Great inventions often become part of our daily lives very quickly because of a combination of innovation, convenience, style and necessity. Once something better comes along, or it goes out of style, it will just as quickly become a relic, or a collectors’ item.
The pocket watch fits nicely into this neat theory. Clocks had been getting smaller, and more portable, ever since the invention of the mainspring in the 15th century meant weights were no longer necessary. Watches began to appear in the 16th century and were a marvel of ingenuity that fascinated mathematicians and scientists if not the general public. The first watches were basically small clocks that were worn as pendants around the neck. With only an hour hand they were handy but inaccurate and a bit clunky.
Innovation continued; locksmiths (who were also clock makers, it’s no coincidence the two words are similar) had invented the mainspring to provide power to locks but clocks needed an escapement mechanism to distribute that power in short bursts. That took a while to refine, early mechanisms allowed the bursts to be stronger when the spring was fully wound. The best solution was the addition of a balance wheel with a small spring inside. It acts like a pendulum, keeping the bursts of energy more or less the same while the mainspring slowly unwinds.
Gradually watches became more accurate. A minute hand and then a second hand were added, but the watches were still a bit clunky, usually shaped like an egg and not all that popular.
We humans are slaves to style, we follow the leaders and in the 17th century (as today) the style leaders were royalty. In 1675 Charles II of England introduced the waistcoat, or vest, and soon everyone had to have one. Meanwhile, as a result of the invention of the machine made screw and the glass bezel, watches were becoming even smaller. When the waistcoat trend hit, makers introduced watches that were flatter in order to fit into the pocket. Now every stylish gentleman had to have a pocket watch to put in his waistcoat while ladies wore them as pendants.
At this point they were still a luxury; they weren’t very accurate, typically losing an hour a day and you had to constantly wind them with a key, but the very idea of carrying a timepiece in your vest pocket was entrancing.
During the 1800s the Industrial Revolution and modern transportation made the pocket watch indispensible.
Railways in Britain and North America were a complicated network and it was necessary for trains to arrive on time in order to interconnect. Although originally designed to haul coal and goods, trains increasingly were used to carry people. Different trains, going in opposite directions, often used the same tracks and after some horrific crashes caused by conductors’ watches being a few minutes out of sync, the railway companies got together and issued precision standards for their watches.
Accuracy was paramount; they had to show the correct time in all kinds of weather. It was a huge market; tens of thousands were needed for the rapidly expanding systems.
Manufacturers around the world competed to meet the railroad standards. Fortunately technology was keeping pace; jeweled movements reduced friction and wear, temperature-compensated balance wheels had been invented, the key was replaced by a stem winder. Mass production had already begun and factories were using interchangeable parts to reduce costs.
British and German companies were first off the mark and soon Swiss companies established a good reputation for accuracy but it was the Americans, specifically the Waltham Watch Company in Massachusetts, that lead the way in making cheap but very reliable watches. Their domination was so complete that Swiss companies were forced to give up on railroads and change their focus to the high end, luxury market.
By 1900 the pocket watch had it all; it was at once indispensible, affordable, reliable and stylish. It had become a symbol of manly authority.
At this time a new style of watch was starting to appear. It was worn on the wrist, but these “wristlets” as they were called, were dismissed as being too feminine and were no competition for the pocket watch. However soldiers fighting in the Boer War and the First World War liked the idea, some even strapped pocket watches to their wrists to be able to see the time while maneuvering and holding a gun.
This provided them with a huge tactical advantage and some say it was a major factor in British victories. With the hearty endorsement of victorious soldiers returning from battle the wrist watch took on a new aura of masculinity; all of a sudden the pocket watch was old fashioned and soon fell out of favour.
According to watch historians, pocket watches have virtually disappeared from the marketplace, nobody uses them anymore so very few are being made and they are usually electric. That is exactly what makes them appealing to young collectors. They like to go against the grain and wind-up pocket watches are seen as anti-fashion. So while clock collecting is on the wane, watch collecting is a growing hobby.
It’s a great area of collecting to get into, there’s lots of everyday, workingman’s watches around that can be bought quite cheaply. You can then move up to the more exotic and rare pieces such as key wind watches, which are harder to find. Most stem wind watches have the winder at the 12 O’clock position but some, called sidewinders, have the stem at 3 O’clock. They too are scarce and more desirable.
Railroad watches are very collectable because they have the double attraction of being railroad and watch memorabilia.
All old mechanical watches need some kind of restoration to make them run properly. The delicate mechanism needs almost constant attention, dirt and dried out lubricant will slow it down and eventually force it to stop. Mainsprings often break and that’s a major problem. That being said, even watches that don’t run can have some value.
Some watch cases are made of gold, so of course are very valuable, some are sterling, 92.5% silver while others are made of coin silver which is 60% to 80% silver. Most however are plated so don’t count getting a high scrap value just because it looks like silver or gold. The jewels in a watch are industrial grade and not valuable on their own but a jeweled movement means the watch is higher quality. More is not always better. 17 jewels is considered optimum, 21 jewels increases performance marginally, anything more than that has no effect.
One of the joys of watch collecting is learning how to repair them, and many collectors do just that. Even if a watch is not repairable, some parts can be harvested to repair other watches. Failing all that, the gears can be used in a steampunk project.
So what it comes down to is this; if you have an old pocket watch lying around it may be very valuable, or maybe not but whatever, don’t throw it away.
The pocket watch may have gone out of fashion and is no longer a necessity, but thanks to collectors and enthusiasts, it is not just a relic.