Your Guide to Buying an Antique Compass

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Your Guide to Buying an Antique Compass

A pocket compass is not only a useful navigational tool, but it’s also valued for its often unique design and presentation, making it a handsome object d’art. Antique examples are valued for their historical interest and the stories behind their production. An old manual compass in good working order has a place in today’s world, as even though GPS devices can be used for navigation, they are of little use when satellite contact is lost or some form of power is unavailable. A compass needs neither a satellite nor a source of power.

First appearing in China, compasses became an essential tool for navigating the earth by some of history’s most celebrated explorers in Europe, Asia, and beyond. Maritime compasses ensured that Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci had some idea of where they were heading, although we know that such early sailors did experience a number of surprises.

Antique compasses appear in various types. The most common one, the magnetic compass, uses a magnet to interact with the earth’s magnetic field and points itself to the magnetic poles. However, magnetic compasses are not reliable when used too closely to those magnetic poles, that is in northeastern Canada and Antarctica, because there, variations in the Earth’s magnetic field cause such compasses to misread geographic location. A gyro compass has a wheel which rotates rapidly, interacting dynamically with the earth’s rotation. This causes the wheel to precess or slow down, losing energy to friction. As it slows, its axis of rotation is parallel with that of the earth. In the gyro compass, the wheel’s axis points to the earth’s rotational poles which are due north and due south or true north and true south. Another type of compass, the astrocompass, works through observation of celestial bodies. This was a natural evolution of astronomical determination for direction and Vikings knew how to use light from the sun to determine direction.

History of the Compass

The compass, a navigational instrument, was invented in its magnetic form during the Chinese Han Dynasty 206 BC – 220 AD. They used it for divination. Later, during the Song Dynasty, it was used for navigational orienteering and eventually maritime navigation. A magnetic compass is any device that can indicate the direction of magnetic north – compasses always have a marker on the pointer, such as an arrow, that points to magnetic north. Compasses appeared in Western Europe in the late 1100s and a later version, called a dry compass, was invented by Europeans at the beginning of the 14th century. The dry compass remained in use until the invention of the liquid-filled magnetic compass in the early part of the 20th century.

Chances of finding a very early compass are, of course, extremely unlikely, but more recent examples follow the same principal. The frame of reference that a compass uses to measure direction is stationary relative to the surface of the earth. It defines the four directions we know as North, South, East and West. The face of the compass has a directional diagram called a compass rose. On some compasses angle markings appeared in degrees, either in addition to the rose or instead of it. North is 0°, East is 90°, South is 180°, and west is 270°.

Until the introduction of Global Positioning Systems, marine travel relied on the compass which sailors used to calculate location. When used with a sextant it could calculate latitude and it could calculate longitude in combination with a marine chronometer. In the absence of GPS, the compass still has a place in every sailor’s kit. The history of compass invention and evolvement is long and storied, impossible to detail here. Interested buyers of antique compasses are encouraged to delve deeper into the subject before venturing into choosing a direction for their purchase decisions.

Types of Compass

The following are compasses that determine direction in different ways. The magnetic compass is the most common and most likely to be the type of antique compass to be found for sale in the marketplace.



Magnetic Compass

Uses a magnet to interact with the earth’s magnetic field. It points itself to the magnetic poles.

Gyro Compass

Has a wheel which rotates rapidly, interacting dynamically with the earth’s rotation. This causes the wheel to precess or slow down, losing energy to friction. As it slows, its axis of rotation is parallel with that of the earth.


Works through observation of celestial bodies.

Factors to Consider When Buying an Antique Compass

Listed below are some considerations that a buyer should make before making a final purchase of an antique compass.

  • ŸAuthenticity - When considering the purchase of an antique compass it is important to determine that the piece is, in fact, antique. Sometimes an item might be described as vintage or antique, but the small print may state that it is a hand-made copy or a reproduction. It is difficult to tell from a photograph since reproductions can appear authentic. Antiques are usually considered as an item made 100 years ago, or more, although some people use the term to describe pieces aged 75 years old and up.
  • ŸCasing - Some compasses are available in wooden cases – mahogany was frequently used. Occasionally compasses in Bakelite cases are offered for sale. Bakelite was a plastic developed in 1907 in New York and this knowledge will help to determine the approximate age of such a compass. Leather was also used for cases, particularly for those used by the military. Originally, pocket compasses were often sold inside a cloth pouch with an outer box. Finding such a piece with all components in good shape is rather rare. Compass dials were often made of printed-paper, with hands of blue steel.
  • ŸMiniatures - Miniature compasses were made in the form of pocket watch fobs, popular in the Victorian age. These are sometimes available in fine cases made of gold and silver. To ensure authenticity, look for hallmarks and stamps when considering pieces made of precious metals.

Typical Features of a Magnetic Compass

1. The Compass Rose

This is a diagram, which depicts orientation and direction and is sometimes called a Compass Star. Thirty-two points evenly spaced around a circle mark cardinal directions of North, South, East and West, inter-cardinal directions of Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest, plus 16 secondary inter-cardinal directions. Simpler compasses may not depict all 32 of the points.

2. 360 Degrees

More recent compasses show the 360° system. 0° represents due North, 90° represents due East, 180° due South, 270° due West.

3. Course of Direction Arrow

The direction arrow points north and usually has an arrow symbol at its tip.

4. Magnet

The magnet interacts with the earth’s magnetic field, aligning itself to the magnetic poles.

Care and Repair of Antique Compasses

A compass is a precision tool that should be handled carefully. A person with expertise in repair and restoration should be sought if any fix needs to be done. They will be able to tell you how restoration, if necessary, will affect the value and function of a compass.

Manufacturers of Antique Compasses

Following are a few of the manufacturers of antique compasses. Antique compasses do not always bear the name of the manufacturer.

  • Elliott Bros (UK)
  • Sinclair (UK)
  • Chadburns Ltd. (UK)
  • Dennison (UK)
  • Negretti and Zambra for London for Thornton Ltd. (UK)
  • Ed. Koehn (Switzerland)
  • Manufrance (France)
  • Keuffel and Esser (US)
  • Longines Wittnauer (US)
  • Queen Gary Co. made by Keuffel and Esser (US)
  • Taylor (US)

Finding Antique Compasses on eBay

Once you determine the type of antique compass you want to purchase, visit the Antiques portal on eBay, click on ‘Marine/Maritime’ then ‘Compasses’ and start searching item listings. The Categories list on the left-hand side of the eBay page helps to narrow the search.

Searching forAntique Compasses on eBay

Search eBay listing titles for specific words when shopping for antique compasses. For example, to find a compass made by Longines Wittnauer, type ‘Longines Wittnauer Compass’ into the search box, and then click the Advanced button to customise the results. Also visit eBay’s Search Tipspage for more advice on searching for antique compasses with keywords. If you can’t find the exact compass you want, try shopping eBay Stores.


Antique compasses dating from the nineteenth century all the way up until the mid twentieth century are available in today’s marketplaces. eBay has a varied selection or antique compasses, which will help buyers, find the right item for them. There are many styles offered for sale and it is wise, for collectors and new enthusiasts, to learn a little history about antique compasses to help determine choices. Knowing what to look for helps to ensure that the buying process will be fun and informative.

In addition to the information given here, use the Internet and the library to find historical details about the many different types and styles of compass made in the past. Once you have collected this information, you can buy an antique compass safely and securely on eBay.

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