When I was 6 years old and had just learned how to tell time, my parents bought me my very first watch. It had to be a pocket watch of course, since that was what my beloved grandfather carried all the time. So I got a Westclox Baby Ben. It had more of a clock movement than a watch movement but how could I know that at the time?
I cherished that watch for a year and then my mother was picking up my room one day and dropped it on a wooden floor. Ah the sublime tragedy of a six year oldís life!
I was so heartbroken that my grandpa fished around in his bedroom drawer and came up with a 1900 7 jewel Waltham that he no longer used. That was in 1952, and the Waltham still gleams from a collection box in my bedroom today. It started a lifetime love of watch collecting and especially of those beautiful antique machines we call pocket watches.
If I had to choose only one sort of vintage watch to collect, it would be a pocket watch. No other timepiece connects the past and future of watchmaking as a pocket watch does. From the time of Shakespeare to the end of the Age of Steam the pocket watch reigned supreme as a portable timekeeper. Its story combines all the aspects of history, engineering, ingenuity, precision manufacturing, intrigue, and downright shady dealing into one fascinating whole. If you want the real lowdown read ďRevolution in TimeĒ by David Landes.
Fortunately we are able to recapture the romance of the earlier centuries by collecting these beautiful watches today. In this post Iíd like to examine the advantages and disadvantages of pocket watches as collectibles. First the advantages:
(1) Availability of Watches and Parts
Well in excess of 100 million pocket watches were manufactured by the two major American makers (Elgin and Waltham) alone. They were all made to last and be repaired so plenty of them are still around. Your grandfather or great-grandfather had one for sure, and if you are lucky maybe you inherited one or more (I have 3.) Parts are still available as well although some are getting harder to find. So far if you have a major make like Elgin you are in good shape. You can keep an 1893 Elgin ticking like new.
Because so many were made and in such variety, you can buy a pocket watch in running condition from as low as $100 US up to the $1000s if you want. They donít appreciate in value much, but its easy to start a collection with a limited budget. Inheriting them from relatives is a great place to start if you can.
I have to laugh when I hear Rolex, Omega and similar collectors of modern mechanicals talk about the craftsmanship in their robotically assembled watches of today. Even a 7 jewel cheap Elgin was better put together in 1900. The solid gold Howards and Hamilton railroad grades from the 1910 era just blow anything away made today Ė even the highest quality mechanicals like Patek and Vacheron. The workmanship of the top of the line Edwardian pocket watches is beyond reproach.
The great railroad models of Waltham Hamilton Elgin kept time within 30 seconds a week back in 1900. Size does matter in terms of accuracy, and the pocket watches were renowned for it. It wasnít until 1950 that railroads began to allow wrist watches as a replacement for the standard pocket watch.
Where else can you own a genuine antique that is a perfect little machine, the source and inspiration of the American consumer goods manufacturing industry?
Are you sold by now? I certainly have been for years. But I have to admit there are some disadvantages in collecting Pocket Watches. Itís only fair to look at them now.
(1) How Do You Wear Them?
Unless you dress like an Edwardian Teddy Boy, thereís not a convenient way to wear a pocket watch. They lend themselves to watch chains, vests, or fob pockets in your pants - and all of these are not common in our casual world of today. Chances are your watch collection will stay at home while you go out on the town.
Pocket watches from 1905 do not have shockproof movements and waterproof cases. The slightest bump can break a balance staff and render the watch inoperable. Leaky cases can admit dust, dirt or moisture, all of which can be fatal to a pocket watch. Care and coddling are needed for them to operate at their best.
(3) They Need Frequent Service
Pocket watches are like steam engines or early automobiles. They need lots of labor intensive service to keep running and not wear themselves out prematurely. A pocket watch that is run frequently needs to be cleaned and lubricated every 5 years to be sure itís in great shape. This can often cost as much or more than the watch is worth.
(4) Size and Weight
Pocket watches are the 1000 pound gorilla of the watch collecting world. A sizeable pocket watch collection takes up quite a lot of space as watches go, and itís easy to get out of hand - or so the significant other in your life will think. Granted itís not like collecting vintage tractors, but keep it in mind.
Secondary to this point is that these watches TICK if you run them. I have an 1883 Hampden you can hear in the next room. If you are a light sleeper or married to one, remember that 7-8 of these beauties running at the same time in the bedroom can sound like a pneumatic drill at 2 AM.
I started this post with a story from 1952. Iíll end with one from 2004.
Remember my grandfather was not using that Waltham in 1952? That was because at age 75 he finally was able to afford his dream watch. It was a magnificent Hamilton 992B 21 jewel railroad model Ė probably the finest modern pocket watch ever made. He carried that beautiful watch for 15 years and when he died my uncle wore it for another 20. When he passed away in the 1980s, his brother gave the watch to me. Now the second uncle is gone as well, and the watch remains.
I had it professionally serviced last year and gave it to my son-in-law as a personal token of affection when he married my daughter. And yes he did wear it on his wedding day- the fourth generation to own a beautiful timepiece.
I hope he can pass it on one day to my grandchild. Thatís what the essence of pocket watch collecting is all about.