Pocket watches have endured for over three centuries, and until the mid-20th century, they were equivalent to today’s smartphones. Hundreds of watchmakers competed to craft the finest pocket watches in the world with innovative designs, the finest materials, and applying superior craftsmanship at every opportunity. Unfortunately, today, we are left with a rich history of fine vintage timepieces that will never be recreated because some of the techniques used in their manufacture have been lost to time or these designs are prohibitively expensive to craft and market in today’s economic landscape.
Most of the pocket watches we share with you here at thepocketwatchguy.com are more than one hundred years old. Despite their advanced age, these mechanical marvels remain one of the few types of machinery crafted more than a century ago that continue to function exactly as their manufacturers intended. They stand as a testament to human ingenuity and design, reaching back to the days before the airplane, the automobile, and the computer.
To help you understand the specifications listed in our descriptions for each of our fine vintage timepieces, we’ve put together this guide.
Pocket Watch Manufacturer
Hundreds of manufacturers sought to leave their mark in the world of horology and earn their fortunes crafting fine timepieces. Of those many, a few emerged victorious, their names forever associated with the finest timepieces in history. Among them are the American watch manufacturers such as Hamilton, Waltham, Elgin, and Illinois. Not to be forgotten are the household names of the Swiss watchmakers such as Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Jaeger-LeCoultre.
When collecting fine vintage pocket watches, the manufacturer is an essential identifier for gauging each pocketwatch’s quality, history, and value. In short, a pocket watch is nothing without the name of its manufacturer.
Knowing where a watch was manufactured is an exciting piece of horological history and a way for collectors and those who appreciate fine timepieces to connect the pocket watch to a specific geographic location of origin.
Movement Serial Number
Most American-made pocket watches and some of those crafted outside the U.S. come with serial numbers. The serial number provides a wealth of information about the watch since American watchmakers kept detailed records. The serial number can help a collector or horologist determine the production date, where the watch was produced, and is vital in determining historically accurate configurations.
Grade refers to a watch movement’s size, finish, jewel count, and design—also known as a pocket watch’s finishing traits. Watch companies, jewelers, and other retailers used the pocket watch grade to market movements, with or without their cases. As a result, some watch grades took on legendary reputations, such as the Hamilton Grade 992 and the Elgin Grade 376, branded as the Elgin Veritas.
The grade is essential for determining the worth of a vintage pocket watch, its collectibility, and its horological value. Moreover, it’s an important specification for collectors since there are distinctive differences in the watch grades from each manufacturer. For instance, the Hamilton Grade 992 movement is markedly different from the Hamilton Grade 950.
It’s important to note that grade and railroad grade are two separate specifications, and we will cover what railroad grade means a little later in this guide.
In a nutshell, the model of a pocket watch refers to the plate designs manufactured at the watchmaker’s factory. It was common for a model to be used for multiple grades.
It’s easy to confuse a pocket watch model with its grade. However, it’s important to remember that grade is a classification system used by the watch manufacturers for the entire mechanism of each watch movement. On the other hand, the model is very specific to the extent an experienced horologist can identify the model by the cut and profile of the plates.
Estimated Production Date
This one is self-explanatory and is determined using the watch’s serial number most of the time. However, in instances where a watch does not have a serial number as seen with early Swiss timepieces, the estimated production date is often determined by characteristics of the watch’s movement specific to a certain period for that manufacturer or using engravings or markings.
When looking for watches from a historically significant period, the estimated production date is important.
Every model and grade of movement required special tooling and manufacturing techniques in the factories. Thus, the movements were produced in groups called “runs.” There was no set number for a run, and these could consist of a few hundred movements up to several thousand per group.
The total production, also known as the total run quantity, is the complete number of watches of a specific model or grade produced before the factory stopped making them.
When it comes to collecting and valuing vintage pocket watches, the total production number is a critical metric in determining the rarity of a specific grade or model.
The size number was agreed upon by American watchmakers to indicate the diameter of a watch movement. The higher the number, the larger the diameter of the movement. For example, a size 18 movement has a larger diameter than a size 16 movement.
Here are the measurements:
- Size 14: 1.633 inches
- Size 16: 1.7 inches
- Size 18: 1.767 inches
- Size 20: 1.833 inches
It’s essential to keep in mind that the American watch size system does not always directly correlate with these measurements, but they’ll be close. It’s important to note that pocket watch cases use the same sizing system however the measurements will be slightly larger for example a Size 18 case will be 2 inches while a size 18 movement will be 1.767 inches in diameter.
