A Matter of Time - Collecting Antique Pocket Watches

Story by Mike McLeod

Note: For questions about pocket watches, contact: www.antique-pocket-watch.com, www.pocketwatcher.org or www.antiquewatchco.com.

Although time keeping mechanisms have been around for thousands of years, the first mobile clocks did not appear until the 1500s. Until that time, a clock's mechanism was so large, heavy and ponderous, few people considered the possibility of a portable clock.

Most clocks were huge and resided in churches or cathedrals. Counterbalances and weights to power clocks were usually made of stone blocks or metal. In the 1500s, Henry De Vick invented a clock for the royal palace in Paris with a 500-pound. weight that traveled 32 feet - and it only had an hour hand (as did all clocks in those days). A hand-held timepiece was a ridiculous thought at that time.

Inventing the portable clock would bring great advances to civilization. It was needed for the study of astronomy, physics, and for ship captains to calculate location - increasing the likelihood of the safe return of a ship, its cargo, and crew.

Although the Egyptians first used the sundial by 1300 B.C, German locksmith Peter Henlein is one of the first recorded inventors to create a watch in the 1500s.

The first watches were made of steel . The first watch-makers were locksmiths and blacksmiths because those guilds worked steel to make tools and implements. Eventually locksmiths dominated the trade as brass, silver and gold were used to replace steel. Also "miniaturization" slowly swept the trade, and locksmiths were more adept at the fine work required. At this time watches were typically four or five inches wide and about three inches thick.

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It was the discovery of spring technology by Peter Henlein and others that made the personal timepiece possible. Spiral springs could be wound and uncoiled to move the hour hand of the clock. Although the technology was a great leap forward from hanging weights, it was still highly inaccurate because coiled springs don't unwind at a constant speed. But in comparison to judging the hour by the sun, having a timepiece you can carry or wear on a necklace - even though it was off by an hour or so - was close to a miracle.

The first solution to uneven unwinding came when watchmakers realized the spring uncoiled at a more constant pace when it was not wound tightly. Various means of preventing this were invented: the stackfreed was a cam with an additional spring that compensated for the main spring's changes in speed, and the fusee was a stop that prevented the spring from being wound too tightly. It was usually made of stiff hog bristle.

In 1675 several watchmakers discovered that a spiral spring attached to the balance greatly increased accuracy. Suddenly, watches reflected the correct time within minutes rather than being off by close to an hour. This heralded the addition of the minute hand.

Up until about this time, watches had to be wound twice a day. A fourth wheel added to the movement decreased the winding required to once per day.

A hand to measure seconds was added a little less than a century later. As years passed, the customer's appetite for more and more gadgets on pocket watches led to the addition of calendars (marking the day, date and month), phases of the moon, alarms, chimes and music.

Early pocket watches had no covering to protect the face or the hour hand. In the 1700s English watchmakers began creating gold and silver pair cases to slide the watch into for safe keeping. The manufacturer's name or mark is usually found on a pair case. If it doesn't match the name on the watch, then the pair case is not the original, but a replacement. Glass crystals were added to protect the dial but because they were translucent, they still had to be removed to read the time.

English watchmakers added jewels (gemstones) in the 1700s as bearings in the watches to prevent friction and wear between metal parts. This helped catapult them to the industry forefront. Remarkably, watchmakers from other countries did not adopt "jeweling" for nearly a century. Today, the number of jewels a watch has is a sign of its quality and durability.

Finding a pocket watch made prior to 1700 is rare these days. Most in existence reside in large collections. Antique watches crafted before 1865 are very popular. They are sought by collectors and Civil War buffs and re-enactors, says Eric Engh, co-owner of the website www.oldwatch.com, the world's largest seller of pocket watches on the internet.

"Walthams, in particular, are very collectible," he said. "They were the first mass produced watches with interchangeable parts. But because of the evolution of their watch designs in the early years, they sometimes made very few of some models. This is why they are in high demand."

