My vintage watch runs great but I can't set the time. How do I set the time on my vintage pocket watch?
If you are unable to set the time by pulling out the winding crown of the pocketwatch, it's probably a lever-set model. Please see the next question in this FAQ. If you wind the watch with a key it could also be a key-wind / key-set watch. If the watch is not a key-wind, and you can't set it by pulling out the crown, then it's most likely a lever-set watch. Click here for our article on winding and setting vintage watches.
My vintage pocket watch is a "lever set" model. What does this mean and how do I set it?
The lever-setting mechanism was a safety feature of higher grade watches, especially those used for railroad service. It prevents the watch from accidentally being set to the incorrect time. In most cases you have to unscrew (or open) the front bezel and pull out a tiny lever in order to put the watch in setting mode. On a lever-set watch, pulling out the crown (the winding button) doesn't do anything. Click here for a pictorial instruction on setting a lever-set pocket watch.
I can't wind my watch because it's over wound. Is it possible to "over wind" a watch?
Practically speaking, no... there's really no such thing as an over wound watch. You should be able to wind a watch until it naturally stops i.e. until it doesn't wind anymore. If you use a lot of force and continue to wind it past the normal stopping point, then yes, you can do damage to the watch, but you would have to put some muscle into it. If your watch is fully wound and it does not run, it's because there's something wrong with it that's keeping it from running. The problem is NOT the fully wound mainspring. This is usually caused by old, dried-out oil that is binding the coils of a worn-out mainspring together or interfering with the smooth transmission of power through the gears of the watch. A cleaning and a new mainspring can often correct the "over-wound" watch.
How often should I wind my vintage watch?
How often you wind a watch is entirely a function of how you use it. If you are using your watch as a daily time-keeper, then you'll want to wind it daily. Just get in the habit of winding it at the same time each day... first thing in the morning is the usual recommendation. If you are not using the watch on a regular basis, or if it is stored away in a drawer... then there's no need to wind it regularly, though giving it an occasional wind will keep everything moving and keep the lubricant evenly distributed within the watch mechanism.
How much should I wind my vintage watch?
When you wind your vintage watch, wind it all the way... until the winder reaches its natural stopping point. As you get to know your watch, you should be able to feel the resistance of the spring increasing as you wind, and you'll be able to stop just short of "tightly wound," but that requires getting the feel for your particular watch. For more information, please read this article on winding your vintage watch.
How do I determine what size winding key I need for my watch?
If you have a key-wind or key-set watch, then it originally came with a winding and/or setting key. If you don't have a key, or don't know what size key you need to wind your vintage pocket watch, please see our Table of Pocket Watch Key Sizes. We also offer winding keys in sets and singles on our Watch Accessories page.
I want to open the back of my pocket watch so I can see the movement running. Is this OK?
Yes... it's OK to look but don't touch! There's nothing quite like watching a beautiful pocket watch movement in operation. The oscillation of the balance wheel, the expansion and contraction of the blue-steel hairspring, the sparkle of the ruby jewels and the rotation of the gold gears and wheels are fascinating to observe. That said, avoid the temptation to touch the moving parts with your fingers or with any other object. There's NOTHING good that's going to come from poking around inside the watch. Oil from a single fingerprint can, over the years, etch its way into the plates of the movement and become a permanent mark. A gentle "touch" of a large finger to the balance wheel or hairspring can be enough to bend a pivot on the balance staff, or distort the balance spring. Also, you want to minimize dust getting into the movement. So have a look... enjoy the beauty of the mechanism... and then replace the back so the movement is properly protected.
How do I open the case so I can see the movement?
That depends on the type of case. You can find basic instructions on identifying and opening various types of vintage pocketwatch cases on our "How To" pages.
What can you tell me about the age or history of my antique watch?
The watch manufacturing industry in America has a rich and fascinating history, and there is a vast amount of information available to those with an interest in the history of a particular manufacturer. The National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors is an excellent resource for those with a desire to collect or simply learn more about watches.
For the major American manufacturers, watches can usually be dated by the serial number on the movement. For watches that cannot be dated by serial number, a watchmaker who is familiar with vintage watches can usually assign a date range based on style and methods of construction. We have assembled brief histories of some of the more prominent American watch companies, including date and serial number information. Click here to view our watch company histories.
How can I tell the size of my pocket watch?
Watches are measured in an arcane English system of measurement called the Lancashire system or Lancashire Gauge. In this system, 1 5/30th inches is the "base" measurement and is called 0-size. Each 1/30th of an inch adds 1 (or subtracts 1) to this base. A watch is measured through the center of the lower plate of the movement (the dial side) at it's narrowest point. Note that the case is NOT included in this measurement, only the movement. Measuring the dial is a reasonable approximation of the dimensions of the lower plate. Click here for a table of vintage watch sizes.
How do I know if my watch is quartz or mechanical (wind-up)?
