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Pocket Watches Future Heirlooms



Pocket watch, engraved hunters case. Silver. PHOTO CREDIT: Private collector.

12 KARAT yellow gold pocket watch with hunter case. PHOTO CREDIT: Julia Auctions, Fairfield, ME

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News Article

Pocket Watches Future Heirlooms

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, August 2008

What better time than the new year to begin a family collecting tradition? Pocket watches, old and new are making a comeback as a fashion statement and heirloom collectibles. Old or new they can cost in the high thousands or under one hundred dollars, depending on age, novelty features number of jewels , size and the case metal. One of the inexpensive new pocket watches can start a collection for a young beginner. A simple keywind type, made in the late 19th century can cost under $200 at auction.

Just as there are status wristwatches today, the American made pocket watch was a status symbol for men in the 19th century and later a popular jewelry accessory for women. They were smaller in size and if engraved the subjects were birds with streamers of ribbons or a flowering branch.

The first made-in-America pocket watches were sold in the 1860s, 70s. Among the important makers who continued into the 20th century were Elgin, Illinois Watch Company, Hampden Watch Company, Waltham, American Watch Company and Hamilton. These early watches were expensive when first introduced and treated like fine jewelry by their owners. That changed when the Waterbury Watch Company began mass producing pocket watches in 1880. However, there were problems such as a mainspring that took a long time to wind. Many were even used as store premiums, or given away with the purchase of men’s suits. As the quality went down hill so did interest. The “status” was gone when Robert H. Ingersoll introduced the dollar watch. He became the last and best known maker of mass produced watches. The final blow came with the development of the wristwatch in the 1920s.

CLUES: Serious collectors look for characteristics that distinguish the many types of pocket watches. Railroad watches from the turn of the century(19th/20th)are highly collected. They are collected by the name of the railroad. In size they range from 16 to 18 inches and can adjust up to five positions. They were expensive in their day, with their gold-filled cases and usually open face. They had to be reliable, which meant top quality works. It was well worth the price for the railroad men to make “time payments”. Their price, often $75 and up was almost the monthly wage for an engineer in those days.

The elaborately engraved, gold-filled cases known as “Hunter” cases featured deer and locomotives. The more precious the metal, the more elaborate the engraving. In fact watch engraving almost became a profession in itself. Among the many subjects were cottages in country settings and Italianate villas. The material dictated the style of the engraving. On solid gold cases elaborate scroll designs were used. Some had engine-turned borders surrounding the face. The gold-filled case was engraved with fine lines and shaded subjects. Both gold and gold-filled often used several colors of gold. Coin silver cases were either very simply engraved or plain.

For farmers or workmen pocket watches were heavy and often silver plated with brass to look like gold.

A help for dating a pocket watch: before 1890 they were key wound. Later examples were wound by stem.



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