Guide to start collecting Pocket Watches by Craig Duling
Pocket watches will never go out of style. Their functionality is forever present from its beginnings in the 16th century and through the 21st century. The first watches produced in the 16th century were known as “Nuremberg Eggs” and could hardly be characterized as the traditional pocket watches that come to mind. Traditional pocket watches are still enclosed in beautifully engraved and decorated cases designed to draw attention. They were considered to be classy and elegant accessories that catered to both the working and wealthy classes. It may seem as if a pocket watch is an aged and outdated accessory, but they are highly sought after for their tasteful and sophisticated manners. A pocket watch can be a luxurious accessory detailing an owner’s cultured lifestyle.
Before purchasing any pocket watches, you should learn about the different styles and various types. There are several different aesthetic elements which affect the way a pocket watch will be used and displayed. An informed buyer will take into consideration the different watch movements, materials, and dials. Based on these factors the buyer will make their decision about which watch should be added to their collection.
In making your first impression with watch cases keep in mind the era of production and case type when doing your research. Watches on the open market are unlikely to predate the early 18th century. Watches from this period are sold through reputable specialty auctions and well-known dealers and command high prices. Watches dated between the 17th and 18th centuries were often housed in pair and triple cases, and the outer case was usually heavily decorated. Sometimes such cases were covered in tortoise shell or shagreen (sharkskin). Gold, silver, and gilt brass cases were the most common. In the 19th century there were a few watches housed in blue steel or nickel cases.
As the 18th century drew to a close, the cases became simpler with geometric designs and toward the end of the 19th century as more and more watches were mass produced, they were often housed in plain silver, gold plated, steel, nickel and chrome plated casings. In gold pocket watches, there are different levels of gold that each watch contains and this is measured by the amount of carats that are in the watches. Typically, a gold pocket watch ranges from 10 to 18 carat gold. The higher the carat gold in the watch case, the more expensive the pocketwatch case will be assuming all other factors remain the same. There are several types of cases. The open-face case is self-explanatory with a design which does not have a cover. Time is read without any case or obstruction on the time piece itself making it quick and easy. Unfortunately, it’s accustomed to more wear and tear on the front crystal piece. A full hunter case is designed with an engraved outer casing. Sometimes bearing initials or showcasing a photograph inside. Timekeeping was viewed as quite a hassle since the cover had to be opened every time to read the time. From the gripes of the full hunter style case, the half hunter style case was invented. It featured a cover with viewing window that allowed the owner to see the hands of the watch without actually having to open it. A half hunter case provides users with maximum convenience and the best protection.
The double hunter case displayed many of the features of the full hunter pocket watch that included a protective lid. The double hunter pocket case also featured a lid that opened on the back as well. This was designed so that the mechanical movements of the pocket watch were visible. It also made the pocketwatch easy to stand and read. There is also a half-double hunter case. It is a combination of the double hunter and the half hunter pocket watch cases. It showcases all the features of a double hunter pocket watch including front and back hinged lids. This case differed because it had a window on the front lid of the watch enabling users to view the dial without opening the cover.
The first watches used the verge escapement to regulate the rate at which the watch ran. This type of watch movement was first used in clocks and dates as far back as the 13th century. It remained the popular choice for watches up until the mid-19th century. It was easy to make and was reliable, even if not that accurate. Yet in 1891, a great train disaster occurred that would forever change timekeeping. Added pressures of needing to know the time with great accuracy forced the development of new watches. This lead to a number of different watch escapements being invented.
The detected lever was an escapement designed by Thomas Mudge in the late 18th century, in which impulse to the balance is only given once for each rotation thereby reducing the friction on the balance and improving the accuracy of the watch. The cylinder escapement was designed by George Graham in about 1725. It would later become the most common type employed by Swiss and French makers during the 19th & 20th centuries. The vast majority of watches that come up for sale today are likely to be lever, cylinder or verge. Other types of movements will occasionally be offered, but will usually command a high price due to their rarity.
There are three main types of movements which are found in pocketwatches today. These include quartz, automatic, and mechanical. A movement in watchmaking is when the device measures the passage of time and shows the current time. The owner can look at the specific details of the watch and it should state which type of movement is used. The buyer of a pocket watch must compare all three types of movements by quality and price. Mechanical watches are less accurate and sensitive to position, temperature, and magnetism. In addition, mechanical watches require normal adjustment and maintenance. Automatic watches are self-winding based on the movements of the wearer’s body. Self-winding watches can also be wound manually to maintain functionality when the user is not wearing the watch, or the motions are inadequate to keep the watch wound.
Quartz movements are battery powered movements and are more typically used if the owner wants to use the pocket watch for time keeping itself and is used on a more regular basis. You cannot typically view the workings in a quartz powered pocket watch and the dials are usually plain, although you can still have Quartz powered pocket watches in all the different types of pocketwatches.
In its earliest days, the pocket watch had dials to indicate the hours and later minutes and seconds. These were made of similar materials to the case. Later, during the 17th century, enamel dials became increasingly popular. These were made by fusing ground glass colored with pigments, onto a copper disc. They were sometimes incorrectly referred to as porcelain dials when in fact they were enamel. In the early days, they were not white, but cream or with a blue tinge. Up until the latter part of the 18th century they tended to be convex. In the 19th century, they were becoming flat and their color became more commonly white. Increasing accuracy of watches by the end of the 18th century prompted production of subsidiary seconds dials. These often became sunken towards the middle of the 19th century.
When starting out with watch collecting it is best to read as much as you can on the subject. A good book to start with is “The Watch Collectors Handbook” by M. Cutmore. Read full descriptions of any watch you are interested in and look at all the photos. Take caution with re-casing, which can take various forms. From the need to replace a worn out case to the deliberate attempt on the part of a seller to fool someone into paying more than the watch is worth.
If the engineering and science behind the watch is what stimulates your enthusiasm you might prefer to collect watch movements themselves. Movements can be purchased for considerably less than a complete watch. There is a tendency to over use the terms “rare,” “unusual” or “mint condition” when advertising watches for sale. Most watch’s described as rare or unusual are generally not. Watches described as mint require thorough inspection. A watch that has survived for more than a hundred years without ever being marked, worn or scratched is rare. A buyer needs to be well educated. Different watch movements, dials, and materials determine which pocket watches are most desirable for a personal collection.
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