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Shopping for a Pocketwatch - Part 4, Swing-out Cases

Here in part 4 of this series on tips for buying a first pocketwatch, we take a look at cases again, and case types. Mainly, it is worth mentioning swing-out cases.

There are many different designs of watch cases. But since we have focused here on American makes, that tends to narrow it down. Most watch cases are a type that opens at the front and the back, or they are swing-out cases.

Cases having a front and back that open are built in three sections; a middle ring that holds the movement and the stem, a solid back, and a front that carries the bezel and the crystal. On these cases the front and back parts may attach to the midsection in a variety of ways. Many are threaded, some snap on, and some are hinged to the middle ring. These may appear in any combination. Hunter cases are often this type, with the additional complication of the hinged front cover.

It is important to know what sort of case you have before trying to open it.


As much as opening the case all the time is not recommended (keep the dust out!), we know that watch owners are going to want the show off the movement every chance they get.  So, when shopping for a watch, an important thing to understand is the difference between the three-piece cases and swing-out cases, also sometimes called tip-out cases, mainly because swing-out cases are harder to open.

Swing-out cases have no removable back. Under close examination, one will find that there is no gap or seam around the case revealing that the back is a separate part. Only the front is removable on a typical swing-out case. And removing the front reveals a hinged loop that can be pulled and lifted from the bottom of the case. The movement is carried in this loop.

On most American pocketwatches, the winding arbor is part of the case and the female part is in the movement. So in order to lift the movement it is usually necessary to give the stem clearance by snapping out the crown. Even then it can be tricky. But the winding arbor will often have a little play and can be wiggled and turned to get the movement out. Swinging the movement back in and getting the arbor in place can be similarly tricky.

Swing-out cases have the advantage of being sturdier, having fewer parts with the one-piece body, and of being better at keeping out dust, having just the one seam, for the front. Many railroad watch specifications called for swing-out cases.

In the earlier parts of this series we arrived at a general recommendation of 12 or 16 size open-face Elgin watches as being a good choice for a first pocketwatch. The majority of these are found in some form or other of a three-piece case. Swing-out cases are slightly more common with 18 size movements.

It is worth mentioning that there are many other types of cases that open in different ways, including some creative and unique designs. But these are all on the rare side in watches from the early American market.


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