the bottom of the watch, at the six o’clock point. Make sure that all the hands match and that they’re proportionate to the size of the watch.
The ‘movement’ is the mechanics inside the watch. Check for cracks, rust, missing screws, wobbly bits that shouldn’t be, and stationary bits that shouldn’t be. Most importantly of all, check the balance. The balance is the the heart of the watch. It’s the bit that swings back and forth, making the watch go ‘tick-tock’. Balances can be pretty delicate, so don’t touch it, just look at it. Check to see that the balance-spring (more commonly called a ‘hairspring’) is perfectly coiled. If it’s tangled up or if it’s off-center, that will need to be looked at by a watchmaker.
While you’re looking at the movement, search for the following features…
If you’re buying an American-made vintage or antique pocket-watch, look for the serial-number. The serial-number on the movement can tell you how old the watch is, how many of this model were made and how long they were made for. Also look for words like “Jewels” and “Adjusted”. Good quality pocket-watches always had jewels in them. These are typically rubies or sapphires which are used as bearings to cut down on friction. Cutting down on friction means that the watch runs smoother and keeps better time. Aim to buy a watch with at least seven jewels. The traditional jewel-counts for quality pocket watches started at seven, and then went up to nine, eleven, fifteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty-one and lastly, twenty-three jewels. A seven-jewel watch will give you decent timekeeping. A watch with more jewels should give you better timekeeping, but don’t expect quartz-watch accuracy…that’s not going to happen. Ever.
If you find the word ‘adjusted’ inside your watch, you might find extra words like “Adjusted to *X* positions”.
There are eight possible ‘adjustments’ that can be made to a watch. Adjustments for position (there are six of these) meant that the watch was expected to keep accurate time, no matter how you held the watch: upside down, right side up, flat on a table, flipped upside down on a table, on a stand on its side…anything. Then, there are two other adjustments: Isochronism and Temperature.
Isochronism (say that six times fast! Pronounced ‘eye-sock-row-nism’) is the ability of the watch to keep time regardless of the mainspring’s level of tension. All watches should be adjusted for this. If you find ‘Temperature’ engraved on the watch-movement, it means that the watch has been adjusted to keep time in extremes of temperature: Freezing cold and boiling heat (from about 0 degrees celsius to about 45 degrees, or 32 degrees farenheit and about 115 degrees).
Buying a highly jewelled, adjusted watch in good condition will assure you of good timekeeping once it’s been serviced by a professional. Don’t bother buying a mechanical pocket-watch without at least seven jewels in it…it’s not worth it. Watches like that were designed to be used until they broke, after which, they were meant to be thrown out. Don’t waste your money on that.
Buying your Watch
Now you know where to look, and what to look for. Antiques shops, watch-shops, flea-markets, eBay, online shops. What to check for on a good quality watch. Now you want to buy a watch. What do you do?
How much does a pocket-watch cost? This is probably the first thing you’re asking.
That really depends. I could go out right now and buy a mechanical pocket watch made in China for $15 (and yes, I have actually done that, a long time ago). But that $10 Chinese-made piece of junk isn’t going to last you any, and it’s not gonna look nice when you wear it. So how much should you expect to pay for a quality watch?
Modern pocket-watches are usually quartz pocket watches with plated watch-cases. A simple quartz pocket-watch can be had for about $10. It’ll last forever, it’s easy to maintain, and…that’s it. But when most people think about pocket watches, they imagine those old-timey wind-up things that you see in old movies. How much does one of those cost?
Antique & Vintage Mechanical Pocket-Watches
A word of warning: When buying mechanical pocket watches, newer is not always better. A modern, good-quality mechanical pocket-watch might be a nice thing to buy, and some of them are indeed great quality and worth the money, but remember that these days, most pocket watches are manufactured as showpieces and decoration…not as practical timepieces.
