Pocket watches are probably the most stylish way to tell the time, and have long been associated in the popular imagination with wealthy Edwardian gentleman in country tweeds. They fell out of favour in the 20th century, when the wristwatch took over as the main means of timekeeping. These days, however, pocket watches are enjoying something of a revival, and are carried by men and women alike. No longer confined to the fob pocket of well-tailored waistcoats, pocket watches can be slipped into jeans pockets, shirts, or blouses.
While pocket watches are still manufactured, many of the pieces available today are antiques. Whether buying a new pocket watch or one that is a hundred years old, it pays for the buyer to learn a little about the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of pocket watches available. The sensible consumer should also consider carefully the best places to buy a pocket watch. High street stores generally carry a small selection of pocket watches, and antique shops often have the odd antique pocket watches available. For more choice, however, it makes sense to go online, where Internet marketplaces such as eBay offer a sizeable range of pocket watches, both new, used, and antique.
Types of Pocket Watch
There are three different types of pocket watch case: the open-faced pocket watch, the hunter pocket watch, and the half-hunter pocket watch.
Open-Faced Pocket Watches
These are pockets watches whose glass faces are exposed. The advantage of an open-faced pocket watch is that on withdrawing it from its pocket, the time can be ready at once, without having to open a cover.
The disadvantage is that the watch face is vulnerable to scratches and dirt. Sometimes open-faced pocket watches are kept in a leather pouch to protect them against sharp knocks and oily fingertips. This pouch then slips into the pocket.
Hunter Pocket Watches
This pocket watches has a clamshell-style cover that snaps shut. The metal cover protects the glass watch face from damage. The advantage of the hunter style is obvious, in that the watch face is kept clean and safe. The disadvantage is that the wearer needs to open the cover up each time they need to check the time.
Half-Hunter Pocket Watches
To some extent, half-hunters offer the best of both worlds, with a clamshell style cover like a hunter, but with a circular window in the centre of the cover that allows the wearer to see the hands of the watch. This window is normally glazed for protection. Sometimes the metal part of the cover has numbers around it, forming a secondary watch face, making it easier to tell the time without opening the cover.
The advantage of a half-hunter is that the watch face is protected by the cover, and the time can be read without having to open the watch up. However, as the cover is partially open, the half-hunter offers less protection to the watch face than a hunter pocket watch.
Antique vs. Contemporary Pocket Watches
Having considered the basic styles of the pocket watch, the next matter to address is whether to buy an antique watch, or a modern one.
Antique Pocket Watches
Antique pocket watches are mostly pieces originating in the 19th century or early 20th century (pre-1920s). They often carry personalised inscriptions meant for previous owners. Antique pocket watches often have beautifully crafted wind up mechanisms, typically with 15 or more jewels included in the mechanism to keep it running smoothly. Provided that it have been well looked after, the antique pocket watch should be able to keep good time, although regular servicing by a jeweler is helpful. Antique pocket watches fall into two broad categories: gentlemen's antique pocket watches and guard's railway watches.
Gentlemen's Pocket Watches
These are normally stylish and ornate, often with cases made of a precious metals such as gold or silver. These watches very often have been lovingly looked after, and passed down through families as heirlooms. Treasured as pieces of history, they can also make practical timepieces.
Guard's Railway Watches
In the days before wristwatches, digital clocks and computerised signal controls, the railway companies used to issue guards with pocket watches to help ensure that the trains ran on time. Although they tended to be more practical than ornate, being enclosed in cases of nickel silver or chrome, they were well-crafted and are surprisingly attractive. Many of these railway watches have become collector's items, and good specimens can change hands for hundreds of pounds.
Modern Pocket Watches
Modern pocket watches can either be reproductions of the old, much loved Victorian and Edwardian styles, or they can be unashamedly modern, contemporary timepieces.
Reproduction Pocket Watches
Reproduction pocket watches are new watches, made to look as though they are antiques, or at least to copy the antique style. The difference is that they normally have modern, quartz movements, rather than the old wind-up mechanism. They can range from relatively affordable, mass-produced timepieces, to expensively crafted pieces, boasting the finest workmanship. Their prices vary accordingly.
Modern versions of the pocket watch are crafted using a variety of materials. These range from sterling silver or 18 carat gold, to plastic, polycarbonate or other synthetic cases, which ensure the watch is light in weight for use on sports fields and in military applications. These contemporary pocket watches can include stopwatches, and sometimes have advanced timekeeping functions. These pocket watches are most likely attached to lanyards and secured around wearer's wrists, rather than attached by chains to waistcoats. These are a far cry from the Edwardian gentleman's gold hunter, but they still perform the same basic function of portable timekeeping.
Where to Buy a Pocket Watch
It can be seen from the above descriptions that pocket watches vary greatly. A modern military pocket watch made of steel is very different from a 19th-century, gentleman's gold half-hunter. High street jewellers and chain stores normally keep small stocks of modern pocket watches, but this is generally only a token selection of of two or three at best. Sports shops occasionally sell polycarbonate sports varieties, and antique shops often have individual pieces of varying quality. Some of these may be working pieces, while others have mechanisms that have ground to a halt, and are best treated as show pieces or cannibalised for parts.
The problem with buying a pocket watch is that despite the revival in interest in this timepiece, far more wristwatches are still sold, and therefore it doesn't pay for stores to stock too many pocket watches. For this reason, it makes sense to shop online for a pocket watch. Internet markets such as eBay can offer a far larger selection than the high street, including both new and antique pocket watches.
Finding a Pocket Watch on eBay
Finding a pocket watch on eBay is as simple as typing 'pocket watches' into the search bar on the eBay homepage and pressing 'Enter'. The local search engine returns several pages, full of current listings for pocket watches for you to browse through, including new and old pockets watches, and pocket watches made from different materials such as gold or silver.
You can either scroll through these listings at your leisure, or, in order to reduce them to a smaller more manageable number, you may want to filter the search results so that they more accurately reflect the sort of pocket watch you want. For example, you may specify antique pocket watches, or pocket watches for men, or a particular sort of pocket watch such as a half-hunter.
If you are interested in a modern pocket watch, you can specify that you only want to see listings of a particular brand, and if you are looking for an antique from a particular period, such as before the 1920s, you can specify that too.
Read the descriptions carefully and study the photos. If you want more information about a particular watch, contact the seller through their profile page. Ask for further details, or more photos if they would be helpful to you. Also, check the feedback left by previous buyers, to see if the seller enjoys a good feedback rating. Shopping on eBay is simple, and the breadth of range available makes finding the ideal pocket watch easy. All of which makes eBay a good place to buy a pocket watch.
Pocket watches have been making a comeback in recent years. Many of the watches available today are antiques from the Victorian or Edwardian eras, with some of these being ornate watches used by gentlemen, others being guard's watches used on the railways. Both have avid followers, and good examples can be collector's pieces worth substantial sums. As well as these antique pocket watches, it is also possible to buy modern pocket watches. These vary from the practical to extremely ornate and expensive handcrafted pieces. A further category is reproduction pocket watches, which look like antiques but are entirely new. Whereas the originals used to run on wind-up power, today's versions generally have battery-powered quartz movements.
When it comes to tracking down a good pocket watch, the high street can be rather limited in its offerings. The demand for pocket watches, does not come near to wristwatches. This means that high street stores tend to stock only a small selection, while antique pocket watches can be hard to find in good working condition. The best place to find a pocket watch is online, where eBay has a massive selection. An easy to use search platform and an abundance of choice makes eBay a good venue to source a pocket watch.