December 06, 2016

How To Buy A Pocketwatch 101

Read or Watch our Video --your choice!


A pocket watch was made to be worn or carried in the pocket as distinct from a wristlet, fob, or other styles.  Pocket watches date way back to the 1700’s and prior when they were very bulky and some were worn around the neck and even resembled a clock of sorts.

Pocket watches were used to time railway schedules and after a collision in 1891, Webb C. Ball, a jeweler and watchmaker was commissioned to  develop the absolute requirements whereby a pocket watch could be used to reliably function as a railway timepiece.  They had to be tested to perform accurately in five positions, as well be  resistant to magnetism and tested for power reserve and isochronism.     They had to contain a minimum of 17  jewels, and be open faced with clear  large black numbers on a white dial.  These precision railroad timepieces led to the rise in popularity of pocket watches as they could be relied upon by railroad engineers to maintain precise schedules.

Pocket watches were the first and most common type of watches until the late 19th century which saw the rise in popularity of the wristwatch.  Wristwatches were developed during the war so that a soldier could simply look at his wrist instead of taking the time to remove a watch from his pocket or open a cover to read the time, for synchronization during battle.  Many of the wrist watches resembled a pocket watch but were manufactured to be fitted to the wrist.  The watches were referred to as “trench” watches at the time.  

Pocket Watches have made a resurgence over the past decade given their “timeless” beauty and elegance, where craftsmanship and quality were unsurpassed.  We see antique Pocket Watches used more and more in men’s and women’s fashion and individually,  they are great works of functional art that continue to retain and grow in value.  

Types of Pocket Watches

Open-Face:  As the name suggests, these do not have a cover over the watch face/crystal.  

Hunter Case: Has a cover that closes over the watch face/crystal.  Some Hunting Case watches had a small opening to see part of the watch dial, these are called Demi-hunter watcher

Sidewinder: These Pocket Watches use a hunter-case movement, but the dial is mounted in an open-face case, it is called a "sidewinder" because the winding stem is at 3 position as opposed to the 12

Most cases come in basic metal, gold filled, sterling silver and of course carat gold. Sterling and carat gold will generally be marked on the inside cover of the watch and sometimes the back Most American pocket watches have a serial number on the movement of the watch and this can help to date the approximate year of manufacture.


Types of Movements :

There are several types of men’s vintage pocket watch movements. Each type has its own unique features and characteristics. Knowing some of the basic movements of men’s vintage pocket watches can help to evaluate the watch for its age and value.  The type of movement you choose is personal to your taste.

Key-wind, Key-set Movement:

Some early pocket watches had key-wind and key-set movements. A key was needed to wind the watch so that the time could be set. This was accomplished by opening the back of the case and putting the key inside a winding arbor to wind the watch. It was also done to set the time by placing the key in a setting arbor. The setting arbor is joined to the minute-wheel, and it moves the hands of the watch. Some of the watches during this era featured the setting arbor at the front of the watch. The crystal and bezel had to be moved to set the time on these watches. Some of the older watches of the 18th and 19th centuries have keyholes in the watch faces.

Stem-wind, Stem-set Movement: 

This type of movement did away with the need for a watch key. They were first sold in 1851. These watch movements are the most common type of pocket watch movements, which are found in both vintage and modern mechanical pocket watches. The first of the stem-wind, stem-set watches were sold at London's Great Exhibition. The watch also dispensed with the need of the Double Albert waistcoat chain. This is a chain with a T-bar in the middle and a length of chain on either side. On this type of chain the T-bar was secured to a vest, and the watch was clipped to one side and the key to the other. For the new stem-wind, stem-set watches, the Single Albert chain was created, which is a single length of chain with a T-bar that is secured to the vest.  You may also attach a chain to your belt loop  and wear the watch in your pants pocket.


And while it may seem obvious to some, if the watch says that it is Quartz then it is a non-mechanical movement and battery powered.  These are rare for Pocket Watches, as this a  modern movement (started becoming popular in early 70’s) and these watches which hold little to no value unless there is something very unique about them.  As a rule of thumb you’d want to steer clear of these.


Elgin, Waltham, Illinois, Hamilton  are some of the most well known American Pocket Watches.  Other brands such as Omega, Jaeger, IWC and Patek Philippe are usually more rare and valuable, but at the end of the day it's about personal preference.  It’s always good to buy the best quality you can afford, as those are the ones that typically retain and grow the most in value.  

Inspecting the Watch: 

Now that you have some understanding of the types of watches and basic Pocket Watch lingo it’s time to learn a few key things to inspect when you’re shopping.  These are things that you’ll want to ask the seller about if buying online, or check in person if you have the opportunity to do so.  Is it running? These are vintage watches so a couple of minutes off isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if it’s off by much more,  this could be a larger mechanical issue.  Rust and dirt are also major warning signs of a watch that may have been neglected or abused.  Rust is more of a serious issue and can sometimes be first seen on the hands and you’ll also want to check the balance wheel and hairspring too.  Generally speaking we would avoid watches with rust issues.  Also l look at the things like the screws holding the parts and movement, if they don’t match or some look new and replaced then it could be a warning sign of other other improper parts which hurt originality and ultimately value.  When looking at the dial, examine for hairline cracks or chips around the the edges, these are common, but also affect value.  Also if the dial looks too new and has no patina it could have been re-done which hurts value.  If a dealer says the watch has been serviced, ask what type --many times this can mean just some minor adjustments like oil as opposed to a full disassembly/assembly, cleaning, calibrating which constitutes a real full service (this can cost upwards of $200 in some cased by a seasoned pro).

Buy from Reputable Sellers & Dealers: 

This alone is alone can save you big headaches down the road.  A well established or well-known dealer should take the time to answer your questions and will usually be very transparent about any defects or other key factors that a buyer would want to know. Most dealers are part of established organizations such as the NAWCC (National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors)  Naturally be extra cautious when a deal looks too good to be true - trust your gut!

Remember that after all the due diligence on inspecting the watch, unless you’re an expert, you're buying the seller as much as the watch, so if you feel like you’re not dealing with reputable seller it’s best to walk away!  A nice Pocket Watch, particularly when engraved with the owner’s name or initials and a date is a wonderfully marvelous treasure that can be passed down to the next generation and truly enjoyed for years to come.  


3 Responses

Rebecca Gardner
Rebecca Gardner

February 03, 2023

It was helpful when you explained the types of pocket watches. My uncle wants to buy a pocket watch soon. The info in your article should help when he starts shopping for one!

Eddie O Sullivan
Eddie O Sullivan

February 03, 2023

As I have never owned a pocket watch it was nice to read about the different types and what to watch out for . Thanks Eddie

Steve Brewer
Steve Brewer

February 03, 2023

I think you should have made people aware of all the watches that have 14k may not be solid gold in fact the majority are not sold gold but gold filled , rolled gold, or plated. Only 5 percent of all cases made were solid gold.

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