Today, we can check time everywhere, from walls and wristwatches to smartwatches and our phones. Time can be checked anywhere, as pretty much every building has a clock of its own. Back in history, checking accurate times wasn’t that easy many standards had to be developed and the watch manufacturers had to follow them in order to sell watches that tick accurate times. That’s what makes the most accurate antique pocket watches extremely valuable.
In the age where even the wristwatches are dying off and being replaced by smart bands and watches, antique pocket watches value is skyrocketing. However, identifying antique pocket watches is not easy and even the most professional collectors have to consider help and guidance in identifying them.
There’s not a quick way to make a value out of your pocket watch. Nevertheless, you probably see that they are more valuable compared to the classic antique collectible. Also, the production of antique watches was difficult, so in the sea of different models and series, identification takes time.
You’re probably on this page because you want to buy or sell an antique pocket watch that you recently found online, in your basement or attic. However, to identify and evaluate your watch, you need to understand what affects the market of your watch and what exactly you need to know before you determine its true value.
Luckily, although all these things seem quite hard to understand and time-consuming, we crafted this guide that will introduce you to the art of identifying pocket watches. Continue reading and learn what makes a vintage or antique pocket watch a good antique and how much you can get for your old watch.
History of Pocket Watches
We believe that most people know where pocket watches originated from, as well as which companies and countries are most famed for making the most accurate watches. If you don’t, there’s no shame about not knowing it, and you can catch up in the following paragraphs.
Pocket watches that can track time accurately were popularized over the 17th century. As you may know, hairspring helped balance down the clocks allowing them to measure time accurately. Nevertheless, the first “pocket” watch was designed during the 1500s, particularly in 1524 by a locksmith called Peter Henlein.
It’s worth mentioning that although those could measure time, Henlein’s pocket watches were lacking accuracy. In addition to that, they couldn’t fit into a pocket because they were much bigger than what we perceive as a pocket watch today.
That being said, distinguished men wore these “pocket watches” as a pendant, with the watch being attached to a chain hanging around the neck. Needless to say, they were more of a piece of jewelry, an adornment to go out with or to a ball, as they couldn’t measure time precisely.
The hairspring improved the accuracy of watches and was introduced in 1675, along with a smaller design that allowed these watches to be more casual to fit into the pocket. Given their price, and the social status of people to wear them, it wasn’t all that casual.
Among the first people who wore it was the King of England, Charles II, who was kind of a trendsetter of that time. Over the next hundred years, these watches were additionally improved with a lever escapement which allowed people to check the minutes on the watch too.
Although in Europe, watches were in mass production, the first American watch was only made in 1809. The American Watch Company in Waltham, Massachusetts made the first pocket watch. Its popularity encouraged other manufacturers to start making them too including Elgin, Hamilton, and others.
Identifying Antique Pocket Watches
You can’t evaluate the antique pocket watch without identifying it. The secrets of pocket watch identification hide in the serial number. If it’s not visible, collectors rely on other factors of identification, which we’ll discuss below.
Serial Number (Serial ID)
If you can identify the serial number of the watch you’re trying to identify, more than half of the work is complete. Particularly, if your pocket watch was made by an American company, there might be more than one serial number present.
The watch case may have one number, usually on the rear, so turn around your watch and check for that area. However, if you take a look at the movement, there might be another number. That’s because different parts of different watches were made by different manufacturers.
The best and most accurate way to identify the watch is by checking the serial number that is located on the movement. It’s mostly engraved so it’s properly visible even hundreds of years later. For that, you’ll need to carefully open the back cover of your antique pocket watch and carefully view the serial number on the movement.
Editor’s notes: For some people, identifying a pocket watch is easy after they received the serial number. They can visit an appraiser, or they already worked with this kind of watch so they can evaluate it more easily. If you’re not among those people, it’ll be a bit harder for you.
To make things easier for you, you can search the serial number on Pocket Watch Database and see if there are any records on the particular watch you are identifying and evaluating.
Number of Adjustments
Unlike modern watches that need their battery replaced now and then, antique pocket watches need to be “changed” or “adjusted” to accurately track and display time. This also adds more to its value, so numbers of calibrations, as opposed to the position of the watch help, identify it by that number.
