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Old Trend, New Life: Antique Pocket Watches

Updated: Mar 21

Want to go back to the future and get in on a trend that will stand the test of time? Pocket watches are an inspired symbol of timeless style and a nod to the finer art of appreciating time itself. Antique pocket watches, however, are a window to the origins of tracking time and the reasons we became clock watchers.

Clocks small enough to be worn on the person were created by the early 16th century. The earliest watches were often worn as pendants by men and women. The next generation of wearable watches, pocket watches, were most often worn by men. These were seen as a symbol of wealth and status because they were very expensive and painstaking to produce.

As technical advances were made and designs simplified, the pocket watch evolved from a luxury to a necessity. Today, they’re seen as antique oddities that symbolize the history of time and, ultimately, man’s obsession with it.

What Do Antique Pocket Watches Look Like?

Antique pocket watches are as intricately designed on the inside as they are on the outside. A pocket watch is easily identified by its ornately decorated case and internal mechanisms that make sure the piece runs well and keeps time. The mechanics of the watch, called the movement, were often on display and became a highly coveted area of competition, causing American watchmakers to create elaborate designs and motifs with etching and inlayed gold.

Parts of a Pocket Watch

  • Bow

  • Crown

  • Pendant

  • Bezel

What are the Styles of Pocket Watches?

Antique pocket watch in display case

There are two styles of pocket watches that are identified by watch enthusiasts. The open-face style is the most common, with the winding stem in the 12:00 position and every movement size American watchmakers have to offer. This style became popularized when its layout was the only one approved by primary railroad criteria.

The second style is the hunter, or hunting, which features a hinged front lid to protect the dial and glass crystal which is typically etched with images of the outdoors of animals. The winding stem is at the 3:00 position, and the crown opens the front lid when depressed.

What is Railroad Criteria and Why Does it Affect Antique Pocket Watches?

Humankind’s dependence on time – and the synchronization of time – is a long-standing relationship that impacts economies and quality of life. From coordinating floor trading at the stock market to allowing trains across the country to run safely and efficiently, antique pocket watches helped keep us on time. Train travel was significantly impacted by differences in time, and that created specific criteria in timepieces for the railroad.

Railroad Pocket Watch Criteria

  • Watches had to be open-faced

  • Movement size 16 or 18

  • Minimum of 17 jewels adjusted to at least five positions

  • Adjusted to temperatures of 34-100 degrees Fahrenheit

What is Special About Antique Pocket Watches?

Tarnished old antique pocket watch

The quality of the mechanics in an antique pocket watch is remarkable. Watchmakers took great care to design the functionality of the piece as well as the overall ornamentation of the watch case. Most companies used jewels in their watches to reduce friction and lubricate the inner workings. These jewel bearings, as a general rule, indicate it’s a better watch and, therefore, more valuable.

Beyond the technical aspects of an antique pocket watch, it also can have sentimental value as a family heirloom. Personal attachment can determine the emotional value of a particular watch because it tells the story of a family and ticks through the moments of their lives that eventually lead to you. For this reason, an antique pocket watch can be considered invaluable and entirely irreplaceable.

Do More Jewels Mean My Antique Pocket Watch is More Valuable?

Jewel bearings are tiny pieces of synthetic jewels, such as synthetic rubies or sapphires, set into the watch movement to help reduce friction. The jewels provide a hard, smooth surface to support the free rotation of metal components like the wheel train. Free rotation helps to ensure accurate and long-lasting timekeeping.

Jewels from an antique pocket watch

In general, the more jewels, the more valuable the watch. However, there are other factors that make an antique pocket watch valuable, and often, the jewels are practically (financially) worthless. Synthetic rubies are the most common jewel found in antique pocket watches, and their primary role is friction.

Most watches have 7, 9, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, or 23 jewels. Movements with higher jewel counts are considered higher in quality, but other factors like materials used, etching, and metal inlays such as gold can impact the overall value of the antique pocket watch. Higher-grade movements often used diamonds and sapphires, resulting in a higher value due to the quality of the jewels.

Does an Antique Pocket Watch Make a Good Gift?

Antique mall case with pocket watches and mantel clocks

Antique pocket watches make a bold statement in today’s tech-driven world. Wearing a pocket watch is a style in and of itself, communicating the uniqueness of the wearer and an appreciation for the history of an antique timepiece. The belief that a pocket watch is more than just a watch – it’s a timekeeper, a record of ancestry, a history book – has recently been memorialized in pop culture.

An antique pocket watch is an ideal gift for a person who values time and considers the passing of time as an opportunity to learn. Or for someone who simply enjoys fashion nostalgia and the look of an antique pocket watch hooked to a chain and tucked into a pocket. Time keeps ticking away, so instead of asking, “why should I gift an antique pocket watch?” maybe you want to ask yourself, “why shouldn’t I?”

Where Can I Find an Antique Pocket Watch?

A quality antique mall will have a rotating supply of antique pocket watches and knowledgeable vendors who sell them. Their dealers and vendors are skilled in finding the vintage or antique items you are looking for, including the latest fashions and pocket watches. Shopping at an antique mall is a lot like treasure hunting, so be sure to go back on a regular basis to shop for that one-of-a-kind item that puts a smile on your face.

Set yourself up for success, and always do your research before you buy or sell an antique pocket watch. Are you looking for antiques, vintage items, or the newest fashions? Take your time and search for the timepiece that speaks to you. What’s the best way to handle an urge to sell or buy an antique pocket watch – give it time.

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