Engh recently sold an 18-carat gold, size 20, Waltham Model Appleton Tracy with key wind from the rear for $10,000.

"Less than 350 of this model are known to exist," Engh explained.

Engh reports that the internet is influencing demand for American-made watches. In the past, European and Asian countries didn't appreciate the craftsmanship of American watches, but during the last 18 months, he's seen more American timepieces going overseas. He attributes it to the information available on the internet.

Determining the age of an antique pocket watch is a matter of finding a good reference guide and checking the manufacturer's serial number. (Most information is available on the internet.) The serial number on an American watch is on the movement inside the watch, not on the watch face or the casing. Older English watches have hallmarks that can be researched to find the manufacturing date. Antique watches made on the continent in Europe are more difficult to date. Sometimes they have serial numbers, but often don't. Patent numbers can be used for dating. Be aware that the name on a watch's face is not necessarily the name of the manufacturer. Watch manufacturers often printed a company's name on the dial in return for ordering a specific number. Mail order and distribution companies did the same thing.

A good reference guide for dating and valuing an antique watch is American Watches - Beginning To End, ID and Price Guide (Meggers & Ehrhardt, Heart of America Press, ISBN: 0-913902-53-5, $35, 352-669-4791, www.hoapress.com). Another good reference book is the Complete Price Guide to Watches (20th edition by Cooksey Shugart, et al, $26.95 at Amazon.com).

What determines the value of a watch? As with all collectibles, it's what the buyer is willing to pay. Michael Roesch (mroesch@bellsouth.net), a collector of antique watches, recommends the key points listed on the continuation page.

The Studebaker

Pocket watch collecting offers many sub-categories to embark on. Some Notre Dame fans and Studebaker car fans are avid collectors of the Studebaker watch, made in South Bend, Indiana, by the same company that made the cars. (Today, the company is called South Bend.)

Eric Engh can't keep a Studebaker on his website for more than 48 hours before it sells, he says. Generally, Studebakers sell in the neighborhood of $1,200 to $1,500, and the price keeps going up. One reason: There are only about 3,000 in existence.

Engh cautions the novice about the difference between THE Studebaker and a Studebaker. Southbend printed Studebaker on the faces of many watches. Even though most people shy away from opening the case for fear of harming the watch, inside is where you can make sure. The words The Studebaker are on the movement of the genuine article. If it says, Studebaker or South Bend, it isn't The Studebaker, and is worth considerably less. "Plain" Studebakers are good watches, but they are worth usually in the neighborhood of $495. Don't get caught paying The Studebaker price for a Studebaker.

Railroad Watches

Another area for pocket watch collectors is Railroad watches. On April 19, 1891, a train engineer's watch stopped for four minutes and then started again. This temporary mechanical failure resulted in a train wreck that caused nine casualties in Kipton, Ohio. A commission was set up to create new standards for pocket watches used by all railroads. Standards included having at least 15 jewels (after 1886, the amount steadily increased afterwards); being accurate within 30 seconds per week; having a white face (but silvered faces were allowed until the second decade of the 20th century); black Arabic numbers each minute delineated; size 16 or 18; adjusted to five positions; and temperature compensated. (Canadian RR watches, on the other hand, had Roman numerals and an inner ring of Arabic numerals from 13-24 for the p.m. hours.) The rules were sometimes broken so you can still find a RR watch with Roman numerals. The last two requirements were critical. As the early watchmakers discovered, not only would cold and heat cause the movement to slow or speed up, but so did the watch's position. Imagine trying to carry a watch in one position all the time, especially while working on a train. Railroad watches had to stand up to constant abuse from the jarring and swaying of early trains. Engineers were required to have their watches inspected regularly and to submit a certificate stating its reliability to supervisors.

The picturesque movie scene of a train conductor looking at his watch and shouting, "All aboard!" does not reflect the true importance of a train staying on schedule. When there was only one track for trains barreling in both directions, being on time was a matter of life and death. As the Kipton wreck proved, an engineer's pocket watch being off by as little as four minutes could mean disaster.