The fact that these vintage pocket watches continue to function perfectly for more than a hundred years is largely due to the use of jewels in their manufacturing. The metal moving parts used in a watch movement would quickly wear out due to friction.
Watchmakers discovered early on that using strategically positioned jewels allowed watches to function year after year with little to no wear. This is because the gemstones used, typically rubies and sapphires were hard enough and perfect enough for the job. Interestingly, jewels also hold microscopic droplets of oil that lubricate each pivot point.
While the natural jewels used in these magnificent timepieces are relatively cheap, it’s their precise finish and perfect positioning in a pocket watch that increases their value and makes vintage timepieces run so dependably. To an extent, the number of jewels at necessary points in the movement is indicative of the quality of the pocket watch’s movement.
The movement configuration of a pocket watch indicates whether the watch was designed to go in a hunting case or for use in an open-face case. The relevance of this specification increases when determining if a watch was railroad grade or not.
Movement finish refers to the appearance of a pocket watch movement, including its color, metal, and decoration.
- A gilt finish means the movement is gold-plated
- A nickel finish means the solid nickel plates of the movement are polished
- A damaskened finish means the nickel plates are brushed or decorated. The presence of a damaskened finish increases the value of the movement substantially
The movement setting indicates how the watch’s hands are moved to align with the correct time, i.e., “to set the correct time.” Early designs were set using a key to turn the hands to the correct position. Later watches were set by raising the crown, turning it until the hands marked the proper time, then the crown was pushed into its original position.
The lever set became popular when this type of movement setting became a requirement for railroad watches. A small lever positioned in a small slot near the edge of the dial had to be pulled out before the hands could be adjusted. For the railroads, the lever set was an essential safeguard to prevent the hands from being accidentally adjusted.
A watch movement is constructed so that wheels are held between “bridges”
Movements can be either full plate or three-quarter plate:
- Full plate – two plates with the gears between them
- Three-quarter plate – the plates have a gap
- A bridge movement has thin bridges holding one end of the pivot and exposing the internal workings of the movement for easy visualization
The regulator sets the rate of oscillation of the balance wheel. This part of the movement is crucial for maintaining an accurate timekeeping rate. However, the regulator is limited in how well it functions by a few minutes per day at best. If a pocket watch has five minutes or more error per day, the watch needs servicing.
There are several types of regulators, and the type of regulator will to an extent, govern the overall quality of the watch. Plain regulators are quite common and are the most straightforward design, however finer watches like the fine vintage timepieces available in our store use one of several variations of patent regulators far superior to plain regulators in terms of accuracy.
The hairspring or balance spring, as it’s sometimes called, is the part that makes your watch tick. It makes the balance wheel oscillate, enabling the watch to keep time.
Hairsprings were invented nearly four hundred years ago and remained relatively unchanged until Hamilton introduced the Elinvar hairspring to safeguard against magnetic interference.
Adjusted means the movement has been factory adjusted for specific applications. There are eight possible adjustments:
- Temperature (34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Dial up
- Dial down
- Pendant up
- Pendant down
- Pendant right
- Pendant left
- Isochronism – meaning the watch is capable of keeping time regardless of the tension in the mainspring
Each factor being adjusted means the watchmaker puts the watch through a series of adjustment trials on a timing machine.
Adjusted to Position
Adjusted to position indicates how many types of adjustments have been made on the watch. Typically, standard-grade pocket watches were adjusted to three positions. Meanwhile, due to stricter guidelines, railroad grade watches were required to be adjusted to a minimum of five positions after 1908.
What constitutes a railroad-grade pocket watch is a rather complex subject. Contrary to popular belief, railroad grade pocket watches were in existence well before Webb C. Ball, and his overarching railroad grade requirements developed at the behest of railroad officials in the wake of the Great Kipton Train Wreck.
After railways were invented and put into use, many small railroad companies started up, and it was quickly discovered that the railway employees needed to be on the same time to ensure safer operations. As a result, each company established its own timekeeping standards resulting in various rules governing pocket watches used for rail work. The short of it is that whether or not a railroad grade pocket watch was indeed a railroad grade pocket watch depended on which company you were talking to.
As the railroad and watchmaking industries rolled into the 20th century, the guidelines for railroad grade watches became more standardized as rail companies consolidated into larger entities, and watchmakers followed suit.
For a piece of technology that has existed for nearly four hundred years, pocket watches remain as complex and intriguing mechanisms with plenty of moving parts. If you have any questions about the specifications we use in our watch descriptions, please reach out to us.