Antique Pocket Watches - Frequently Asked Questions

Please do not call our us for antique pocket watch information and/or values.
We do not sell, research, nor offer appraisals or values for, used, vintage, or antique watches.
The information provided is for reference only.

We are not staffed to answer calls for antique pocket watch information and appraisals.
Please see our watch information section, or visit the NAWCC Message Board if you need further assistance.
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A special note about antique and vintage pocket watch collecting.

Q: How old is my pocket watch?

Q: How do I open a pocket watch case?

Q: How much is my pocket watch worth?

Q: How can I tell what size a pocket watch is?

Q: How do I set the time on my pocket watch?

Q: How often should I wind my pocket watch?

Q: Can my antique pocket watch be "over wound"?

Q: My pocket watch needs to be serviced. Who can fix it?

Q: I am not comfortable sending my watch through the mail. What should I do?

Q: How should I package my watch for transit?

Q: How often should an antique pocket watch be serviced?

Q: What is the difference between a $40 cleaning job, and a more expensive cleaning job?

Q: What kind of time keeping can be expected with an antique pocket watch?

Q: What is a Railroad Watch?

Q: Where can I get more information?

A special note about antique and vintage pocket watch collecting:

Today, there are sellers buying antique and vintage pocket watches for the sole purpose of dismantling them and selling their components separately. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of antique pocket watches destroyed in this manner on the major internet auction site every year. This is especially true of the American railroad grade watches. This destruction is happening at an alarming rate and the only explanation for it that I can think of is greed. I believe their greed is having a devastating effect on horology, history, and our hobby. This makes the supply of original pocket watches less and less. Whether you buy anything from us or not, please respect the originality of our watches and please support sellers that do the same. You will be doing yourself and our hobby a favor.

Q: How old is my pocket watch?

A: If the pocket watch is American, this can be a pretty easy answer.
First of all, you will need the Serial number of the pocket watch movement. The movement is the workings (i.e. "guts") of the watch.
If you do not know how to open the case to view the movement, have no fear! This article by NAWCC member Kent Singer will be helpful and covers most if not all of the antique case styles.
Second, Pocket Watch Site has published estimated production dates for most of the American pocket watches produced on the Watch Information section of our web site. If the watch is not American, you can post an inquiry on the following message boards:
NAWCC Message Board
Web Horology Message Board
There are experts and researchers who take the time to answer question on these boards as a service and at no charge. Be sure to thank them for their kindness and time it takes to research your inquiry.

Q: How much is my pocket watch worth?

A: This is a very hard question to answer. This really depends on the condition and rarity of the particular watch. Another factor that can substantially effect the value of a watch is the case material. For example, a gold filled case is worth less than the same case in solid gold, for obvious reasons. Most people use the values published annually in the Complete Price Guide to Watches by Cooksey Schugart as a guide.

Q: How can I tell what size a pocket watch is?

A: Here is some information on pocket watch sizes. Most of the American pocket watches, with the exception of the early E. Howard movements, used what is referred to as the Lancashire system as a standard.

Q: How do I set the time on my pocket watch?

A: This depends. Most of the American pocket watches set one of 4 ways. For information on how to set a key set, lever set, pendant set, or pin set watch, visit this page from our friends at Pocketwatcher.

Q: How often should I wind my pocket watch?

A: Most main springs in antique pocket watches will last 28-30 hours or so. Some pocket watches, like the Sixty Hour Bunn and Bunn Special from the Illinois Watch Company, will last longer. However, all of the American pocket watches were meant to be wound every day. Most manufacturers suggested winding the watch every morning, as stated in this article from the Hamilton Watch Company. New pocket watches featuring the ETA/Unitas 6497 or 6498 movement run for about 46 hours on a full wind.

Q: Can my antique pocket watch be "over wound"?

A: Many times you will find watches being described as "over wound". But what does that really mean? Well, what it has become to mean that the watch is wound up all the way, but will not run. Technically, you cannot over wind most wrist and pocket watches, modern or antique. They are supposed to be wound up all the way, until you cannot wind it up further with your fingertips. Most pocket watches, when properly serviced, will run for 28 to 30 hours or more on a full wind.
The bottom line... when a watch is described as "overwound", it means that it has a problem causing it not to run. It could be routine maintenance, such as cleaning and oiling, or it could be more serious, like a broken jewel, pivot, balance staff, etc.

Q: My pocket watch needs to be serviced. Who can fix it?

