Vintage Pocket Watch Buying Guide

Like if this guide is helpful
Vintage Pocket Watch Buying Guide

The first timepieces to be worn on bodies, rather than being free-standing or wall-mounted, are traced back to the 16th century in Europe. These devices were far from traditional watches or pocket watches as viewed today. These pieces were fastened to clothing or worn on chains around necks, and they were barely smaller than the clocks of the time. These were heavy, drum-shaped objects, often made of brass. These 'clock watches' only had hour hands; the minute hands did not come until much later.

In 1675, Charles II of England started a trend by wearing a waistcoat, and soon after, gentlemen started to wear pocket watches, which had shrunk somewhat by then. The gentlemen attached the pocket watches by chains to buttonholes in their waistcoats, rather than around wearing them around their necks. For ladies, the wearing of watches around their necks continued to be the fashion until the the 20th century.

Learning more about vintage pocket watches can make any consumer looking to purchase one, a wiser consumer. Further, knowledge about the pitfalls and also the pleasures of buying and owning a vintage pocket watch helps start any consumer search.

Construction of a Vintage Pocket Watch

Early pocket watches were made from iron, and the types of movements were based on a type that was used in large public clocks since the 14th century. Designed to be stationary, it was not surprising that these were highly inaccurate, and gained up to an hour a day. In 1759 the lever escapement was invented by Thomas Mudge, and this kept its accuracy to within a minute in any 24-hour period.

At this point, iron construction had given way to steel and even precious metals, for the materials of pocket watch manufactures. With the lever escapement came the introduction of jewels into the bearings of watches. This was primarily to reduce the friction and wear, and for the size of the jewels used, there was certainly no intrinsic value for them as they were far too small to be used in jewellery or fashion.

Up until the late 18th century, pocket watches were still seen as very expensive. A pocket watch was far too expensive for the common man, but as manufacturing improved and the machines were designed and built which could fashion the often tiny moving parts, so the prices dropped. Vintage pieces found today could have been owned by those of the upper classes of the time. By the end of the 18th century, pocket watches were cheap enough to be mass produced, even for sailors, and these often had colourful designs on their faces.

The Railroad Pocket Watch

In the late 19th century, there was a famous train crash in Ohio in America. One of the engineers' watches had stopped for four minutes, meaning two trains collided. From that crash, the American train officials insisted that every engineer and guard on every train in America had to have what was colloquially known as a 'Railroad Grade Watch'. This was a stringent set of standards by which official pocket watches had to adhere, and this led to the introduction of pocket watches produced by a company called 'The American Waltham Watch Company'. These pocket watches are still very sought after today.

Signs That a Waltham Railroad Watch is Genuine

A Waltham watch that needs batteries is not a genuine vintage model. However, here are certain things to look for, beyond batteries, to check if the watch is genuine. First, the serial number should be checked. The serial number is to be found on the movement itself, not the case serial number. Watches which were produced by the Waltham company are numbered 1001 through 5000, and are signed "C.T. Parker", "P.S. Bartlett", and "Dennison, Howard & Davis". The company then went into administration, but on being bought out, started making pocket watches with the serial numbers 5001 through 14,000. This too did not work, but did soon after manufacturing started again, and the first 17 watches were marked as "The Warren Mfg. Co". Then numbers 18 through 100 were named "Warren Boston", while the next 800 were named "Samuel Curtis". These watches are understandably very rare, and therefore extremely valuable.

Types of Vintage Pocket Watches

Broadly speaking, there are two main types of pocket watches, namely the open-face pocket watch and the hunter-case pocket watch. Vintage reproductions of the open-face or hunter-case watches also exist, but are not truly authentic.

Hunter-Case Pocket Watches

A hunter-case pocket watch has a spring-loaded cover, normally of the same material as the rest of the case. On a true hunter, this cover is hinged, normally at the 9 o'clock position. The bow, stem, and crown of the watch are normally set in the 3 o'clock position. Modern hunter-case designs tend to have the cover hinge in the 6 o'clock position with the bow, stem, and crown set at the 12 o'clock position (in a similar manner to an open-face watch), so this is worth checking out before possible purchase. The sub-second dial is set at the 6 o'clock position.