If you want a mechanical pocket-watch, it’s better to buy a vintage or antique watch from a famous watch-company. Why? Because back when these watches were made, quality-control, testing and general manufacturing standards were a LOT higher. This is because they had to be…they were the only watches around, so they had to be good quality. Unlike today when everything is a throwaway affair, back then, you bought a pocket-watch to last you your whole life, so quality was much better.
A watch like that can be had for anywhere from a hundred dollars (not including servicing) to around $500 or more, depending on quality, case-metal, reputation of the maker and of course, the functionality of the watch. Solid gold and silver watches are very hard to buy cheap. Unscrupulous people love buying watches like this…and they rip out the movement…they take off the crystal, they remove the dial…and they melt the watch-case down for scrap. Because of this, solid-gold watches or solid silver watches are getting increasingly expensive. Unless you have a lot of money, forget about owning one of those. Whatever you pay for your pocket-watch, be it $100 or $1,000, always remember to factor in another $250 for the servicing that the watch will have to undergo before you can use it!
If you want a gold watch, the best thing to go for is a gold-filled watch. Vintage and antique gold-filled watches are more common, they cost less and they looked just as nice. But just to clarify: Gold-filling is NOT gold-plating.
Gold-filling is done by getting two sheets of gold and sandwiching them either side of a base-metal (brass) and welding them together nice and solid. This creates the appearance of solid gold without the heart-attack-inducing price-tag. Because it was cheaper to produce but just as pretty, most watch-case companies made cases like this. They lasted a long time and they looked pretty. When checking a case for gold-content, gold-filled cases are usually marked “Gold filled” or “Guaranteed to wear for 5/10/20/25 years”. The longer the case is guaranteed to ‘wear’ or last for, the better the gold-filling and the better the quality. Gold-filled cases were usually 14kt, but this can vary.
Gold-plating is done by immersing a base-metal watch-case (made of brass) into a solution and electroplating it with gold. This is also cheaper and gives the appearance of gold. But unlike gold-filling, which will last for decades, you’d be lucky if gold-plating lasts a year. The gold-plating is often so thin (only a few microns) that enough rubbing and handling of the watch-case will soon rub all the gold right off. On the other hand, it takes decades of heavy use to do the same thing to a gold-filled case.
What if you want a silver watch-case instead? If you can’t afford real, sterling or coin-silver, then you’ll have to settle for silver-plate, or you could do the next step down and buy a watch with a nickel case. Nickel might sound cheap, but it can give a nice, silvery look to a watch at a fraction of the price.
Another thing you should consider is the case-style that you want. This won’t be too hard, there are only two. The first case-style is the ‘open-face case’. This means that you have the case and the bezel and the crystal and the dial, with the crown at 12 o’clock. The other case-style is the ‘hunter-case’. A hunter-case pocket-watch is one with a lid that closes over the watch-dial. This can be a useful feature for some people, who want to prevent the watch-crystal from getting scratched, cracked or chipped. A hunter-case watch is opened by pressing down on the crown, which releases a spring-loaded catch inside the watch-case to open the lid. Closing a hunter-case watch should be done by pressing down on the crown, closing the lid and then releasing the crown to keep it shut. Just snapping the case-lid shut can damage the catch and the metal on the edge of the case.
On most pocket-watches these days, setting the time is pretty easy. You pull out the crown, turn the hands and then pop the crown back down. Vintage pocket-watches, however, had about four ways to set the time. Knowing which one of these applies to your new antique or vintage pocket watch is important…doing it wrong could mean your watch has to go back to the watchmaker!
Key-set watches are the oldest of the oldest pocket watches. These watches were set by using the watch’s winding-and-setting key. Watches like these were obsolete by the second half of the 19th century, though.
The most common kind. You pull out the crown and turn it to set the hands and then push it back in. If your watch-crown doesn’t pop up neatly when you tug on it to set the time, don’t force it! It could be one of the following…
A lever-set watch (which was mandatory for ALL railroad-quality pocket-watches) works by unscrewing the bezel, pulling out the small, metallic setting-lever and turning the crown to set the time. Once the correct time is set, the lever is pushed back in and the bezel is screwed back on.