One would never think there are worthy gems inside a watch, but they were used for the orientation of the gears. Those are industrial grade gemstones and they helped reduce friction, ultimately making the watch last longer as there wouldn’t be any wear over the gears that make the internal composition of the watch.
The highest-quality watches were equipped with the highest number of jewels. That also adds to the value of the watch. For example, some watches are equipped with 25 to 30 jewels and are considered the most worthy on auctions.
The brand of the watch tells a lot about the time this watch was made in. Of course, the engraving in the serial number or even in the body of the watch should say a lot about it. Still, if those are missing, it’s worth knowing which watch was made and when.
As the trends and fashion changed throughout decades and centuries, some antique pocket watches were found to be outdated and then converted into wristwatches for more style and modern touch. So, if you came across a wristwatch you will have to check whether it’s been a pocket watch before.
Types of Antique Pocket Watches
There are different types of antique pocket watches. The particular type of a watch may dictate its price and overall value. Here are the types that are probably available still.
- Hunter case: These watches are equipped with a metal cover that is round. It also has a bar attached to a spring hinge which is used to protect the crystals.
- Open-face: This design may be more popular among steampunk collectors thanks to its unprotected and open cover. The stem and crown are locked at a 12-hour position of the watch.
- Military pocket watch: These watches were made in the early 1900s and come with a minimalistic design. The name of them came after the fact that everyone in the military had them.
- Demi-hunter case: There’s a tiny window surrounded by glass so that you can easily check what time it is without opening the watch. These watches were made in Europe over the late 1800s and early 1900s.
- Pair-cased: Similar to an open-face pocket watch, this one is located inside of a hunter case. However, you can remove the internal case and then put it over for additional protection.
- Stainless steel watches: Just like their name suggests, these watches are surrounded by a stainless steel case for more durability, lighter handling, and no rust.
- Railroad pocket watch: Most vintage railroad watches are made with an open-face design. It’s worth noting they were used by railway workers in the USA but also in Europe.
- Wristwatch Conversion: Lastly, wristwatch converted watches are those that were pocket watches at first, but then professionally converted into a wristwatch.
Valuing Antique Pocket Watch
Now that you managed to identify the origin and maker, as well as the model of your antique pocket watch, it’s time to set a value for it. Whether the seller is trying to scam you with a higher value of the pocket watch you’ve been eyeing, or you don’t know how to set the price, here we’ll discuss all things that you can consider when evaluating an antique pocket watch.
It’s worth noting that you can either get your watch appraised professionally or try to do it yourself. The latter may be a bit more difficult and require more time but with our tips and a few more online resources, you can do it flawlessly.
Valuing Pocket Watch Yourself
When identifying the pocket watch you likely learned about the brand of the watch. A brand can tell a lot about the value of the pocket watch. Of course, collectors and other visitors to the auctions will only want to get a vintage watch that is made by some famous American or Swiss company.
If that company is known for making watches that like, it’ll be even more worth it. Elgin and Waltham are the two most popular USA-based companies that make watches. Elgin was making 14K gold watches which can just add up to its price. Waltham is known as an American company that made them among the first and also put a lot of models in mass production.
On the other hand, Swiss-based companies such as Longines and Ebel are known for making sophisticated and top-notch watches. They weren’t just functional and precise, they were also beautiful. Longines watches are also famed for the engraved winged hourglass logo which is its trademark.
It’s no secret that Swiss watches are more valued and sell better than those made in the USA. That being said, it doesn’t surprise us to know that some Ebel watches sell for over $2,000 while Longines watches are valued at up to $5,000 in different stores.
Another thing to consider is the condition, the watch must be in a flawless state to have some value. Collectors want to put them into good use immediately and don’t want to do extra work.
The best watches are those that work and are calibrated just the right number of times. If you hear the ticking sound of a watch, it’s indicative that it works and that it’ll have a higher value. Another thing that makes a good watch is that which has the most jewels in it.
