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How To Open A Pocketwatch Case

There are several types of common pocketwatch cases. It is important to understand which type you're dealing with. Below are basic instruction for opening cases that are:
  • Threaded front and back
  • Hinged front and back
  • Swing-out
  • Snap-on front and back
There are a few other variations of these, but those are rare.

Threaded Front and Back

Many pocketwatch cases have screw-on bezels and backs. This type is case it composed of three main parts; the back, the bezel (the metal ring holder the crystal) and the middle part of the case where the watch movement is held, and to which the stem is attached. This type of case will have no hinges and thin cracks between the middle, the front and the back that can be seen or felt all the way around. Under careful examination, no lip or short widening of the gap at any point will seen.

To open a screw-on back, hold the watch dial-side facing down in the palm of your left hand (reverse if you are left-handed). Hold the stem of the watch with your left thumb. Turn the back counter-clockwise using the palm of the other hand. It is important not to press down too hard on the watch body as this will only make the back cover tighter against the case and thus harder to remove. The counter-clockwise pressure is what will open the case.

This type of case is most common on 16 and 18 size watches.

Snap-on Front and Back

This type of case is built on three parts, like a threaded case. Also like a threaded case, the edges of the parts can be observed around the from the an back where those parts join to the middle. But these cases have a lip or a short wide are in the gap, used to pry off the case parts. Snap on front and back parts are not threaded but instead snap-on to the middle part. The front and back are removed using a watch case opener, inserted at the provided spot. A case opener is similar to a pocket knife - however, never use an actual knife to open a watch case as it is dangerous.

Note that the parts of these cases frequently assemble in a specific orientation. In these cases, a notch of pin can be found on one part with a corresponding slot or hole in the other part. These must line up to snap the parts together.

This type of case is found on 16s and is most common on 12 and smaller size watches.

Swing-Out Cases

This type of case has a threaded (more common) or snap-on front (bezel) and no gap for a back part. With this type of case the front can be removed, and the watch movement "swings out" on a hinge, usually at the top of the movement. The body of the case is otherwise a single part. These cases sometimes require a case opener to left the movement out. Also, if the stem pulls out the setting position (even if it is a lever-set watch) this is required to swing the movement out. It is important to note that not all crowns snap out. The snapping of a crown in and out is a function of the case, not the watch, on early American timepieces. And not all cases feature a snap out crown. Don't just tug on it.

These types of cases are probably the trickiest to open, and to close again. They are particularly common on 18 size watches, as they were once a requirement of some railroad grade specifications.

There are hunting cases (described below) that are swing-outs too, as pictured here.

Swing out cases are sometimes referred to as "basket cases" in older watch literature. I suspect that the more modern meaning of this phrase caused it to fall out of use for watch cases though.

Hinged front and back

This type of case has a visible hinge for both the front and the back. They will typically be a lip for opening these sections also. The swing out hunting case above has a hinged back.

A case opener may be required to open a hinged cases. 

Also, these cases will frequently have a third hinged cover inside the back cover. This is a "dust cover" provided so that the back can be opened, for winding a key-wind watch for example, without exposing the movement. Sometimes these are called "triple hinge" cases. The dust cover may have a hole positioned to allow winding with a key. These cases are frequently seen with 18 size movements, particularly key-set/key-wind movements, and also with 6 size and smaller watches.

Hunting Cases

Hunting, or hunter, cases have lid over the front. The lid is opened by pressing down on the crown. Inside this cover is almost always a snap-on bezel. The back of a hunting case may be any of the above types. It is important when closing a hunting case, to press down on the crown, close the front, and then release the crown. "Snapping" the cover over the catch that normally holds it closed will quickly wear down the catch, and the cover will then not stay closed.

Other Considerations

Not all watch cases have crowns that snap out. And just because a watch is lever-set, does not mean that the crown does not snap out. Watch case companies made cases both ways and a case with a snap out crown will work fine with a lever set watch that doesn't need it.

Some cases, particularly older ones, and European ones, have a set screw in the side of the neck. The stem has a shoulder inside and the screw is holding the stem in. On one of these, the crown does not snap out. Slightly loosening the screw and removing the stem is usually required to get the movement. These are tricky to handle as the screw is usually a very soft metal like gold or silver and is often already damaged.

There are other types of cases too, of more obscure designs. Just one example that I have seen a few times is similar to a swing out case, but the neck of the case is part of the ring holding the movement.

If it is not clear how your watch opens, don't force anything. It is very easy to damage the case or the movement, or both. I have seen many cases with threaded backs hopelessly ruined as a result of being pried on with a knife. 

Take the watch to a good jeweler, and not just a chain store at a mall, and they should be able to open the watch.

Some cases are stuck. They can be remarkably difficult. If you have one of these, again, get the watch to someone with experience. I'd be happy to try to help. Contact me at jsexton@elgintime.com 

Serial Numbers 

With your case open, you will be able to see the movement's serial number. For American watches, the number can usually tell you a little more about the piece.  Find out about your Elgin watch by looking up the serial number here.

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