In watch descriptions, a size is usually listed from 0 to 23. There are also key sizes for watches wound with keys. A watch's size is not the width or length of the watch or casing. It's actually a standard measurement for the size of the movement. To meet railroad requirements, a watch's movement must be a size 16 (1 7/10 inches) or a size 18 (1 23/30inches).

Railroad watches are particularly appealing to collectors for several reasons, even though the faces are very plain. The quality of Railroad watches was very high, second only to chronometers. Railroad watches were not produced in the same quantities as everyday pocket watches, even though quite a few companies made them. The ephemeral "romance of the railroad" adds to its value. Young and old are captured by the spirit of the rails, and that same feeling inspires collectors of Railroad watches. Amazingly Railroad watches are quite affordable. A typical watch in fine condition sells for between $300 and $600. The cost has accelerated in the last 24 to 36 months, according to Eric Engh, due to demand from Asian and European collectors.

For collectors, Waltham and Elgin produced the most Railroad watches, so, "You'll need deep pockets for an extensive Waltham or Elgin collection," says Engh. "Another manufacturer, Hamilton, made less than 5 million watches (both RR and non-RR), and that was less than 10 percent of what Waltham and Elgin produced." Both Hamilton and Illinois watches are good quality timepieces, and a collection of all their RR grade watches would total less than 100.

Actor Dom Deluise collects both antique pocket watches and Railroad watches, because, he said, "They take up very little room, and they are beautiful."

The beauty, craftsmanship and history of pocket watches make them great collectibles.

What Determines Its Value?

Materials: Watches made of gold, silver, or plate are more valuable than brass.
Completeness: No missing parts. In addition, having the original box, bill of sale, or other provenance papers will add to the value.
Condition: Look for wear and tear, scratches, hairline cracks, dents, blemishes on the metal, brassing (where the gold plate is rubbed off), fading or stains on the face or repairs to the face. All functions (calendar, chimes, moon phases, etc.) should work, and the watch should have been cleaned and oiled by a professional every 2-3 years.
Quality: Number of jewels (the most highly prized watches have 21 or more); the number of positions adjusted to (usually five, often marked on the movement); and marked as adjusted for temperature.
Rarity and Historical Value: Ownership by a famous or historical person adds to the value - paperwork proving this is needed. Most engravings detract from the value of a watch, unless it is inscribed to a famous person or the inscription authenticates its presence at a historical event - a presidential event, a maiden voyage of a famous ship, plane, etc. This type of inscription is easy to fake. Look for other corroborating materials such as invoices, photos, certificates, presentation materials, etc.

An American beauty - a Waltham model 92 circa 1896; 18 size, 21 jewel, Railroad grade pocketwatch with 14K solid gold hunting case, double sunk porcelain dial. Selling for $1,495.

Photo courtesy
Circa 1910 Swiss Moon Phase watch with date, day of week, seconds and moon phase, months.

The movement of a superb Seth Thomas.

Photo courtesy Eric Engh, www.oldwatch.com 800-750-6577. Poetry in movement. The back cover, above opens to reveal the inner workings of a fine art.

Above: A Studebaker, about $495.
Below: Three little letters: the word "The" before "Studebaker" would add $700 to $1000 to the price.

Waltham circa 1861, 18 size Appleton Tracy, Model 59/18KW, 16 jewels, 18K, solid gold case, about $6,500.

American Pocket Watch Companies

(*Denotes Railroad Grade/Approved Watch Makers)
*Aurora Manistee
*Ball Melrose
*Columbus New England
Dudley N.Y. Springfield
*Elgin N.Y. Standard
Fredonia *Peoria
*Hamilton Philadelphia
*Hampden J.P. Stevens
*Howard *Rockford
E.Howard *South Bend
*Illinois *Seth Thomas
Independent Tremont
Keystone Trenton
Lancaster *United States Watch Co., Marion
Manhattan United States Watch, Waltham
*Waltham (American Waltham)




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