Still Time To Begin a Wristwatch Collection

By Anne Gilbert  

If you can't afford a collection of vintage Rolex's or Patek Philippe wristwatches, the good news is that many less expensive examples are being snapped up by collectors. Familiar names are Hamilton, Gruen and Longines, to mention a few possibilities. Depending on where you find them, prices can be modest. Those made in the '20s and '30s still turn up at flea markets and garage sales. They are usually gold-filled, silver or metallic. The wristwatches we take for granted these days were rejected by men in the early 20th century as not being masculine.

Sold as a lot for $575 over an estimate of $100-$200, these two vintage wristwatches are a Movado (l.) and Eberhard & Co.; 18k, Swiss. (Photo, courtesy James Julia Auctions, Fairfield, ME.)

Today's compact, intricate wristwatches are a far cry from the first wearable time pieces made in the late 15th century. They were worn like a dagger and hung from a belt. It was in the 17th century that many new kinds of clockwork movements led to a compact, lightweight watch. At first these were pocket watches. A later riff was the 19th century railroad watch. It was at that time that watches began to be especially created for women.

Though the bracelet watch existed in the late 18th century, it was the Patek Philippe Co. who began manufacturing bracelet watches in 1868. Around the same time, they began to be made in Switzerland. However, it was their use in the 1880s by German naval officers that made them popular. They were discovered by American soldiers in World War I as a practical alternative to the usual pocket watch. Shortly, many American companies, such as Elgin, began making them.

CLUES: For years, the image of quality watches was Swiss, along with names like Vacheron & Constanin and Baume & Mercier. However, today's collectors have come to realize that American made watches of the class period (1900-1950s) by such makers as Hamilton, Longine and Gruen are also of high quality. Worth looking for are the 1920s Hamilton wristwatches with unusual design features. These included the Coronado, the Spur and the Piping Rock with stylized numerals.

By the late 1920s wristwatches had become an important fashion accessory for both men and women. This included the stylized Art Deco motifs. They were followed by the Streamline Moderne and Modern designs. Novelty wristwatches had their beginnings in the 1930s with the reversible wristwatch. It had a dial that could pivot 180 degrees and could be read with either face forward. By the 1930s, Disney characters paved the way for the developing market for novelty watches.

Here are some tips for beginning collectors. Decide on the type, material and time span. Check out some of the specialized jewelry auctions and get an idea of prices. Then, go hunting. Even if they don't work, they can be fixed. Any alteration of the clock face drops the price drastically, especially with such expensive watches as a Patek Philippe.

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