Watches are generally worn or carried for two reasons: to keep time (function) and to express one’s personal style (looks). Modern wristwatches are the most popular choice, as they are easy to glance at and very accurate. However, a number of people are still interested in pocket watches.

There are generally two types of people who prefer pocket watches. The first group consists of those who are interested in history and antiques. An old-fashioned pocket watch is a souvenir of a time gone by and may be something of a collector’s item. For example, Civil War buffs may wish to own a timepiece from that era. The second group consists of modern folks who wish to make a statement, fashion or otherwise. A pocket watch goes well with a goth or steampunk style of dress. A pocket watch might also be carried by someone who prefers a simple, low-tech lifestyle and eschews electronic gadgets.

There are many fine points to pocket watch design and manufacture. This guide will give a brief history of timepieces for better understanding of the development of pocket watches and how they work. Buyers should know the basic choices when it comes to pocket watches and how to select the right pocket watch when shopping.

A Brief History of Timepieces

Horology is the study of timekeeping and the history of clocks and watches. Different types of timepieces have been invented and used throughout history, including sundials, candles, and hourglasses. Various water clocks were developed over many millennia, but mechanical clocks did not appear until the 2nd millennium A.D. It took some time before the technology could be made small enough to carry on one’s person. The clock-watches that were invented in the 16th century A.D. were precursors to the pocket watch; these were tiny three-dimensional clocks that hung on a chain, usually around the neck.

Pocket watches as we know them today evolved in the 17th century, around the same time that the waistcoat or vest came into fashion. These watches were essentially tiny, round, flat clocks that were held on a long chain or short fob. The first wristwatches were actually intended as timepieces for women, who did not have belt loops, buttons, or pockets on their dresses for attaching or carrying a pocket watch, although some women did wear pocket watches as pendants on necklaces.

Men did not see the benefit of wristwatches until World War I, when soldiers strapped pocket watches to their wrists for convenience (hence the name trench watches). The wristwatch thus started to become popular with the general public in the 1920s, and pocket watches gradually receded into the shadows of history. Further developments, such as quartz movement and digital watches, advanced horology even further. Nonetheless, many pants and jeans are still designed with five pockets: two in back, two in front, and a smaller watch pocket typically located on the right side just below the waistband.

Pocket Watch Basics

In order for potential buyers to learn about and discuss pocket watches, they must know the basic parts. This will help when dealing with pocket watch sellers and reading product descriptions. The following chart defines some commonly used terms.

Term

Definition

Case The external metallic cover in which the inner workings and dial sit; made of stainless steel, nickel, titanium, brass, silver, gold, or platinum
Dial The front of the watch where the hands are used to tell time; not to be interchanged with “face,” which is a term that applies to clocks
Crown The larger textured knob that protrudes out of the case and is attached to the end of the stem; used to turn the stem when winding and sometimes pulled out to set the time
Stem A long, thin, metal rod that extends from the inside of the watch to the crown on the outside; not usually visible unless the crown is pulled out; controls the winding function and sometimes the time setting feature
Pendant The metal hoop or hook above the crown to which a chain or fob is attached
Chain or Albert chain The long chain used to attach a pocket watch to clothing
Fob A short leather strap or ribbon used to hold a pocket watch; sometimes used to refer to a very short chain or a decorative trinket attached to a chain

Styles of Pocket Watches

A huge assortment of pocket watches can be put into one of three main categories: hunter-case, open-face, and demi-hunter. There are alternate names for each style, and the chart below gives a description of each.

Style

Description

Hunter – case Hinged cover over the dial protects it from wear and tear; the cover is often elaborately decorated with carving, etching, or engraving
Open – face, Lépine, railroad No cover over the crystal and dial; the approved style for railroad workers
Demi-hunter,half – hunter Dial cover has a glass insert so that the dial is visible with the case closed

The style of watch that a buyer should choose is based on personal preference. Someone who does not want to have to open the case lid to see the time should choose an open-face or demi-hunter style; open-face is largest and easiest to read.

Pocket Watch Mechanisms

Clocks and watches are powered in a variety of ways in order to keep time. For example, some pocket watches are powered by mechanical movement and must be wound by hand on a daily basis. Pocket watches powered by quartz crystal do not need winding and support digital displays.

Analog Versus Digital Pocket Watches

It is important to understand that the terms “analog” and “digital” are used differently when they apply to timepieces. In high-tech society, older machines that consist of moving parts are referred to as analog; an analog watch simply means that the time is indicated by moving hands on a dial, and it does not reflect how the inside of the watch works. Similarly, a digital watch is not necessarily electronic. Instead of a round clock dial with moving hands that point out the changing time, a digital timepiece displays changing digits to indicate the time. Some of the first digital clocks featured numbered flaps attached to a dial that flipped over when the time changed, much like a Rolodex full of cards. There are actually antique digital pocket watches, although they are quite rare.

Mechanical Pocket Watches

The original pocket watches were powered by a mechanical movement. These watches involve a spring that must be wound manually (usually on a daily basis) to keep them running. A mechanical watch makes a distinctive ticking sound. A mechanical pocket watch may be wound in one of several different ways.

