Friday, November 12, 2010

Pocket Watches

At a recent appraisal clinic for the Crocker Art Museum I appraised several Pocket Watches and thought that there are some basic facts that might be helpful.

Determining the age of an American antique pocket watch is the first step. Check the manufacturer's serial number, a good reference guide will tell you an approximate date that serial number was used. (The Internet also has this information.)

The serial number on an American watch is on the movement inside the watch. To get to the movement you have to remove the back, it is either a hinged pressed fit or a screwed on cover. The press fit and hinged covers have a small slit opening or tab you can get a finger nail under to pop it open. Some are very tight and a small knife blade can be used but be careful not to scratch the cover. Some watches have double backs with the inner one as an additional dust protector. Sometimes this area is used for a sentiment inscription or gift date. (Not necessarily the same as the manufacture date.) Screw on covers can be tight also, try putting the watch back in the palm of the hand and using that to give a good grip on the whole back while turning the watch.

Older English watches have hallmarks that can be researched to find the manufacturing date. Antique watches made in Europe are more difficult to date. Sometimes they have serial numbers, but often don't. Patent numbers can be used for dating if they are given.

Be aware that the name on a watch's face is not necessarily the name of the manufacturer. Watch manufacturers often printed a retail company name on the dial in return for ordering a large number of them. Mail order and distribution companies did the same thing to have a company “brand” name watch.

Once the back is open the movement usually is marked with the serial number the manufacturer name and sometimes also the model name or number, the number of jewels, and the adjustments.

Determining Value
Manufacturer - who the manufacturer is becomes important to collectors as some made better watches than others are more prestigious, or are just more popular and so some names add value.

Model name or number - some models denote better quality than the average, or are more rare than others and so raise value. Earlier and lower end watches tend to have fewer things marked on them and sometimes you need to compare the movement to pictured movements in a reference to identify it.

Jewels - are actual small rubies and sapphires that are used as bearings. Since they are harder than metal they wear longer and make for a more durable and higher quality watch. There are 17 important wear points so any watch with fewer than 17 jewels is of poorer quality and thus worth less. Some watches have more than 17 jewels these denote higher quality and thus add value.

Adjustments - refers to the positions the watch will be in and still keep accurate time. They are stem up, stem left, stem right, face down, back down, and some times stem down. Later watches might also be adjusted for extreme temperature and spring tension differences. Markings are - adjusted 5 positions, meaning the first five or - adjusted 6 positions when stem down is added. Temperature and wind adjusted are sometimes also on later watches.

Case - the inside of the back case will be marked telling whether the case is made of rolled gold (a form of plating) or solid gold (14kt -18Kt). If it says “warranted xx years” it is rolled gold. It might have a karate mark and say rolled gold which again means it is not solid gold. Most watches are rolled gold which does not decrease the value unless it is worn to the point brass is showing through somewhere. Naturally a solid gold case adds extra value to any watch. Fancy engraving and designs on cases add value as the standard case is fairly plain whether rolled or solid gold.

Railroad watches are a special area of watch collecting - Railroad refers to a standard that railroad companies required to insure accuracy in telling time to help avoid train accidents. These changed over time and by the various railroads. However, a general standard might be - open face, stem at 12 o-clock, Arabic numerals, minimum 17 jewels, adjusted to minimum 5 positions, separate seconds dial, 16-18 size only, maximum variation of 30 seconds per weekly check.

Dial - most dials are a standard white enamel with black numerals and plain arrow hands. Fancy dials and hands add value and can get quit elaborate including painted, enameled, gold or jewel encrusted.

All of these different areas add together and determine value. I hope that gives some help for evaluating that pocket watch just sitting in a drawer that so many people have.