This guide is intended to give a brief outline of the history of the pocket watch, from its beginnings in the 16th century, up until the early part of the 20th century. It covers the technical development and gives an idea of the different types of watch that might be collected. At the end is a list of terms used for describing pocket watches.
Collecting watches has been a popular pastime for as long as watches have been around. The first ‘watches’ were produced in Nuremberg in the 16th century and could hardly be described as pocket watches (they were known as ‘Nuremberg eggs’). They would perhaps better be described as portable clocks. These slowly developed into what we would now call a pocket watch, over the next hundred or so years. Early Watches used the verge escapement, they didn’t have a balance (hair) spring to regulate the balance and only an hour hand as they were not accurate enough to warrant a minute hand.
The prospect of a reasonably accurate pocket watch became a reality with the introduction of the balance spring in the 1670s. This in turn lead to the use of a minute hand, as now watches could keep time within 5 to 10 minutes per day! They still required either a pendulum clock or sundial to set them by.
Before this date, other additions had been made to the basic time tell properties of the watch, these included alarms, repeating work (were the watch could be made to strike the hours by pressing a lever) and beautifully engraved and decorated cases. The latter were designed to draw attention to what were usual very expensive purchases.
Watches dating from the 17th and 18th centuries were often housed in pair or even triple cases. This was partly to protect the watch and partly to make it look more important. The outer case was usually very heavily decorated or covered in tortoise shell or shagreen (sharks skin). These cases were usually made of gold, silver or gilt brass (sometimes called mercurial gilding).
As the 18th century drew to a close, the cases became simpler with geometric designs (engine turning) applied or just plain. Gold, silver and gilt cases were still the most common, but in the 19th century a few simple watches can sometimes be found housed in blue steel or nickel cases.
Towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, more and more mass produced watches were made, these were often housed in plain silver, gold plated (sometimes called rolled gold or filled gold), steel, nickel and chrome plated ones.
The watch movement
As mention above, the first watches used the verge escapement to regulate the rate at which the watch ran. This type of movement was first used in clocks and probably dates from the 13th century. It remained the popular chose for watches up until the mid 19th century. It was fairly easy to make and was reliable, if not that accurate.
Sometime in the early 18th century, due to pressure from ships that needed to know the time with great accuracy in order to determine there position at sea (longitude), more accurate watches began to be development. This in turn lead to a number of different watch escapements being invented. These included the detected lever, cylinder, duplex, chronometer and many more whose evolution came to a dead end. The vast majority of watches that come up for sale today are likely to be lever, cylinder or verge. Other types of movement will occasionally be offered, but will usually command a high price due to there rarity. With luck, you may be able to spot an unusual watch, even though it isn’t described as such, in which case you may end up with a bargain.
From the earliest days of the pocket watch, they have always had some sort of dial to indicate the hours and later minutes and seconds. In the early days, these were made of similar materials to the case i.e. gold, silver or guilt brass. Later during the 17th century enamel dials became increasingly popular. These were made by fusing ground glass coloured with pigments, onto a copper disc, these are sometimes incorrectly referred to as porcelain dials, but are in fact enamel. In the early days, they were not usually white, but were either cream or with a blue tinge. Up until the latter part of the 18th century, they tended to be convex, but by the beginning of the 19th century, they were becoming flat and their colour was now more commonly white. Also with the increasing accuracy of watches at the end of the 18th century, dials started to be made with a subsidiary seconds dial; these often became sunken towards the middle of the 19th century.
It is probably fair to say that, with one or two exceptions, if you are buying watches on the open market, you are unlikely to come across or be able to afford watches that predate the early 18th century. Watches before this period are likely to only be sold in specialist auctions and will command very high prices.
It is however possible to purchase good examples of watches dating from the 1730’s onwards. The type of watch will be a plain silver or gilt pair case fusee verge. That said, the price will probably still be in the high hundreds or low thousands. A better bet would be to look at watches dating from the early 19th century onwards. From this period, a large number of high quality pocket watches were produced. In England, these were almost always fusee levers, in quite plain silver cases. There are also a fair numbers of pair case verges available. This was the golden age for the English watch trade, which started to decline towards the end of the 19th century, with the advent of Swiss and then later American machine made watches.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the fusee started to be replace with the going barrel, but English fusee examples can be found right up until the early 20th century.
Late 19th century watch production was dominated by Swiss and American watch makers. Most Swiss makers only stamped their movements ‘SWISS MADE’. As far as American watches are concerned, good names to look out for are Waltham and Elgin. There are collectors who specialise in only American made watches.
If you are more interested in the engineering and science behind the watch, you might prefer to collect watch movements. These can be brought for considerably less than the equivalent complete watch. Another area for collecting might be watch tools, either designed for manufacturing or repairing. This may be of particular interest if you intend to develop your hobby to include watch repairing.
Things to look out for when collecting
When starting out with watch collecting, it is best to read as much as you can on the subject before purchasing watches. A good book to start with is ‘The watch Collectors Handbook’ by M. Cutmore. It is also probably sensible not to spend too much on your first few purchases, until you have a better understanding of what is meant by the terms used in the descriptions.
Unless you wish to take up watch repairing as part of your collecting, it is best to avoid any watches that are described as ‘going but in need of servicing’, these have probably been in a draw for many years and the oil will have dried out. They would need a complete service before they will run reliably. Read the full description of any watch you are interested in and look at all the photos. Consider the state of the case, if it is completely smooth, did it start life like that or has it been worn smooth with use? It only tends to be early 19th pair case watches and keyless watches from the early part of the 20th century that are plain.