A: In the "old days", most if not all of the jewelry stores had an on site watchmaker in their employ. Nowadays, many jewelry stores will not take on an antique pocket watch. Most of the ones that do, outsource their watches to a hobbyist, or a professional watch maker. Pocket Watch Site specializes in American pocket watch repair. We also highly recommend Pocketwatcher for pocket watch repair and service.

Q: I am not comfortable sending my watch through the mail. What should I do?

A: It is more important to find a good watchmaker than one that is geographically close. 90% of the packages sent and received by Pocket Watch Site are sent via the United States Postal Service's Priority Mail with Insurance. These packages must be signed for by the addressee. For added security, the USPS also offers Registered Mail service in the United States. This is the most secure way to ship anything. The parcel is under lock and key the whole time in transit, and must be signed for by each postal employee that handles is, as well as the addressee.

Q: How should I package my watch for transit?

A: We recommend wrapping the watch in small bubble wrap, and placing it in a box with newspaper or Styrofoam "peanuts". The United States Postal Service provides Priority Mail boxes that are sturdy and great for shipping watches. These boxes are free of charge but must be sent using their Priority Mail service.

Q: How often should an antique pocket watch be serviced?

A: As antique pocket watches are mechanical, they need to be cleaned and oiled at regular intervals. When these watches were new, most manufacturers recommended a complete cleaning and oiling about every 18 months. With today's synthetic lubricants, this interval is stretched out to about 3 years with regular use. If the watch is not used regularly, the cleaning interval can sometimes be stretched out as far as 5 years or more.

Q: What is the difference between a $40 cleaning job, and a more expensive cleaning job?

A: Some "watchmakers" offer a very inexpensive cleaning job for under $50. These folks simply dip the watch movement in a solution and in some cases lubricate the watch WITHOUT COMPLETE DISASSEMBLY. This is an improper method not meant for antique pocket watches.
When the job is done correctly, actually takes some time.
The watch is completely disassembled;
The pivots, jewels, bearings, teeth and pinions are visually inspected;
Most of the parts are cleaned in an ultrasonic bath, rinsed in 3 stages, and heat dried;
The more sensitive parts are cleaned by hand with proper solutions;
The watch is then reassembled;
Lubricated with proper synthetic lubricants which last 3 to 5 years;
And adjusted to keep the best time it can keep.
Please note, however, that some of the "dippers" do charge $100 or more to improperly service mechanical watches. Therefore, be sure to ask about their procedures and be sure they completely disassemble the watch when cleaning and oiling it.
Pocket Watch Site specializes in American pocket watch repair. We also highly recommend Pocketwatcher for pocket watch repair and service.

Q: What kind of time keeping can be expected with an antique pocket watch?

A: As most of the antique and vintage pocket watches we sell and service are 50 to 150 years old, they will most likely not keep perfect time. If you are looking for a watch that keeps perfect time, we suggest buying an atomic watch. The antique pocket watches generally keep about 1 minute per day in positions. The higher grade watches, such as those with 17 jewels or more, have the capacity to keep better time. Most of these can be expected to keep within 30 seconds per day.

Q: What is a Railroad Watch?

A: Many folks inaccurately describe any watch that is old as a "Railroad Watch". The term "Railroad Watch" or "Standard Watch" can be traced back to the late 1880's. The most famous incident, occured on April 19th, 1891. A fast mail train known as No. 4 traveling east on the same track as an accommodation train was going West. Unfortunately the engineer's watch on the accommodation train had stopped for 4 minutes, and then started up again. The two trains met their destiny at Kipton, Ohio, where both engineers were killed, along with nine others. Following the disaster, a commission was appointed to come up with standards for timepieces that would be adopted by all railroads. The industry now had to demand precision in its timekeeping. Thus were born some of the finest timepieces ever made in the world!!! The General Railroad Timepiece Standards were adopted by most railroads in 1893. They had to meet the following standards:

A railroad watch had to be open faced;
Be a size 16s or 18s;
Have a minimum of 17 jewels;
Be adjusted to at least five positions;
Keep time accurately to within 30 seconds a week;
Adjusted to temps of 34 - 100F;
Have a double roller escapement;
Have a steel escape wheel;
Be lever set with a winding stem at 12 o'clock;
and have black Arabic numerals on a white dial.

After WW2, the requirements were tightened up to 21 jewels on some lines.

Therefore, just because it is old, does not mean it is a Railroad Watch, just a good old Antique watch!

Q: Where can I get more information?

A: You can get more information on pocket watches and history of some of the American manufacturers, under the Watch Information section of our web site. Also, be sure to check out our Links page for more important horology-related web sites. Lastly, there are some important books that are still in print available from our Book store, affiliated with Amazon.com.