Classic watches, watchmaking, antique tools, history, vintage ephemera and more!

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Shopping for a Pocketwatch - Part 1, Getting Started

A lot of people are interested in vintage watches these days, and I am often asked for advise on buying a pocketwatch.  Browsing eBay and antique shops can leave one feeling pretty uncomfortable putting down money on a timepiece.  There's a lot out there, all sorts of types and prices.  The whole thing can be a bit of a mystery.

As with many things though, it really just a matter of learning as you go.  Watches are fascinating objects, rewarding to own and collect.  And the learning about them never stops.  Getting started is just a matter of a few basics.

So You Want to buy an Antique Watch...

To begin, there are a few things to consider.  I find that a remarkable body of information about watches, that used to be everyday common knowledge, has pretty much vanished today.  So there are a few things to know going in.

  • Antique watches are fully mechanical devices. They are very easily damaged by physical shocks.
  • Antique watches are not remotely water resistant, and are subject to damage due to temperature, salt air, even tiny amounts of dust, moisture and other environmental factors.
  • An antique pocketwatch in daily use requires regular maintenance, by a skilled watchmaker, to function correctly overtime. While these watches were once used everyday, but they typically received a complete overhaul every year.  Today, every year would be over kill, but maintenance is a requirement.
  • Antique pocketwatches are not accurate by today's standards. A very good watch, cleaned and adjusted with care, can achieve an accuracy of +/- a minute or so per 24 hours. 

It should surprise no one that I am most enthusiastic about American watch companies.  And for the first time buyer, who wants to use a watch at least now and then, these are good choices.  The American companies dominated the watch trade from the 1850s up into the 1940s or '50s.  Their products are today, the most common and most reliable.  The early American watchmakers were the first to focus intensely on accuracy, utility, interchangeable parts, standardization - all at an affordable price due to modern factory production.

The first names to know on this front are still recognized watch and clock names today, even though the original companies are gone; Hamilton, Waltham and of course Elgin.

What Sort of Watch?

Most people would like to use a watch as, well, a watch. That means carrying it, and using is as functional piece. If one is just getting started, this means a good choice is a watch that is durable, inexpensive, easily repaired, and a good fit form modern clothing.

My personal suggestion with the above in mind would be a basic 12 size Elgin from the 19-teens, '20s or '30s. There are basic grades Elgin made during this period that are solid workhorses, and they sold a lot of them so the prices today are not high. There are easily repaired, and a good size for modern styles.
Size 16 Elgins are not too bad either. The size is still manageable. Their designs are very similar to the 12 size products. But I do find the 12 size grades to be a bit more stable.

18 size watches attach people, and there's no better them for drama. But they'll put holes in your pockets. They are just too big and heavy. One of those forgotten bits of lore I referred to above is that such larger watches used to be carried, often, in leather pouches worn around the neck, or on the belt line. This is a style of watch wearing that has disappeared from contemporary popular culture.

7 jewels, 15 jewels, 21 jewels... Isn't a watch with more jewels better?

Not necessarily. Jewels are used in watches because of their hardness and uniformity. The jewel counts increase from 7 up by adding additional jeweled bearings. A hardened steel pivot is a donut-like jeweled bearing is extremely accurate and durable. But it is also more fragile than jeweled bearings. Unjeweled bearings are basically a hole in metal, with the steel pivot which will be made heavier than in the jeweled design. In the 20th century, shock resistant jeweled bearings came into use, but in early pocketwatches, the jeweled bearing are notably less robust and more easily broken than their unjeweled counterparts.

Speaking in very general terms, jeweling can be thought of as trading off greater delicacy, to get greater accuracy. Frankly, in this day and age there are commonly available sources of correct time thousands of times more accurate than any antique watch could ever be. So the accuracy, alone, is not a reason to favor higher jewel counts today, particularly for a "first watch". In addition, we're talking about antiques here, not new product that are easily compared and rated. Every individual watch is different. A given 7 jewel watch may will be more accurate than a given, specific 19 jewel watch. It all depends.

Next Considerations

That gets us started on watch shopping.  But there's so much more!  Check back here for more, starting with case styles.


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