Pin-set watches are similar to lever-set watches, only, instead of pulling something out, you push something in. In this case, the setting-pin. On watches like this, the setting-pin is located near the watch-bow. You press down the pin and that allows you to turn the crown to set the hands. Once the hands are set, you release the pin and let the watch run.
Pocket-watches are rarely sold with their necessary watch-chains. Normally, you’re going to have to buy them seperately. A pocket-watch must be worn with its chain. Not only does it look nicer, it’s also a security feature. The chain catches the watch and prevents it from becoming abstract art on the pavement, if it should fall out of your pocket. The annoying thing about watch-chains is that they can be even MORE expensive than the watches themselves!
Solid gold watch-chains cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars. The cheapest I’ve found is $400. On the other hand, you can get a nice gold-filled chain for a fraction of that price, and a nice, polished brass watch-chain for even less! My brass Albert watch-chain cost all of $20 and it looks great!
When buying a chain, you want to make sure that it’s got a decent length (at least 10-14 inches long), that it’s strong and that the swivel-clips work. The clip is, after all, what holds the watch to the chain, so examining its integrity is vital.
There are four main types of watch-chains around today: Albert, Double Albert, ring-clip and belt-clip.
The Albert and Double Albert (named for His Royal Highness, Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria) are the most iconic of watch-chains. They feature a swivel T-bar at the end of the chain and were designed to be worn with jackets and waistcoats.
The ring-clip chain was designed to be worn with a pair of trousers. You put the watch into your watch-pocket and clipped the chain to your belt-loop.
A pocket-watch with a ring-clip chain
The belt-clip chain was also meant to be worn with trousers, where you put your watch into your watch-pocket and clipped the chain to your belt.
Wearing your Pocket-Watch
This is probably one of the most confusing things about pocket-watches in the 21st century. You’ve bought a nice, good-quality pocket watch. A 1902 Ball railroad watch with 21 jewels, eight adjustments and a pretty, gold-filled case and a nice, long watch-chain. Only…now…you don’t know what to do with it.
If you have absolutely no desire to actually wear your pocket watch, then another thing you can do with it is buy a pocket-watch stand. They’re cheap and easy to get online and you can put your watch (with the chain) onto your stand and use it as a clock on your desk or your dressing-table! That way, you can use it without using it…if that makes sense.
However, if you actually bought your watch and chain to wear it, but don’t know how…read on.
Now, a rather irrelevant piece of information is that I work as a volunteer in a charity shop. While helping out a customer there last week, she commented on my watch-chain and wondered what was on the end of it. I showed her, and this sparked a conversation between her and her friends about the pocket-watches that their fathers and grandfathers used to wear. She then asked me if you HAD to have a waistcoat (which is what I was wearing at the time) to wear a pocket watch?
The answer is ‘no’. I’ve been wearing a pocket-watch for the past two years, but I only bought a waistcoat a few months ago. Sadly, there is a HUGE misconception that you MUST own a three-piece suit, or at least a waistcoat, to wear a pocket-watch, and this tends to put people off. Maybe they don’t have a suit or a waistcoat, maybe they don’t want to wear it, but they feel that they have to. This simply isn’t true. Granted, the three-piece suit isn’t as prevelant today as it was sixty or seventy years ago, but you can still wear a pocket watch with modern dress. You just have to be creative.
Pocket-watches can be worn in a variety of ways; wearing one with a waistcoat is simply the most common one. There are a few ways you can wear a pocket watch, and here they are:
Most suit-jackets or suit-coats will have a buttonhole in the left lapel. That’s not just there to look weird or to put a flower into…it’s also where you put your watch-chain! Inserting the T-bar of an Albert-chain into the buttonhole from the front will keep the T-bar out of sight and keep the chain securely in-place. Your watch and the rest of your chain sits snugly in the jacket’s breast-pocket. You can, if you like, hang the rest of your chain out of your pocket, if you don’t want it cluttering up your breast-pocket and making it look too bulky.