Self-Winding Pocket Watches

The self-winding or automatic mechanical watch relies on a person’s body movements to keep the watch wound. This technology was invented in 1770 but is rarely found, even in antique watches. A self-winding watch can also be wound manually in case the watch is not worn for some time or the body movements are not sufficient to keep the mechanism working consistently.

Quartz or Electronic Pocket Watches

A quartz watch relies on the vibrations of a charged quartz crystal to keep the timepiece running continuously and extremely accurately. It does not need to be wound, and there are no moving parts inside the watch; instead, the crystal is powered by a battery. An electronic watch may feature an LCD or LED digital display or a traditional analog dial.

Different Ways to Set Pocket Watches

Many old-fashioned mechanical pocket watches do use the winding stem to set the hands to the correct time, but not all of them. It is essential to know the correct way of setting a particular watch; otherwise, one risks breaking the stem. The following chart explains the most popular ways in which pocket watches are set.

Pocket Watch Setting Method

Description

Stem set, pendant set

Pull out the crown and winding stem to adjust

Lever set

Remove the front crystal to access a setting lever

Pin set, nail set

Depress a tiny button with a pointed object (such as a pin or nail) before using the stem to set the time

Key set

Either the winding key or a separate setting key is inserted into a hole somewhere in the watch

Choosing which setting method is best depends on personal preference. Stem set watches are easiest to operate, but if a buyer’s heart is set on a watch with a more complex setting method, he or she should make sure to learn how to set it before purchasing it.

How to Buy Pocket Watches

Pocket watch prices vary wildly, so decide how much you are willing to spend on the timepiece before setting out to shop. There are two main categories of pocket watches to buy: antique and modern.

Buying Antique Pocket Watches

Antique pocket watches are typically, although not always, pre-owned. An antique pocket watch carries a lot of history and may be valuable, depending on its age, condition, construction, and degree of rarity. Many antique pocket watches feature over-the-top decorative designs, monograms, or personal engravings. An antique is often passed down through generations as a keepsake. When considering an antique watch for purchase, ask to see the official appraisal papers; if there are none, ask the seller if he or she will consider having the watch appraised before you decide. If the answer is “No,” you may not want to follow through with a purchase, as there is no guarantee that the price being charged is at all indicative of the watch’s actual worth. Once you buy the watch, you may want to insure it. The insurance will most likely require an appraisal document.

Buying Modern Pocket Watches

Modern pocket watches vary as much as modern wristwatches do. Pocket watches are now manufactured in all sorts of colors and designs. Some take on themes like sports teams or cars, motorcycles, and trains. There are even Hello Kitty pocket watches. Other modern watches are sleek and sophisticated and encased in shiny lacquered or brushed metallic cases. The latest pocket watches feature LCD, LED, and touchscreen technology.
Whether you buy an antique or modern pocket watch is up to you and what you plan to use the watch for. Collectors who like to display pocket watches will be more interested in antiques, while those who plan to wear a pocket watch may be more interested in up-to-date designs. However, these are not hard-and-fast rules. It is all up to you and what you like.

Where to Buy Pocket Watches

Pocket watches are available from many different sources:

  • Jewelers
  • Department stores
  • Antique stores
  • Pawn shops
  • Online retailers
  • Online auctions
  • Classified ads

Be sure that you know how and where to get your watch repaired. Older mechanical watches require a watchmaker to be fixed, and some take rare parts that are hard to find and quite expensive.

Buying Pocket Watches on eBay

On eBay, you will find many different watches from sellers around the world as well as deals you could not have encountered by shopping locally. Start at the Jewelry & Watches portal. Then choose Watches, and then choose Pocket Watches. Alternatively, you can select one of the subgroups of Pocket Watches: Modern or Antique. You will also see categories for Other and Tools & Parts. Other pocket watchesmight include jewelry-type watches found on necklaces or keychains, or clip-on watches that can be attached to a belt loop or purse handle. The Tools & Parts page will come in handy if you are interested in finding a replacement winding key, parts like a new crystal for an old or rare timepiece, or accessories like a chain or display stand.

After navigating to the appropriate category, you can narrow our options by one or more filters: brand, case material, movement, country of manufacture, even price range, and condition (new or pre-owned). If an item is used, be sure to ask about its history, including how well it was maintained and cleaned and how many owners it had. This information will not always be available, but it is good to know, so always ask as many questions as you can.

As with any eBay purchase, be on the lookout for highly rated sellers who provide clear photographs and detailed descriptions of their items. Choosing a reputable seller is the best way to ensure a satisfactory buying experience.

Conclusion

A pocket watch is a great item to own. It is a real conversation-starter and can be passed down from one generation to the next. Some people find that they prefer having a loose timepiece as opposed to the feeling of wearing a literal and figurative “handcuff.” Whatever the reasons for buying a pocket watch, knowing a little about the history of their development as well as how they work and what options are available is the first step in picking the right pocket watch.