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Antique Pocket Watch Identification and Valuation Guide

Tess Chedsey
antique pocket watches

The value of an antique pocket watch rests heavily on your ability to identify the watch, its features, and its materials properly. Before you begin your own antique pocket watch valuation, you'll need to learn the basic terms related to pocket watch parts and the coveted brands. Start with some quick tips for identifying and valuating your old pocket watch, then consult an expert if needed.

How to Identify an Antique Pocket Watch

Antique pocket watch identification includes knowing what type of watch you have and who made it. There are many factors to explore before you're ready to place a monetary value on the watch.

Identifying the Serial Number

American-made pocket watches may have a serial number, one type of identification mark, on the watch case and a different one on the "movement," or the inner workings of the watch because each part was typically made by a different company. You want to carefully open the back cover of the pocket watch to find the serial number engraved into the movement. You can then search the Pocket Watch Database or the tables provided by PM Time Service to help you identify your piece.

Zenith pocket watch inside

Common Types of Antique Pocket Watches

The watch dial, or face, and watch case are used to identify what type of pocket watch you have.

  • Demi-hunter case: The cover has a tiny window so you can tell the time without opening it. This is mostly a European style.
  • Hunter case: This type of watch has a round metal cover attached to a spring hinge that closes to protect the crystal on the dial. The stem and crown, or winding mechanism, will be located at the 3 position on the watch.
  • Military pocket watches: Pocket watches were standard issue for militaries in some regions up through the early 1900s and were very simple.
  • Open-face: This type of watch does not have a cover to protect the crystal, or glass, on the dial of the watch. The winding and setting stem and crown will be located at the 12 position on the watch.
  • Pair-cased: Made in the mid-18th century, this is essentially an open-face pocket watch set inside a hunter case. The inner case can be removed to wind the watch, then placed in the outer case for protection.
  • Railroad pocket watch: Railroad watches were made for and used by those working on the railroad. Any made after 1908 are typically open-faced.
  • Stainless steel watches: These are pocket watches with a case made from stainless steel.
  • Wristwatch conversion: This is a wristwatch that was converted into a pocket watch.

Identifying the Watch Movements

The machine parts that make the pocket watch work are collectively known as movements. There are different movements found on pocket watches that wind and set the watches in different ways.

  • Key-wind, key-set: You need a special type of key to wind and set the watch. This was the standard from the 1600s through the mid-1800s.
  • Stem-wind, stem-set: Commercialized in the 1850s, this type eliminates the need for a key and uses a stem to wind and set the watch.
  • Stem-wind, lever-set: You set this type of watch by opening the dial cover to access the special setting lever. This is common for railroad watches in the 1900s.
  • Stem-wind, pin-set: With this modern movement, you press the pin, then turn it to set the time before releasing the pin.
  • Jeweled: High-end watches throughout history tended to use this movement type where small minerals are used to reduce friction.
Antique pocket watch with key

Popular Antique Pocket Watch Brands

Each collector has specific criteria for which watches to collect, but many collector's like to have good examples of popular brands. Brands would include their name or logo on all their pieces.

  • Ebel: This Swiss company founded in 1911 and known for high-end designs that were beautiful and functional. A yellow gold Ebel pocket watch sold on eBay in 2020 for around $2,100.

  • Elgin: Founded in 1864, Elgin was originally called the National Watch Company and is an American watch company known for mid-quality watches. A couple of 14K gold Elgin watches have sold for over $2,000 each.

  • Longines: This is another Swiss company founded in 1832, and all their watches include a winged hourglass logo engraved on the movements with the company name on the dial. Antique Longines sell for $500 to $5,000.

  • Waltham: Founded in 1850, the Waltham Watch Company that sought to make mass produced watches when others weren't mass producing them yet. Antique Waltham's sell for about $150 to $500.

Antique Pocket Watch Valuation Tips

Most old pocket watches are worth less than $200, with many having no real value because they are in rough condition or don't work. The most expensive pocket watch ever sold went for 24 million dollars. It was an antique Patek-Philippe sold by Sotheby's auction house in 2014 that had been valued at $250,000 on Antiques Roadshow. This is a huge exception to the rule.

Factors Affecting the Value of a Pocket Watch

Brand name and condition are two of the most important factors in determining the value of an antique pocket watch. To get a good idea of the value of a pocket watch, you really need to either become a watch expert or consult one.

  • Brand name: As with many antiques, pocket watches with manufacturer's known for their quality work or known by name will be more valuable as the demand is higher. Swiss made branded watches are the most popular and valuable.
  • Condition: If the watch works properly, it is worth more than a watch that doesn't work. You can hear the watch working by holding it up to your ear and listening for a "ting, ting, ting" sound.
  • Rarity: If you can find information about how many of your specific watch model were made, you can tell how rarity. The more rare it is, the more valuable it can be.
  • Jewel count: The jewels in the watch mechanism are tiny manmade rubies that have no value, but help reduce friction. In general, the more jewels you count, the more valuable the watch.
  • Movement materials: Higher quality pocket watches include finer details like embellished plates, gold jewel settings, and diamond end-stones.
  • Watch case material: Stainless steel has a very low value because it was so affordable and common, but solid gold cases are more valuable because the gold is valuable.

Indicators of High Value

If you spot any of these indicators on your pocket watch, you should seriously consider consulting an expert because you may have something valuable.

  • Elaborate case: Painted cases, enameled cases, and those made of gold or set with precious stones are generally more valuable than plain cases.
  • Gold case: A gold case marked 14K, 18K or 750 with the stamp on the inside back cover of the watch are more valuable than unmarked watches. If there is no stamp, it is not gold.
  • Heavy weight: The weight of a pocket watch may indicate that it has a sophisticated movement or a case of solid gold. Any heavy pocket watch is worth a thorough investigation.

Pocket Watch Buying and Selling Tips

Unlike other antiques, you'll often get the best price for pocket watches if you sell them in sets. Stephen Bogoff, an American expert in antique pocket watches who has been in the auction business since 1970, is one of the few reliable online sources where you can learn about the current market as well as view the various ages and styles. In Europe, Barnebys, originally of the United Kingdom, is fairly new but is a trusted global auction site for watches, antiques in general, and fine art.

A Brief History of the Pocket Watch

Alan Costa of the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors (NAWCC) has written an authoritative treatise on the history of watches and states that personal, portable timekeeping devices were not possible until around 1600 with the development of the hairspring, also referred to as a balance spring. Peter Henlein, a locksmith, made the first pocket watch in 1524, which was worn as a pendant hanging from a chain. The watches of the 1600s served more as jewelry than timekeepers as they were not good at keeping accurate time.

European Pocket Watch Innovations

The year 1675 saw the first watch that was small enough to fit in a pocket. King Charles II of England was the person who set the style across Europe and North America. From 1750, watches were fitted with a new device, the lever escapement. This improvement allowed the clockmaker to add a minute hand which was not present on earlier watches.

Pocket Watches in America

The first American pocket watch was not made until 1809 by the American Watch Company in Waltham, Massachusetts, later known as the Waltham company. More extensive manufacturing began around 1850 with watchmakers such as Hamilton, Elgin, and Illinois in America and Alange-Soehne in Europe.

Time for a History Lesson on Pocket Watches

Identifying and finding the value of an antique pocket watch means learning the history of the piece first. While many old pocket watches aren't valuable in terms of money, they can be great collector's pieces with sentimental value for historians or families.

Antique Pocket Watch Identification and Valuation Guide