Pocket Watch Collecting

Although time keeping mechanisms have been around for thousands of years, the first mobile clocks did not appear until the 1500s. Until that time, a clock's mechanism was so large, heavy and ponderous, few people considered the possibility of a portable clock.

Most clocks were huge and resided in churches or cathedrals. Counterbalances and weights to power clocks were usually made of stone blocks or metal. In the 1500s, Henry De Vick invented a clock for the royal palace in Paris with a 500-pound. weight that traveled 32 feet - and it only had an hour hand (as did all clocks in those days). A hand-held timepiece was a ridiculous thought at that time.

Inventing the portable clock would bring great advances to civilization. It was needed for the study of astronomy, physics, and for ship captains to calculate location - increasing the likelihood of the safe return of a ship, its cargo, and crew.

Although the Egyptians first used the sundial by 1300 B.C, German locksmith Peter Henlein is one of the first recorded inventors to create a watch in the 1500s.

The first watches were made of steel. The first watch-makers were locksmiths and blacksmiths because those guilds worked steel to make tools and implements. Eventually locksmiths dominated the trade as brass, silver and gold were used to replace steel. Also "miniaturization" slowly swept the trade, and locksmiths were more adept at the fine work required. At this time watches were typically four or five inches wide and about three inches thick.

It was the discovery of spring technology by Peter Henlein and others that made the personal timepiece possible. Spiral springs could be wound and uncoiled to move the hour hand of the clock. Although the technology was a great leap forward from hanging weights, it was still highly inaccurate because coiled springs don't unwind at a constant speed. But in comparison to judging the hour by the sun, having a timepiece you can carry or wear on a necklace - even though it was off by an hour or so - was close to a miracle.

The first solution to uneven unwinding came when watchmakers realized the spring uncoiled at a more constant pace when it was not wound tightly. Various means of preventing this were invented: the stackfreed was a cam with an additional spring that compensated for the main spring's changes in speed, and the fusee was a stop that prevented the spring from being wound too tightly. It was usually made of stiff hog bristle.

In 1675 several watchmakers discovered that a spiral spring attached to the balance greatly increased accuracy. Suddenly, watches reflected the correct time within minutes rather than being off by close to an hour. This heralded the addition of the minute hand.

Up until about this time, watches had to be wound twice a day. A fourth wheel added to the movement decreased the winding required to once per day.

A hand to measure seconds was added a little less than a century later. As years passed, the customer's appetite for more and more gadgets on pocket watches led to the addition of calendars (marking the day, date and month), phases of the moon, alarms, chimes and music.

Early pocket watches had no covering to protect the face or the hour hand. In the 1700s English watchmakers began creating gold and silver pair cases to slide the watch into for safe keeping. The manufacturer's name or mark is usually found on a pair case. If it doesn't match the name on the watch, then the pair case is not the original, but a replacement. Glass crystals were added to protect the dial but because they were translucent, they still had to be removed to read the time.

English watchmakers added jewels (gemstones) in the 1700s as bearings in the watches to prevent friction and wear between metal parts. This helped catapult them to the industry forefront. Remarkably, watchmakers from other countries did not adopt "jeweling" for nearly a century. Today, the number of jewels a watch has is a sign of its quality and durability.

Finding a pocket watch made prior to 1700 is rare these days. Most in existence reside in large collections. Antique watches crafted before 1865 are very popular. They are sought by collectors and Civil War buffs and re-enactors, says Eric Engh, co-owner of the website www.oldwatch.com, the world's largest seller of pocket watches on the internet.

Walthams, in particular, are very collectible," he said. "They were the first mass produced watches with interchangeable parts. But because of the evolution of their watch designs in the early years, they sometimes made very few of some models. This is why they are in high demand."

Waltham Appleton Tracy

Engh recently sold an 18-carat gold, size 20, Model Appleton Tracy with key wind from the rear for $10,000. "Less than 350 of this model are known to exist," Engh explained.

Engh reports that the internet is influencing demand for American-made watches. In the past, European and Asian countries didn't appreciate the craftsmanship of American watches, but during the last 18 months, he's seen more American timepieces going overseas. He attributes it to the information available on the internet.

Determining the age of an antique pocket watch is a matter of finding a good reference guide and checking the manufacturer's serial number. (Most information is available on the internet.) The serial number on an American watch is on the movement inside the watch, not on the watch face or the casing. Older English watches have hallmarks that can be researched to find the manufacturing date. Antique watches made on the continent in Europe are more difficult to date. Sometimes they have serial numbers, but often don't. Patent numbers can be used for dating. Be aware that the name on a watch's face is not necessarily the name of the manufacturer. Watch manufacturers often printed a company's name on the dial in return for ordering a specific number. Mail order and distribution companies did the same thing.

A good reference guide for dating and valuing an antique watch is American Watches - Beginning To End, ID and Price Guide (Meggers & Ehrhardt, Heart of America Press, ISBN: 0-913902-53-5, $35, 352-669-4791, www.hoapress.com). Another good reference book is the Complete Price Guide to Watches (25th edition by Cooksey Shugart, et al, $29.95 at Amazon.com).

What determines the value of a watch? As with all collectibles, it's what the buyer is willing to pay. Michael Roesch (mroesch@bellsouth.net), a collector of antique watches, recommends the key points listed on the continuation page.

The Studebaker

Pocket watch collecting offers many sub-categories to embark on. Some Notre Dame fans and Studebaker car fans are avid collectors of the Studebaker pocket watch, made in South Bend, Indiana, by the same company that made the cars. (Today, the company is called South Bend.)

Eric Engh can't keep a Studebaker on his website for more than 48 hours before it sells, he says. Generally, Studebakers sell in the neighborhood of $1,200 to $1,500, and the price keeps going up. One reason: There are only about 3,000 in existence.

Engh cautions the novice about the difference between THE Studebaker and a Studebaker. Southbend printed Studebaker on the faces of many watches. Even though most people shy away from opening the case for fear of harming the watch, inside is where you can make sure. The words The Studebaker are on the movement of the genuine article. If it says, Studebaker or South Bend, it isn't The Studebaker, and is worth considerably less. "Plain" Studebakers are good watches, but they are worth usually in the neighborhood of $495. Don't get caught paying The Studebaker price for a Studebaker.

Kindly supplied by Mike McLeod

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