Not many people are aware of this, but often when you buy trousers or jeans, they come with enigmatic little pockets, usually on the right side, near the hip. Useless for keys, mobile-phones, coins and condoms, these were actually added to jeans to serve as…you guessed it…watch-pockets!
Due to the “designer” fad of jeans at the moment, not all fifth-pockets will accomadate a pocket-watch, but most of the traditionally-styled jeans should present no problem at all. Just slip your pocket-watch into your trousers or jeans watch-pocket and then clip your ring-clip chain to the nearest convenient belt-loop, or slide your belt-clip chain over your belt. This latter chain is best clipped onto the belt from behind the belt, instead of in front, so that the clip doesn’t snap off the belt accidently when you pull on it. You may notice that the watch will sit in the pocket rather snugly – this is because you’re not meant to shove your fingers in there. Instead, pull on the watch-chain to slide the watch out instead.
Last but not least, the classic way: Wearing a pocket-watch with a waistcoat. To do this, you’ll need an Albert or Double-Albert chain. A pocket-watch can be worn with a double or single-breasted waistcoat and in any one of the two (or four) pockets. It’s really a matter of personal choice. Which-ever pocket is selected, the chain should be inserted into a buttonhole so that the top of the chain is in line with the top of the watch-pocket.
Caring for your Pocket Watch
Now that you have your pocket-watch, how do you look after it?
A pocket-watch should be wound once each day, either when you wake up, or when you go to sleep. Winding it more than once a day is not damaging to the watch, but it serves absolutely no purpose. A functional pocket-watch should be wound at least twelve turns. If it doesn’t, then it needs to be checked by a watchmaker. A pocket-watsh should be able to be wound right up and let to to run. If it’s wound up tight and it doesn’t run, it needs to be serviced. ‘Overwinding’ is a misnomer. It doesn’t mean that the watch has been wound too tightly and won’t run, it means that it’s been wound fully, but that the watch is too dirty internally, to run properly. This can be fixed with a routine servicing.
Storing your Watch
When you’re not wearing your watch, you should keep it in a clean, dry, dust-free place. In a jewellery-box, on a watch-stand or on a table where it won’t get bumped. Laying your watch on its back on your bedside table when you’re not using it (such as before going to bed) is perfectly fine.
My two pocket-watches sitting and hanging from their watch-stands on my desk, in company with my other great passion…my fountain pens!
Caring for your Watch
The caseback of the watch should be opened as rarely as possible, to prevent dust from getting inside the movement. Never try any of your own mechanics on your watch unless you’re actually studying watchmaking. The only exception to this is moving the regulator to get the watch to keep better time.
Keep your watch away from water, heights and dust. Antique and vintage pocket-watches are not waterproof or shockproof and both water and a significant-enough jolt are enough to send them back to the watchmaker. Keep the watch dust-free by keeping the caseback closed at all times unless you really need to open it.
Servicing your Watch
In the old days, a pocket-watch had to be serviced every two years. These days, you should have it serviced every five years (if you use it regularly) or every ten years (if you don’t). It’s important to find a watchmaker who will do a good job servicing your watch. If he charges less than $100 for a servicing…find another guy. If he promises to have the watch back to you quicker than two weeks…find another guy. If this person’s idea of a watchmaker is someone who changes batteries, does engraving and puts on watch-straps…find another guy.
Pocket-watches are delicate, fine machines that only an expert watchmaker should service. Servicing will cost at least $100-$200 (sometimes more, if the watch is exceptionally fine or exceptionally terrible!) and should take about 2-4 weeks. There’s over a hundred tiny little components inside a pocket-watch and they all have to be checked for integrity and quality, so servicing a pocket-watch takes time. Don’t expect it to be done in a hurry.