Pocket Watches: Time-honored keepsakes - Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals


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Ladies Dress Watch

Classic Pocket Watch

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Mary Beth Zeitz - Antique Clock Faces
Antique Clock Faces
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 Pocket Watches: Time-honored keepsakes

Elaborate and expensive, the first watches were worn by 16th-century European aristocrats (women wore them around the neck, men in the pocket). Into the late 1800s, everyone else relied on the town clock until advanced technology and interchangeable parts allowed for mass watch production. 
Waltham, circa 1908
Waltham, circa 1908
In America, watches were utilitarian. The Industrial Revolution saw manufacturers such as Hamilton, Elgin, Waltham, and the Illinois Watch Company begin mass production, and American pocket watches became known for their accuracy and affordability (thanks in part to American railroad watches, developed and strictly regulated to increase train safety).
 Even throughout the Industrial Revolution, fine European craftsmen continued to uphold the tradition of the gentleman's pocket watch, often with solid gold cases and complex movements.

Over the years, noteworthy innovations included the moon phase dial, stop watches, sweep second hands, and multiple subsidiary dials for seconds and days of the month. One highly collectible European watch is the minute repeater, which chimes the hour, quarter hour, and minutes at the push of a lever or button (a quarter repeater chimes only the hour and quarter hour).

Art Deco, circa 1925
Art Deco,
circa 1925

 As the '20s roared in, both American and European makers produced beautiful Art Deco dress watches, with more streamlined movements allowing for thinner cases. Cases in geometric shapes with metal and enamel dials were popular, and platinum cases appeared in special editions.

While age, uniqueness, quality of construction, and materials all contribute to the value of pocket watches, each vintage timepiece represents a link to a bygone era.

We offer some points to consider when collecting pocket watches:

For authenticity's sake, it's important to learn which makers "go together." While European makers like Patek Philippe signed the case, dial, and movement, many authentic watches feature parts by different makers. American watches might have an Elgin movement and dial with a Keystone case; Cartier watches might have movements by the European Watch & Clock Company. Complete Price Guide to Watches, by Cooksey Shugart, Tom Engle, and Richard E. Gilbert, is a good collectors' reference.

  • Look for crack- and chip-free dials; crisp, easy-to-read numbers; straight hands; and cases free of dents and serious scratches.
  • Make sure that hinges and latches are in good working order.
  • It's not uncommon to find recased watches, refinished dials, or replacement crowns, all of which decrease the value of a piece.
  • Don't wind a long-dormant watch; the lubricants can dry out, straining the moving parts.

Minute repeater, circa 1903-1904
Minute repeater,
circa 1903-1904

Buy from a reputable dealer, or when shopping flea markets and estate sales where sellers are less knowledgeable, use your eyes don't get too hopeful.

Here are two tips to help authenticate pocket watches:

  • Check the maker or retailer on all parts, looking for conformity or compatibility (especially dial and movement: forgers can paint any maker's name on a dial).
  • Note serial or model numbers; most American companies keep a record of numbers and production years.
  • Any signs of base metal under the gold indicate gold-filled fabrication.
Build relationships with a good dealer (who can help solve collecting mysteries), and a reputable watchmaker. It's best to assume that most antique watches will need to be cleaned and checked for repairs (often requiring expensive handmade parts). Most reputable dealers provide a one-year warranty, or clearly stipulate "as is" condition. Many offer a 30-day return period.



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Cartier: The Tank Watch
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Patek Philippe:
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Patek Philippe:
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