If material is a deciding factor, don’t go for stainless steel watches as they were common and don’t sell so expensively. On the other hand, gold watches have impeccable value. Those that have some kind of a decoration or a painted case also had more value as more work was put into making them and they’re generally rare. If the case is completely made out of gold, precisely 14K or 18K then it can be sold for a great value.
If you want to go for a gold watch, watch out for the stamp or watermark that is present on the rear of the watch cover. All gold watches have this watermark seal, so if it’s not there, it’s likely fake gold. Heavier watches are indicative of real gold being used in their production. However, if you stumble upon a heavy build pocket watch, it’s best to take it to an appraiser for examination.
Editor’s notes: If you feel like you are struggling with an evaluation of your pocket watch, check out these websites and forums for more information. Some of them can be of great help and provide their estimates of values.
Valuing Pocket Watch Professionally
Evaluating a pocket watch can’t always be done professionally alone. Although we listed some forums for your reference and help it’s not always possible because lighting and overall picture quality can affect one’s decision. There’s always a bias factor under which there can’t be an objective opinion unless you are professionally suited for this job.
That being said, it’s okay if you have to consult a professional for evaluating your pocket watch. However, these services are not available for free, and given that some pocket watches are very old and that they may have defects, they might not even be cheap.
If you live in a larger town or a city, there will be several antique shops to consult about the value of your pocket watch. They will give you a few factors to consider and offer a price range that you can offer the watch at an auction or online marketplace. It’ll be even better to consider a professional watchmaker if they are experienced with vintage and antique pocket watches.
Sometimes, the antique workers are not available in towns you may live in, while others will decline to give their estimate because they haven’t worked with watches before. In such a case, you will have to consider some appraisers online. Many antique stores that have a good reputation offer their services online.
If they are not too far away, they may even be worth going to. Make sure to show some pictures to the antique worker online, so that your going there wouldn’t be in vain and that you can get some value out of them.
Where to Buy Antique Pocket Watches?
Antique pocket watches online can seem pretty convincing, but turn out not to be antique at all, but just designed decoratively for anyone who wants to purchase one. That’s why you need to be careful when shopping for a watch online.
Frankly speaking, not even the major marketplaces are free of scammers or deceivingly-looking stores that offer services and display antique pocket watches online. Some of them will also sell hardware, so if that’s something you are interested in, you should go ahead and check it out.
Amazon – Authentic & Fake Antique Pocket Watches
- Price range: $10-$350
Amazon may not be everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to purchasing expensive antique pocket watches. That’s because most of the pocket watches displayed across the online stores are not antique at all but just designed for the sake of decoration and the steampunk fashion style that many practices.
Nevertheless, some interesting catches can be caught online. There are a few sellers who sell stainless steel vintage pocket watches, as well as those made of 14K gold. Make sure to check them out.
Editor’s notes: If you are explicitly looking for antique pocket watches, Amazon may not be the best marketplace for you as it’s full of false options.
eBay – Nice Antique & Vintage Finds
- Price range: $7-$3,000
eBay may be the marketplace with the best offers for both vintage and antique pocket watch finds. You can find anything, from cheap conversion watches to silver half-hunter watches, as well as heavy gold watches which can have a high price tag.
Some designs may have special symbols etched into the cover of the watch, but all of them seem well-preserved and commonly sought after. You will need to contact the sellers about all the specifics you can have but bear in mind, that a lot of people look for quality pocket watch collectibles, so if you catch something worth getting, don’t waste time.
Editor’s notes: There’s still room for scammers and retro pocket watches posing as antique ones. Still, as long as you are careful and voice your concerns to the seller you can get a good buy.
Etsy – Mid-range Antique & Vintage Pocket Watches
- Price range: $10-$1000
As opposed to Amazon, Etsy has a nice selection of vintage and pocket watches. Some may be smaller than others, but rather fall into the category of retro watches. However, the older watches are made out of steel, silver, or gold, and have beautiful etchings engraved into them.
The beautiful, sleek, and straightforward design which was common for those times easily sets them away from the fake options. Some watches have visible signs of tear and wear, as well as aging, but they still have a great value for collectors who keep hunting for them.
Editor’s notes: Etsy has a nice selection of watches, but just like on eBay, good finds are the fastest to go. If you have any doubts, voice them with the sellers.