A mechanical watch uses a wound spring for its motive power, while a quartz watch uses a battery. If your watch uses a battery, then it is a modern quartz watch. (There were a few early electro-mechanical watches, like the Hamilton Electric, that also used a battery, but you probably don't have one of those). If you have to wind your watch to make it run, it's mechanical. Some (but not all) quartz watches say "Quartz" on the lower portion of the dial. If your watch is a mechanical watch, you should be able to hold it to your ear and hear it ticking when it's running.
What is the proper way to open a pocket watch case?
That depends on the style of case. Cases can be screw-back, hinged-back and bezel, swing-out, or snap-off, and each opens differently. The most important thing is that you don't force the case open. If your watch case doesn't open with normal amounts of effort, don't force it - you're only going to break something that will be expensive to fix! Click here for our tutorial on how to open various types of pocket watch cases.
What is the proper way to open a "swing-out" pocket watch case?
If the back of your watch doesn't screw off or have an obvious hinge-point, then it's likely a "swing-out" or "swing-ring" case. To open a swing-out case, you must first remove the front bezel from the watch, then the movement will swing out... usually in a hinged movement ring. The key is to make sure the crown is pulled out into its most extended position before you try to swing the movement out of the case... even if it is a lever-set watch. Failure to do this will likely result in a broken stem! Again... just don't force it. Click here for tutorial on how to open swing-out watch cases.
What is the proper way to open and close a hunter-cased pocket watch?
The most important thing is to not "snap" the case-lid closed with the thumb on the cover. There is a spring-latch that catches a small notch in the rim of the case-lid. With years of "snapping" this notch gets worn out and the case will no longer stay closed (especially in karat gold cases). In close-fitting hunter cases, it's also possible to break the thin glass Geneva crystal if you snap the case shut... so DON'T DO IT! Using the fingers or the flat of your hand, close the lid to the point of latching, then depress the crown to release the latch, then close the case and release the latch button. Get into this simple habit and you'll never have a problem with your hunter case. Click here for tutorial on how to open a hunter-cased watch case.
Can I carry a vintage pocket watch for daily use?
Sure you can! There are lots of folks who like the look and feel of a watch in their pocket, whether for a special occasion or for everyday use. The key, though, is to select a watch that is capable of providing good service on a daily basis. You probably wouldn't want to choose an 18-size Civil War era key-wind as your daily watch any more than you would want to drive a Ford Model-A back and forth to work everyday; it's not impossible, but it probably wouldn't be very practical. A higher grade watch from the 1940 - 1960 period can make a good choice. For example, a Hamilton 992 or 992B that is in good condition would make an excellent "daily-use" watch.
Why does magnetism adversely affect a watch?
If a mechanical watch is exposed to a strong magnetic field, its parts can become magnetized. When this occurs, there is no longer free movement of the balance and the watch can no longer run properly. Often, adjacent coils of the balance spring will "stick" to each other when magnetized. This has the effect of shortening (or stiffening) the hairspring which makes the watch run very fast, if it will run at all. To avoid problems with magnetism, don't place your mechanical watch on top of your TV set, your stereo speakers, near a strong electric motor, or anyplace else where strong magnetic exposure is a possibility. If your watch becomes magnetized, your watchmaker should be able to quickly and easily demagnetize it for you.
What does the "water resistant" rating on a watch really mean?
Most vintage watches should NOT be considered water-resistant, but we include this information for the education of those with modern water-resistant watches. Water resistance is the term used to indicate the amount of pressure a watch can withstand under water at a specific depth without leaking or losing accuracy, but the number can be very deceiving. "Water-resistant" is the term approved by the Federal Trade Commission, the term "waterproof" may not be used under FTC regulation. Water resistance and depth are not the same. A watch is tested at the specified depth at a temperature of 18c-25c and stationary. Any movement through the water causes pressure changes. Note that no watch, no matter the level of water resistance, should be worn in the shower or bath as the chemicals in soaps and shampoos could damage the seals and gaskets.
There are several levels of water-resistance as defined by International Standards Organization (ISO 2281):
Non-water-resistant: These watches will leak if any water gets on the case or crown.
30meters/100feet/3BAR: General water-resistant watches can withstand minor moisture from splashing but should not be worn for swimming, diving, bathing or showering. These watches are the most misunderstood. Most people believe that water-resistant printed on the dial means the watch is sealed for swimming, diving, showering, etc. This is not true! General water-resistant watches should not be used underwater.
50meters/164feet/5BAR: May be used for swimming in shallow water, but not for snorkeling or other water sports.
100meters/328feet/10BAR: Often called diver’s watches. May be used for snorkeling, swimming and other water sports, but not for high board diving or scuba diving.
200meters/662feet/20BAR: Suitable for high-impact water sports and scuba diving not requiring helium
300-1000meters: Watches bearing this rating are professional diver’s watches and can be worn for deep-water diving.