Demi-Hunter or Half-Hunter Pocket Watches

A demi-hunter watch, whilst still having a cover to protect the delicate innards, also features a small circle of glass or crystal set in the centre of the cover. This is to enable the wearer to see the hands without having to open the whole cover. For this kind of hunter, there are usually pointers around the outside of the circle of glass or crystal to enable the owner to see at least the hour markings. These pointers are usually in a blue enamel. The sub-second dial is set at the 6 o'clock position.

Open-Face Pocket Watches

An open-face pocket watch is just that, as there is no cover for the face. The bow, stem, and crown of the watch is set in the 12 o'clock position, again with the sub-second dial set at the 6 o'clock position. After 1908, pocket watches to be worn by railway personnel were legally required to be open-faced, with the bow, stem, and crown in the 12 o'clock position.

Pocket Watch Type

Hinge Position

Bow, Stem, and Crown


9 o'clock

3 o'clock



12 o'clock

Again, reproductions or those watches which are not fully authentic may have the hinge position in a slightly different position. Also, the bow, stem, and crown may vary in placement as well. Only a truly authentic hunter-face and open-face watch have the above positioning.

Pocket Watch Movements

There are two distinct types of pocket watch movements, namely the key-wind, key-set movement and stem-wind movement. The stem-wind movement include stem-wind, stem-set movement, stem-wind, lever-set movement, and stem-wind, pin set movement.

Key-Wind, Key-Set

From the 16th century up to the end of the 19th century, every pocket watch had winding and time-setting functions which required a key to operate. This is another sign of a true vintage pocket watch. The watch was wound by removing the movement from its case or opening the rear flap, and inserting the key directly into the main spring assembly. If the owner wanted to change the time setting, there was generally a separate arbour, which would adjust the minute hand, and hence the hour hand every time the minute hand passed the 12 o'clock position.

Stem-Wind, Stem-Set

Invented in 1842, but not put onto the market until the 1850s, the stem-wind, stem-set movement allowed the user to change the time and wind the watch without a key. This is by far the most common type of vintage pocket watch around today.

Stem-Wind, Lever-Set

A stem-wind and lever-set type of movement required the user to open the crystal front of the watch. Changing the time required pulling out a lever, then the time could be altered by turning the crown wheel. Because changing the time required this amount of necessary action, it was this type of movement which became a legal requirement for railroad watches from the early 20th century and onwards.

Stem-Wind, Pin-Set

This is a variation on the lever-set movement. The user must press and hold a small pin set next to the crown in order to engage the necessary gearing to alter the time. As soon as the pressure on the pin is released, the crown no longer sets the time. This type is often called a 'nail set' watch, as the user must use a fingernail to change the time.

Buying a Vintage Pocket Watch on eBay

If you are looking to buy a vintage pocket watch on eBay, you should first decide whether you want a true vintage model, or a modern vintage-styled one. While there are many of the latter on offer, there are usually far fewer of the genuine vintage models for sale.

Start by searching on any eBay web page for a vintage pocket watch. Several results are returned for you to either peruse through or filter through. If your aim is to see the watch in person before purchasing the item, be sure to filter according to postcode. Or, if you have a specific price point in mind, be sure to filter on that so only relevant prices return.

Before making your purchase from any vendor you should review his or her feedback from previous buyers. This feedback offers insight into the integrity of the seller and his or her ability to deliver the product advertised.


There are several types of vintage pocket watches which range from open-face pocket watches to hunter-case pocket watches and from key-wind movement to lever-set movement. Although there are hundreds of reproductions, there are few which are authentic and available for sale. Obtaining a numbered pocket watch dramatically increases the value and allure. However, those that are not numbered are not necessarily inauthentic.

Mass production of pocket watches enabled those in the middle and working classes to own one, but they are just as authentic depending on the year they were manufactured and where they were manufactured. If possible, paperwork should come with the vintage pocket watch in order to prove the lineage and history of the piece, just as you get with a piece of art. However, it might be easier to purchase a reproduction or copy of an original piece if your objective is to wear the watch as part of an everyday outfit.

Have something to share, create your own guide... Write a guide
Explore more guides