Antique pocket watches: timeless appeal

A Patek Philippe Grande Complication, Ref. 959, with minute repetition, 44 jewels, circa 1992, sold for $493,932 in June 2015. Photo courtesy of Auctionata Paddle 8 AG and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – A pocket watch was once the finishing touch of the dapper gentleman’s attire and proudly worn in a vest pocket, or hanging from a chain or a clasp in one’s shirt. While people seldom carry them today, save for special occasions, antique pocket watches remain collectible, prized for their beauty, technical quality and as a historical artifact.

They were often passed down as family heirlooms and reflected one’s social standing. Made of either platinum, gold, silver or brass, both the affluent and those not of means could afford one. Regardless of the price tag, a pocket watch’s sentimental value was often priceless.

The Ball Watch Co. Official Railroad Standard pocket watch, 19 jewels, gold-filled open face case, sold for $6,500 + the buyer’s premium on Dec. 18, 2018. John Moran Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers image

Pocket watches got their start in the 1700s and were originally used to time railroad schedules so they had to be precise instruments. Any slight difference in timing could spell disaster and these watches were relied on by railroad engineers to prevent collisions. In the early 1800s, railroad employees would be loaned a pocket watch for work use that the railroad had purchased. Based on their accuracy and history, they became popular collectibles by everyday men (and sometimes women who found ones in a smaller diameter appealing). The designation of “railroad quality” meant the watch met the requirements of Railroad Time Service rules. Interestingly, many railroad employees would instead call them “standard” watches, indicating they met the railroad’s standards.

“During the World War I, wristwatches were preferred as they were easier to wear, however, the pocket watch was still worn with the three-piece suit in the 1950s,” according to The Greenwich Pocket Watch Co. website, noting they have also been customary retirement gifts for longtime employees.

A. Lange & Sohne Tourbillon hunting cased pocket watch, Germany, 1903, fully engraved, in a Louis XV a-goutte case with rich renaissance decoration, earned $482,955 in September 2016. Photo courtesy of Henry’s Auktionshaus AG and LiveAuctioneers

The more mechanisms and jewels (tiny hard stones that reduce wear at friction points) that a pocket watch has, the greater its value for collectors and most serious collectors covet watches with at least five or six mechanisms and 15 jewels.

Watches with far less are often sold just for their gold weight. Some collectors like to seek out private label watches, or those made in a particular city while others like keywind watches only. Among the most well-known American pocketwatch makers were the American Watch Co., Waltham, Howard, Illinois, Hamilton, New York Watch Co., Ball Watch Co., Elgin and Hampden. European-made watches from such makers as Audemars Piquet, Lange & Sohne, Patek Philippe and Junghans are also well collected.

This Jacques Mars pocket watch in gold and enamel having quarter-hour repetition with music, depicting a scene from Leila and the swan, made $80,000 + the buyer’s premium in May 2017. Photo courtesy of Swiss Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

As important as the watch and its movement is, collectors also gravitate toward specific kinds of cases. Case styles include open face watches; full hunter pocket watches, which feature a hinged cover over the dial; a half hunter whose case has a window in the middle enabling the owner to read the dial without opening the case; a double hunter having front and back covers that both open; and a double half hunter having front and back covers, each with a middle window.

Private label pocket watches were made by many watch companies, both American and European companies, and could be made for a railroad company, e.g. Pennsylvania Railroad, or for a department store like Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s. They sometimes were made as prestige item too, having the buyer’s name on the watch or a jeweler or retailer’s name.

A 14K gold Waltham hunter pocket watch, presented by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1905 to a British ship captain for rescuing an American ship’s crew, brought $8,000 + the buyer’s premium in January 2017. Photo courtesy of Blackwell Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Condition is an important factor novice buyers should pay close heed to from the movements and inner workings to the case itself, according to Paul Delury, who moderates a vintage watch forum on the TimeZone website. “I would advise you to look for dials in good condition, as cleaning is often not successful, and you may not be interested in getting redials done at this stage,” he wrote in an article devoted to advising new buyers. Rusty movements can indicate water damage and cosmetic aging is superficial but how much one can tolerate is subjective.

Reading reference books, talking to experts and asking questions are good ways to become more knowledgeable about pocket watches. Resist the urge to build a collection all at once and don’t buy lots of watches initially. A well-curated small collection with great pieces is worth more than a larger collection of lesser examples.

An American Watch Co. Waltham 14K gold pocket watch in hunting case with inlaid gold quartz and tiger’s eye realized $13,000 + the buyer’s premium in January 2018. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors is a valuable resource for collectors and has a whole forum thread as well as formal articles devoted to American pocket watches here and European and foreign ones here.

Pocket watches make for great collectibles as they are both historical artifacts and technical marvels, can hold great sentimental value and don’t take up much display space. And for a formal occasion, they can be the ultimate “statement jewelry” piece.