Pocketwatch 101™ – Essential Information about Vintage and Antique Pocket Watches
Identifying Pocket Watches and Pocket Watch Case Types
While we can't make you into an antique watch expert with just a few web pages, we hope we can share a little of our knowledge in order to help you learn more about your vintage or antique watch. We've tried to provide answers to some of the more common questions about the proper care and handling of a vintage watch, in order to help you learn more about this fascinating area of American history.
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Two Parts: Case and Movement
There are two distinct major "parts" to most pocket watches: The watch case and the watch movement. The movement is the inner "works"... the actual time-keeping mechanism of the watch. The watch case is the outer protective cover, including the crystal that covers the dial. The case also includes (or accommodates) the winding stem and crown.
What's important to know about antique watches is that cases and movements were usually made by different companies. There were watch manufacturers and there were case manufacturers. American pocket watches used a system of (relatively) standard watch sizes, so it was possible for a customer to select the watch movement they wished to purchase, and then select a case to hold it. Cases could be made of a wide variety of metals: gold, sterling silver, coin silver (made from melted US coinage), nickel, and plated brass.
Open Face or Hunter Case?
This is one of the easiest questions to answer! If there is a metal cover over the dial of the watch (it's called the "dial" not the "face") then it's a hunter-case watch. If there is no metal cover over the dial, then it's an "open face" watch. An open-face watch just has a "crystal" over the dial (usually made of mineral glass). If there is neither a metal cover nor a crystal, then it's likely that something's missing. Sometimes the bezel (the round metal ring that retains the crystal) is lost, which makes it impossible to replace the missing glass (see this article for more information on vintage pocket watch bezels).
Note that in the photos above, the winding stem is at the 3:00 position on the hunter-cased watch, and in the 12:00 position on the open-face watch. This is by design. Movements were made either for a hunter-case or for an open-face case. The primary difference between a hunter-case movement and an open-face movement is the relative positioning of the winding arbor and the seconds bit, and the positions of the dial-feet.
When a hunter-case movement and dial are mounted in an open-face case, it is called a "side-winder" because the winding stem will now be at the 3:00 position instead of the "normal" 12:00 position. While this doesn't present any real operational difficulties, a side-winder is generally not considered to be a "correct" matching of movement and case. Note that it's only called a side-winder if it is a hunter-case movement in an open-face case. We often hear people calling their hunter-cased watches side-winders because the winding stem is at 3:00... but they are only called side-winders if in an open-face case.
You're probably not going to run into very many of this case type, unless you have a very old watch that's been handed down to you. In the early to mid-18th century, it was common for watches to be housed in "pair cases". A pair-cased watch has an inner case which holds the actual movement of the watch (often a verge fusee), and an outer case which enclosed and protected the inner case. Since the inner case couldn't be made dust-proof because of the key-holes for winding and/or setting, an outer case would provide additional protection from dust and dirt. There were even some triple-cased watches made during the same period! Early pair-cased verge fusee watches were often ornately decorated with pierced and chased gold-work as seen in the photos below.