Most people think of the pocket watch as an accessory of a bygone era that’s been replaced by modern technology like wrist watches and cell phones. Yet pocket watches remain popular among collectors and recent years have seen an increase in the number of pocket watches given as gifts. Few things compliment the elegance and grace of a well-tailored suit better than a stylish pocket watch. Pronto’s Pocket Watch Buying Guide will help you understand this timeless device so you can find a durable watch with a dash of style.
Because early pocket watches were hand-crafted and expensive, only nobility and the very rich sported pocket watches, and they have remained an elite fashion accessory. An engraved pocket watch is considered a sophisticated gift for a milestone birthday or special event.
Pocket watches come in two designs: open face, and hunter case. The open-face pocket watch has an open display with no cover, while the hunter-case pocket watch has a cover on a hinge that closes over the face of the watch. Look for luminescent displays, day and date and military time on both styles.
Belt chains have a clip that attaches to the belt and allows the watch to stay in a pants pocket. Buttonhole and T-bar pocket watch chains secure the watch through a buttonhole and allow it to be kept in a vest pocket. Fob chains are purely decorative, connecting to the pocket watch on one end and a decorative charm or insignia on the other.
Automatic mechanical watches use body motion to wind the mainspring and rarely require winding. Manual mechanical watches require daily winding. Quartz motion pocket watches run on battery power, so they do not require winding.
Stainless steel cases and synthetic sapphire crystals are the most durable and scratch resistant materials, making them a good choice for pocket watches that will be worn daily. Look for water resistance to 100 feet and consider the type of dial—large numbers are easier to read. For mechanical pocket watches, look for 17-jewel movements that will last for generations with proper care.
A button on a hunter-case pocket watch that springs the door open when pressed.
The translucent cover over the dial of a pocket watch. Crystals can be made from plastic, glass or synthetic sapphire.
Also known as the face, the part of a pocket watch that displays the time.
A type of pocket watch chain that attaches to the watch on one end and a decorative accessory on the other. This type of chain does not secure the watch to the wearer.
A piece of spring steel that, when wound tightly, provides power for a pocket watch by releasing energy as it unwinds.
A pocket watch with a mainspring that must be wound. These watches are accurate to within two or three seconds a day.
The mechanism that allows a pocket watch to keep time, either mechanical or quartz in most watches.
A tiny synthetic ruby that is used as a bearing to prevent gears from rubbing together in a pocket watch. Jeweled pocket watches last much longer because the gems inside don’t wear or grind down over time.
A mechanical pocket watch fitted with a weighted wheel that winds the mainspring each time it moves. Self-winding and automatic mechanical watches don’t need to be wound if they’re used daily.
An open loop on the top or side of a pocket watch that allows a chain to be attached.
A type of watch movement that runs on batteries.
Pocket watches have enjoyed a long and celebrated history, gracing famous historical figures and appearing at some infamous events, but their role in the modern world is changing. Pocket watches originated in the 16th century, but they didn’t become a popular accessory until sizes shrank and reliability improved in the 17th century.
Early pocket watches were expensive to manufacture, with tiny gears known as movements that were handcrafted by expert jewelers. Only nobility and the very rich could afford to own a pocket watch, which gave the watches an air of sophistication that still endures today. Pocket watches made it possible for trains to run on schedule, which kept them popular among railroad enthusiasts as well as watch collectors. Today, an engraved pocket watch is an elegant and thoughtful gift for a milestone birthday or personal achievement.
Pocket watches come in two designs: open face and hunter case. An open-face pocket watch has no outer cover and a transparent crystal over its face. These watches are fast to use and easy to read, but the lack of a cover makes them more susceptible to damage.
A hunter-case pocket watch, also known as a savonette pocket watch, has a cover that fits over the face of the watch. The cover attaches to the watch on a hinge and opens with a spring-release mechanism. In most cases, the wearer presses on the crown of the watch at the end of the stem, and the watch cover pops open. The cover protects the face of the pocket watch and prevents scratching or damage to the crystal.
The stem of an open-face pocket watch, which is where the chain is attached, is located above the 12 o’clock position. The stem on a hunter-case watch is located at 3 o’clock. Practical features to look for in either style include luminescent displays that glow in the dark to enhance readability, date displays and the ability to display military time.
To prevent loss or theft, a pocket watch is secured to its owner by a chain. Belt chains have a clip that attaches to the belt, and the chain is long enough to allow the watch to be kept in a pants pocket.
Buttonhole chains attach directly to a button. The pocket watch dangles from the button and is secured when the button is pushed through a buttonhole. T-bar pocket watch chains feature a flat, T-shaped piece that fits through a buttonhole and secures the watch without the need for a button. Both the buttonhole chain and the T-bar chain are popular among those who wear vests, as they allow the watch to sit safely tucked away inside a vest pocket.
The fob chain is entirely decorative and does not attach the watch to the wearer. As with other chains, one end attaches to the pocket watch, but the other end of the chain holds a fob or decorative device. The pocket watch goes into a pocket, and the chain simply dangles, displaying the decorative fob.
The earliest pocket watches were mechanical in nature, using a series of springs and gears that had to be wound periodically to keep the watch working. Modern manual mechanical watches still require winding every day. Self-winding, or automatic, mechanical watches use body movements to provide power. These watches have an internal wheel that is weighted on one end. Any motion causes the wheel to pivot back and forth, which winds the mainspring. These pocket watches seldom need to be wound.
Quartz movement pocket watches run on battery power and do not require winding. As long as the batteries have power, quartz pocket watches provide continual accuracy, unlike mechanical watches, which need to be compared with clocks.
Because a quartz pocket watch lacks the complex, hand-tooled movement of a mechanical watch, some collectors dismiss them as inferior. Quartz watches do lack the open-faced designs that show off the complex movements found in mechanical watches, but some quartz pocket watches offer beautifully embossed and engraved cases on par with those found on mechanical pocket watches.
Selecting a pocket watch is like selecting a fine piece of jewelry in terms of the materials and designs available, but it’s important to remember that a pocket watch is intended for daily use, so it needs to be durable unless it will be reserved only for special occasions.
Stainless steel cases are the strongest and most resistant to tarnish and scratches. Gold resists tarnish but can scratch or bend, and silver tarnishes easily but resists scratches and dents. Think about how often the pocket watch will be worn when choosing a case material. In general, stainless steel is the most durable and the least expensive choice.
You’ll also want to consider the durability of the crystal. Acrylic crystals resist shattering, but they scratch easily, although the scratches can be polished out. Synthetic sapphire crystals offer the greatest scratch resistance. It’s best to avoid pocket watches with glass crystals, also known as mineral crystal. Scratches in these pocket watch crystals are almost impossible to repair.
Most pocket watches are water resistant to 100 feet, which is more than enough for the average user. Look for 17-jewel mechanical movements that use synthetic rubies as bearings; these pocket watches will last for generations with proper care. Finally, think about the dial on a pocket watch. Although less elegant, large numbers or Roman numerals make a pocket watch much easier to read.