The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
Tick-tock in Old-timey Style
By Christine Stoddard
Sure, you can pull out your phone to check the time, but wouldn't you rather be all White Rabbit about it and carry something more elegantly designed for that exclusive purpose? I'm not talking wrist watches, though those can be pretty nifty throw-backs, too. Think more along the lines of steampunk glamour. The towering top hat. The swirling cape. The bug-eyed goggles. Got it yet? Yup. The pocket watch. Pocket watches are beautiful and, pardon the pun, timeless.
Pocket watches first popped up in the late 1400s/early 1500s, during a time when most clocks still lived in church towers and cathedrals. Earlier mobile watches were inaccurate, boxy objects worn around the neck or belt.
Today historians often credit the German locksmith Peter Henlein of Nuremberg as one of the first pocket watch inventors. He thought up a hog bristle spiral spring whose winding and uncoiling would move the clock's hour hand. In fact, the hour hand was the clock's only hand at that point in history. Minute hands came about in the late 1600s.
Pocket watches first came in steel and, later on, brass, silver, and gold. It wasn't until the 1700s that English watchmakers started making protective cases for pocket watches and adding glass crystals to protect the dial.
Pocket watches remained luxury items until the late 1700s, when painted watches became available even to sailors. In 1857, Waltham (formerly known as the American Watch Company) put Model 57 on the market. 57 was the first pocket watch to use standardized parts, lowing the cost of manufacturing. In the mid- to late-1800s, the rise of pocket watch factories and the widespread use of railroads led to the pocket watch's ubiquity.
Sadly for pocket watch lovers, wristwatches overshadowed the popularity of pocket watches in men's fashion after World War I. Previously, society had seen wristwatches as a feminine accessory. During the war, military men realized how much more convenient it was to wear the time on your wrist than in your pocket while on the move.
Given current fashions, you might have no idea about where to find a pocket watch. Or what to look for once you actually find one. Or how much to spend. You, being a Quail Bell(e), want to be an informed consumer. That's why I put together this article. Call the QB Crew your humble servants (preferably à la A Little Princess.)
Here are tips for buying your first (or tenth) pocket watch:
*The biggest question you must ask yourself before you embark on this adventure is this: Do you want an antique vintage watch, a replica of an antique watch, or a modern interpretation of the real deal? If you're crossing your fingers for an authentic oldie, your best bet is to look online, especially on eBay.com. As for replicas and modern versions, you can check out everything from mainstream jewelry & vintage clothing stores to costume & artisan shops to Etsy.com and more. When buying online, always inspect photographs carefully, ask questions, and be mindful of shipping costs.
*Antiquarians should always check out the watch's serial number to verify that a watch is as old as a vendor says it is. Refer to American Watches: Beginning to End, ID & Price Guide or The Complete Price Guide to Watches for details.
*Choose between an open-face or Hunter-case watch. Hunter-case watches have spring-hinged covers that protect the watch dial. Sometimes you'll find half-Hunters, too. That's a watch with a cover that has a glass panel in the middle so you can see the hands without opening the lid.
*If the look of mechanical systems excites you, consider getting a “skeleton” design. This allows you to see all the watch's inner workings move as they tick away the day.
*To chain or not to chain---that is the question. Chains were originally added to pocket watches so that gentleman could attach the watch to the front of their waistcoats or lapels. Over time, some men decided against showing off their pocket watches but opted for a chain, anyway.
*For something shorter than a chain, go for a fob. A fob is a small leather strap, which may or may not include a protective flap for the watch face. You might even decide to never wear your watch but put it in a display dome or stand instead.
*Cartoon-lovers should research character watches. A wink from Betty Boop could add a lot of charm to an already charming pocket watch. In the 1930s, Walt Disney and other cartoonists partnered with watchmaker Ingersoll to make watches that had cartoon characters on the face (and occasionally the back). Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Popeye, Porky Pig, and Superman are just a handful of the characters immortalized on 20th-century pocket watches.
*Engraving a pocket watch is a relatively affordable way to date a family heirloom. Get your name and the year you acquired the watch so future generations have no doubt about who owned the little ticker.
*Pocket watches can be expensive. Again, it goes back to the big question—do you want old or new? A more expensive watch doesn't necessarily mean a “better” watch. Better is a highly subjective word when describing pocket watches because pocket watches can be so highly personalized. What one person deems a plus, another person might deem a minus.
*Regardless of what you pay, you need to know exactly what you're getting, such as a guarantee and the right to return to the watch under the vendor's stated conditions. Think carefully about what you want and start doing basic price comparisons online. Then you can see what's a reasonable price range for the specific pocket watch you have in mind.
*A few pocket watch makers include: Waltham, Charles Hubert, Elgin, Ball, Dudley Masonic, Swiss Army, Hamilton, Hampden, Luminox, Illinois, Ingersoll, Patek Phillippe, Howard, RailRoad Watch, and even Harley Davidson and Ed Hardy. Walthams are especially collectible, with the oldest dating back to 1853.
*Last but not least, figure out where you're going to get your watch repaired. Old watches are especially capricious, but even new ones will need a loving tinkerer at some point. While there are plenty of websites, like TheWatchGuy.com, that advise you on how to fix your watch, problems you can't remedy by yourself may arise. It's also a little scary to mess around with super-old watches if you're not trained in the art of watch repair.