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About Pocket Watches

Learn about pocket watches, from their use on the railroad to modern pocket watches.

Learn about the history of pocket watches. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Learn about the history of pocket watches.

When thinking about pocket watches it's hard to picture anything but an Old West engineer or conductor calling for the passengers to board the 3:10 train to Yuma. However, pocket watches are more than antique timepieces once made popular by the railroad, and there is still a thriving market for quality antique and vintage pocket watches.

These pocket watches are heirloom reminders of an ancestor, talismans of the romance of railroading, and statements of the watchmaker's art at the time they were made. Pocket watches are still being made in limited quantities by European manufacturers like Bernex, which has made them for more than a century, and American watchmakers like Avalon.

The History of Pocket Watches

According to the National Watch and Clock Museum, pocket watches trace their history to the spring-driven Italian table clocks of the late 15th century. The first watches, developed from these clocks in the 16th century, were pendant watches worn around the neck. Early watches were more for decoration than for keeping time, lacking a minute hand until the inventions of the balance wheel and balance spring in 1670 and 1675, respectively. They were popular enough that watch making spread over Europe, with London, Paris and Geneva becoming centers of the craft in the 17th and 18th centuries.

French-made watches were especially expensive until the invention of the anchor escapement in 1755, which made watches basic, yet practical. As accuracy became more important than appearance, pocket watches with the more modest English, German and Dutch designs became popular, and the French scaled back their designs accordingly.

Until the mid-19th century, pocket watches were assembled from handcrafted parts, with individual watchmakers specializing in the springs, cases, dials and hands. The master watchmaker who assembled them would put his name on the finished watch. This intensive labor made watches particularly costly until the American innovation of mass-produced, when standardized parts made them affordable to most people.

Pocket watches remained the preferred form of watch through the 19th century, although women were starting to wear wristwatches in the late 1800s. The Boer War (1899 to 1902) saw men wearing wristwatches for the first time, and their use in World War I countered the notion of wristwatches as "effeminate." By 1930, wristwatches had supplanted pocket watches as the preferred watch of both sexes, although railroad men continued to favor pocket watches throughout the 1930s.

Railroad Pocket Watches

The railroads were responsible for the improvements in pocket watch accuracy in the 19th century, as increasingly more accurate watches were required to make sure the trains ran on time. Each railroad adopted its own standards for watches that could keep accurate time; watches that met these standards were known as "standard" watches within the industry and as "railroad" watches to the general public.

The individual standards for railroad watches evolved over the second half of the 19th century, as more rails were laid down and more passengers and freight rode those rails. In the 1890s, a more generalized standard was adopted by most railroads.

Because of the higher production standards and lower production quantities, railroad watches are the most sought-after form of pocket watch. Pocket watches made by Waltham, Elgin, Hamilton and other manufacturers that have the words "grade" or "standard" in their model names are examples of well-made railroad watches.

Evaluating Vintage Pocket Watches

In most cases, determining the value of a pocket watch requires a professional appraisal. Determining a pocket watch's age depends on where it was made. The age of an American watch can be determined from the manufacturer's name and serial number on the movement. Viewing the serial number requires opening the case, while the manufacturer's name is best determined from a reference guide. The age of an English watch can be determined from hallmarks in its case, while consulting factory records is usually necessary to determine its manufacturer. The age of a continental European watch usually must be determined from style elements and patent features, while its manufacturer is usually whoever assembled it, although many Swiss and French watches were actually assembled by independent contractors.

Modern Pocket Watch Styles

Modern pocket watches usually have a round shape, but they can be square or even hexagonal. The face is usually white or black with Roman numerals or Arabic numbers. The dial may have minute markers, a second hand and display the date just like many wristwatches.

A skeleton, or "skeletonized," face has an opening inside the dial that is covered with a glass crystal, which leaves the inner mechanical workings exposed. On a double-opening pocket watch, the back is also left exposed.

The most common styles have either an open face or closed case; a closed (hunter) case watch has a hinged cover that must be opened to tell the time. The main advantage of a cover is it protects the watch from scratches and dust. Less common is the Demi-Hunter pocket watch, which has a hole in the center of the cover that leaves the hands visible when the cover is shut. Numerals are engraved on the cover so that the time is known even when the lid is closed. A double-opening pocket watch has front and back covers that both open. Opening the cover may require pressing a button. Pocket watches may be sold with or without a pocket watch chain.

Pocket watches require winding or are battery operated. Although most people wind a mechanical watch daily, it may run approximately two full days between windings.

Some pocket watches are designed for rugged, outdoor use, similarly to a sport wristwatch. These types of pocket watches are more likely to be water-resistant and have features like a built-in stopwatch, luminescent hands and markers, and a clip for added convenience.

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