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Shopping for a Pocketwatch - Part 3, Setting Mechanisms

First, to recap part 1 and part 2 of this series on getting started buying a pocketwatch, I have already narrowed down a recommendation of 12, or perhaps 16, size Elgin watches, in open-face cases. Of course one may have good reasons not to go in that direction, but at least the various trade offs are on the table.

Next, there are many, many issues of terminology and technology that arise in browsing available watches. But one very important one to know right from the beginning is the difference between the most common styles of setting/winding mechanisms.

Key Wind and Set

Early American watches are key wind and/or key set. These watches require a special watch key. The key has a square hole in the end that fits over a winding arbor, or setting arbor, or both, on the watch. The winding arbor is usually at the back of the watch, offset from the center. The setting ardor is either in the middle of the back, or in the center of the hands in the front.

Keys can be purchased from suppliers of watch accessories in standardized sizes designated by a number. Three keys numbered three, four and five will cover most larger American pocketwatches. Smaller ladies watches will call for higher number (smaller) keys.

Stem Wind and Set

Stem set mechanisms are a later invention. This is the style of watch we are most familiar with today. To wind the watch, one turns the crown. To set the watch one snaps the crown outward and then turns, snapping the crown back in when the time is set correctly.

Both stem set and lever set watches are said to have a keyless works. The keyless works, specifically, refers specifically to these watch's winding/setting sub-mechanisms.

Lever Set

Lever set watches are not put in setting mode by popping up the crown. Instead there is a lever, generally under the edge of the dial. Pulling out the level engages setting mode, changing the function of the crown from winding to setting. Accessing the setting lever requires removing the front bezel.

All earlier railroad grade specifications calls for lever-set mechanisms. It was considered safer, less likely to accidentally change the time, than other styles.


For a first time vintage watch buyer, key wind and key set movements may not be the best choice. Someone with just one antique watch, as opposed to a collection, no matter how small, is likely to want to run the watch more. Key set mechanisms which set the hands directly from the front are particularly difficult to use. And there is a great risk of damaging the hands. In addition, both the arbors and the keys wear, creating a need for repair and replacements.

This leaves lever set and stem set movements.

Stem set movements function in a way that is familiar today. However, most vintage American watches are negative setting (as opposed to positive setting). Without dwelling on the details, negative setting watches have the "snap" mechanism in the neck of the case, and have a default mode of setting. By default I mean that the movement is spring loaded to push it to setting. It is held back, in winding mode, by a spring called a sleeve, inside the neck of the case.

Negative setting mechanisms allow the movement and the case to be more or less mix and match. But the disadvantage is that the spring that holds the watch in setting mode, the sleeve, which is really part of the case, tends to wear, weaken and break. When the sleeve is no good, the crown will not stay down and the watch stays in setting mode. Less is an extremely common problem. Replacement parts are around, but getting harder to find. The repair is complicated by the fact that the sleeve and stem are often custom fit, if not custom made, for each particular movement/case combination - especially in older watches.

Lever setting movements do not depend on the case in anyway. In fact, many lever setting watches are found in cases having a sleeve for negative setting. On these, the crown snaps up, but does not do anything. Such a case is designed for either lever or stem set watches.

Lever set watches have a reliable and durable mechanism. However accessing the lever involves removing the front bezel. This exposes the hands and dial to possible damage and dirt, and create and opportunity to drop the front and break the crystal (this happens all the time, believe me). Also, over time even a finger nail creates small chips in the dial edge near the lever, unless one is very, very careful every single time.

So either lever or stem set are fair choices for a first watch. Both have disadvantages to be aware of.

There are many other technical differences and various terminology one will encounter when browsing pocketwatches. But the setting/winding mechanism is an especially important one to understand. There are also other types, not mentioned above, but they are less common, and generally found on European watches.

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