Look at the state of the dial; if it is chipped or heavily cracked, this will affect its value. Small hairline crack are less of a problem. Consider the look of the movement, the finish should be bright. A highly engraved balance cock or movement will be of more interest than a plane one. You might want to consider some of the more unusual movements, but bear in mine that these will usually be more expensive. Generally speaking the more ornate the movement, the higher the price it will fetch.
Look out for re-casing, this takes varies forms, from the need to replace a worn out case, to the deliberate attempt on the part of a seller, to fool someone into paying more than the watch is worth. If the case does not appear to match the style of the movement or that it is signed by a maker who worked at a much earlier date than the hallmarks, this may indicate that it a ‘marriage’ i.e. the case and movement did not start life together. Check for a serial number stamped on the watch movement, if this is repeated on the case, you can be fairly confident that they belong together. The absents of a number on either the case and or the movement, doesn’t automatically mean that there is a problem. This is particularly true with mass produced Swiss and American watches, because these were often manufactured as movements and were sent out to retailers to be cased by them. Look at the fit of the movement, do the hinges line up with the case, do they look OK, does the winding hole match with the winding square, and on English watches, does the release catch at 6 O’clock fit properly.
Hallmarks in cases (only gold and silver ones) can be very useful in dating a watch. It is worth investing in a book of hallmarks. This will list all the date letters for each of the assay offices. Be careful though, as it is easy to pick the wrong sequence of letters, and assume that the watch is older or younger than it really is. Try to use the style of the movement to help with dating.
There is a tendency to over use the terms 'rare', 'unusual' or 'mint condition' when advertising watches for sale. Most watches described as rare or unusual are generally not. Watches described as mint should be looked at very carefully, any watch that has survived for more than a hundred years with out being marked, worn or scratched are very rare.
Some useful terms
- Detached lever – a type of escapement designed by Thomas Mudge in the late 18th century, in which impulse to the balance is only given once for each rotation of the balance. This reduces the friction on the balance and hence improves the accuracy of the watch. The most common form on English watches of the 19th century is the table roller lever.
- Cylinder – A type of escapement designed by George Graham in about 1725. Later to become the most common type employed by Swiss and French makers during the 19th & 20th century.
- Verge – The first escapement to be used in watches. Known as a frictional rest type of escapement because the drive is constantly in contact with the balance.
- Fusee – a device to regulate the uneven force of the main driving spring, as it runs down. It consists of a spiral grove cut into the side of a cone. This is linked via the fusee chain, to the spring barrel. Because of the varying diameter of the fusee, the force acting on the watch train is balanced against the weakening force from the spring as it runs down.
- Maintaining power – This is a device, which is fitted to the fusee and provides power to the train during winding.
- Going barrel – Because of improvements in the manufacture of steel springs, it became possible to do away with the fusee. This meant that the spring barrel drives directly onto the train.
- Jewelling – The pivots of the wheels (cogs) are made to run in jewels which have had small holes drilled through them. This arrangement reduces friction and ware; therefore the operation of the watch is usually more reliable.
- Keyless – an arrangement that allows the watch to be wound up via a crown protruding from the top of the watch. By pulling the crown out, the hands can also be set. A variation on this is known as ‘pin set’ where a small pin near the crown, is pressed in to allow the hands to be set.
- Regulator – this is a device that allows the rate (accuracy) of the watch to be adjusted by changing the effective length of the balance spring (hair spring). The longer it is, the slower the rate of the watch, and the shorter it is, the faster the watch will go. There are several ways in which this can be done. In old verge watches this is either by a Tompion or Bosely type under the balance. On later watches this often moved to the balance cock. It became increasingly complex, particularly in early 20th century American watches.
- Hunter case – a design of watch case where the whole of the dial is covered by a metal cover which flips open when the pendant button or crown is pressed. A variation on this is the half-hunter where the front cover has a small opening (less than the diameter of the dial) through which the hands can be viewed without opening the cover. The front of the cover is usually marked with the hours.
- Chronometer – a description that is applied to many types of watches, usually indicating that the watch has a large centre seconds hand. The watch often has some sort of stop work, were by the train can be stopped and started. A variation on this idea is the fly-back chronometer, where the centre seconds hand (and a subsidiary minute hand) are controlled separately from the main train and can be started, stopped and return to zero without upsetting the running of the watch. This type of watch is often very complicated.
- Marine Chronometer – this refers to a very accurate type of watch used to measure time at sea with the purpose of determining longitude. John Harrison designed the first really accurate watch for this purpose in the 1760s. Most marine chronometers use some variation on the Dentent escapement.
- Pendant – the protuberance on top of a watchcase usually carrying a ring or bow to allow the watch to be fixed to a chain. Later this became the winding crown in keyless watches.
- Motion work – an arrangement of wheels (cogs) under the dial that dive the hour and minute hands.
- Repeater – this is a watch where the hours, quarters and sometimes the minutes, are struck on gongs or rods within the watch, much the same as a Grandfather clock. They usually have a button that can be pressed to repeat the chimes, hence the name repeater.
- Balance cock – this forms the upper pivot of the balance and either partly or fully covers it. In early watches, this was heavily pierced and engraved, during the 19th century they became smaller (only partly covering the balance) and usually only engraved, sometimes they are completely plain.
- Gilding – A thin layer of gold applied to a base metal, in watch cases, usually brass. This was originally done by applying an amalgam of gold and mercury to the case and then heating it in an open fire, driving off the mercury as a vapor and leaving a thin deposit of gold. This is not to be recommended, as mercury vapor is highly poisonous. During the 19th century this process was replaced by gold plating also known as rolled gold or gold filled.