Rapaport Magazine
Style & Design

Past times

Vintage pocket watches offer up-to-the-minute finesse and a touch of nostalgia, says expert Edward Faber.

By Phyllis Schiller

Image: Aaron Faber Gallery

What is the appeal of vintage pocket watches?

Pocket watches of the 19th and early 20th centuries are great artifacts that exhibit cultural styles of the past. [They] are prized by collectors looking for examples of rarity, and clients who seek the type of watches their fathers or grandfathers wore.

Worn around the neck, an open-face pocket watch can add a fashionable retro look. Younger customers looking for something special [might] wear a hunting case (covered) pocket watch in the front pocket of their jeans, tethered to a belt loop by a chain.

Pocket watches are also prized as unusual gifts that can be engraved to commemorate special events.

What styles are most in demand?

The European brands — Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Cartier — command a higher price and are highly collectible because of their design and quality and their complications. [Complications] are functions beyond displaying time, such as a tourbillon; a repeater that chimes the hour, quarter-hour and minute; and a stopwatch feature.

During the Victorian era, pocket watches had elaborate engravings, and there are wonderful Art Deco designs with inlays of enamel. Any of the beautifully decorated American watches have appeal, such as ones made by Elgin Watch Company, famous for different colors of enamel on the face of the watch and elaborate carving on the outer case. Pocket watches made prior to 1930 have pristine white porcelain faces with black numerals, a style that has a certain purity favored by younger people.

Also popular are railroad watches, used by American conductors on the railroads between 1893 and 1950. They had to conform to certain requirements technologically, and that created a look and a quality that was sought after.

And then there are the accoutrements, including watch chains in 9-, 11-, 15- and 18-inch lengths, and fobs, or charms, worn on the chains that add a personal aspect that still resonates.

What are the key features to look for?

The higher the number of jewel bearings in the mechanism of a watch, the less friction [there is, and] therefore the smoother the watch runs and the more accurate it will be. Most pocket watches made between the 18th and early 20th centuries were low-jeweled. The traditional number is 15 or 17 jewels; cheaper watches can range from three to seven jewels. Today, it’s possible to get watches with 18 to 23 jewels. American railroad watches came in a more rarefied version of 24 jewels.

A gold case commands a higher price. A non-gold railroad watch can sell for around $300 to $2,000, whereas hunting case watches in gold are harder to get and start at around $1,500. [These] can rise in price from $10,000 to $30,000 with simple complications, or as high as $200,000 or more with more involved complications.

Watches wound with keys circa 1875 and earlier tend to be too cumbersome by today’s standards, although true collectors seek them. More commonly collectible are keyless styles from 1875 to 1950.

What are the pitfalls and pluses of this category?

Check for cracks in porcelain dials; they really can’t be repaired. Examine the back and sides of the timepiece for bumps, dents and scratches — all signs not to buy.

Pocket watches offer a value aspect for customers. A handmade pocket watch from a top brand like Patek Philippe can be bought for so much less than what the simplest of the brand’s wristwatches sell for.

Who is Edward Faber?
Edward Faber is the founder and co-owner of Aaron Faber Gallery, specializing in contemporary studio jewelry, estate jewelry, and rare vintage and luxury timepieces. A recognized authority on timepiece authenticity and valuation, he is the author of American Wristwatches: Five Decades of Style and Design.


Article from the Rapaport Magazine - March 2022. To subscribe click here.

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